England & Wales Culture, sport and tourism

Cottonmill Cycling Centre in St Albans: How a collaborative project revolutionised local facilities

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Credit: Emma Matanle

In this article, Cllr Emma Matanle provides the granular details surrounding a successful resident-driven initiative to develop a new community centre in Sopwell, St Alban’s greenbelt site. This project not only revitalises a green space but unites a diverse community, offering something for everyone – from sports facilities to cultural spaces. Dive into a story of resilience, innovation, and inclusivity.

When I was elected in 2019 to be a District Councillor for Sopwell ward in St Albans District, the campaign by the residents to build a new community centre on one of their prized greenbelt sites (owned by the District Council) was well underway. As a former resident of the ward, I knew that both of my children found the lack of immediate and accessible play areas an issue. Additionally, Sopwell is one of the most deprived areas in the district with few facilities, particularly for teenagers, and a rich diverse community with different needs. The campaign, which had started circa 2017, gathered pace in 2019 when the new Liberal Democrat administration took a fresh look at their proposals. Elected on a manifesto to improve community facilities with a strong environmental focus, the administration decided that the site could be turned into a multi-faceted sports facility.

The site already had a football pitch which was used regularly, a MUGA asphalt court, and a dirt-track cycling club. The residents presented the new administration with a list of asks, which included a new, larger community centre building that matched the footprint of a previous building that had closed in 1994 following a large fire. The local pub had been closed down, bought to develop the brownfield site it sat on for much needed social housing, so there was a lack of a place to meet friends or hire for parties. The local youth club had not been maintained and in a state of disrepair, also marked for redevelopment, so teenagers were lacking their own facility. The Muslim community regularly had Friday prayers at the very run-down and small, existing building on the site and the Scouts also regularly met there, but the existing building was too small and not able to support the size of the membership.

The community groups jointly produced a survey and consulted the residents across the ward, so that the Council had data as to what provisions the residents wanted the most from the new project. The results became the core framework of their design brief to the Council and latterly, architects. With a school in the ward that educates children with special needs, Watling View, it was necessary to consult with them on the requirements they would have, to make hire of the centre possible. A changing places room was quickly identified as a ‘must’, and the Cottonmill and Sopwell Hub (CaSH) residents group, continued to champion the need for inclusivity in the new building.

The administration worked out how to finance the project and approved the plan. Soon after, monthly discussions between the Council’s development team and the community groups began.

They all had input into the design of the building, meeting in person at Council, pre-pandemic and online thereafter during and post-pandemic.

The asks were:

  • A large hall that could be subdivided and therefore hired by different groups at the same time, for varying rates.
  • A community kitchen, with a hatch to the main hall, for birthday parties and other event hire.
  • Wudu rooms for the Muslim community so the main hall could be used for Friday prayers.
  • a quiet room for those with special needs and dementia sufferers who need a quiet space to retreat to within the centre.
  • A changing place facility for the disabled.
  • A café for residents to meet up with friends and family.
  • An eco-friendly build (Heat Pumps, solar panels, Eco insulation, SuDs).

The practicality of realising the project began in 2020 as we went into lockdown. Planning permission for the new community centre on a greenbelt site could only be given for a certain square meterage, and the original ‘ask’ had to be downsized to meet with planning legislation.

As we all retreated inside and communicated via online platforms, meetings between the community groups, Councillors and Council staff continued with a plethora of ideas that fed into the design brief that the Council would give to the architects.

The key stakeholders included: 

  • Marlborough Trails club that for years had been creating dirt jumps on the site.
  • The Sopwell Community Trust – a BAME charity in the ward.
  • The Sopwell Residents’ Association’s campaign group.
  • The Cottonmill and Sopwell Hub.
  • The Scout group.
  • The Verulam Cycling club.
  • Members of the Watford Cycle Hub – to advise on how to set up a Community Interest Company (CIC), later named the St Albans Cycle Hub.

Latterly the architects joined those meetings to present the design created from the briefing received. All community groups had an opportunity to give their feedback.

By Spring 2021, the design was agreed upon with the forum members, and the Council began to find ways to finance the growing projected costs of the project. Sport England announced they would provide funding for ‘his and her’ changing rooms, so the football pitch could be hired by teams. British Cycling came forward with grants, subject to cycling facilities being provided on-site. As a consequence, the Council was able to plan to build a ‘pump track’ for skateboarders and cyclists, a cyclo-cross track around the perimeter of the site, and a hugging track around the football pitch for learner cyclists, particularly small children.

Construction at Cottonmill Cycle Centre, St Albans
Credit: Emma Matanle

With the existing MUGA asphalt area, which already provided for netball and basketball, the under-utilised greenbelt site, was gradually being transformed on the architects’ board into a sporting venue.

With the design brief agreed, a formal forum was established in July 2021, for the Council to have regular meetings with all stakeholders as the build of the new centre commenced. The biggest challenge to the Council was the increase in cost of the materials, as Covid and Brexit came together as a perfect storm, to rapidly increase the costs of the project.

To service the proposed new cycling facilities, the Council wanted to include the St Albans Cycle Hub within the 100-square-metre building. The Hub would repair and recondition bikes and resell second-hand bikes based on the Watford Cycle Hub business model. Now built and fully operational, it also manages the cycling facilities and hire of them, bringing in much-needed revenue.

Construction at Cottonmill Cycle Centre, St Albans
Credit: Emma Matanle

The build completed in April 2022, with the outdoor facilities opening in May 2022 and the indoor facilities a month later in June 2022. To meet our NetZero commitments, the car park has designated electric vehicle charging points, solar panels on the roof, heatpumps for the central heating, and SuDs to stop rainwater overwhelming the sewerage system. The ward’s EcoStar community group has now planted fruit trees, and the Council provided saplings close to the area where picnic tables will be installed to provide shade.

The marketing of the new centre quickly became a needed ‘ask’ with local firm Ember Designs providing a range of designs for the name of the new centre.

For a full year from May 2022 to May 2023 the forum transformed into a much needed ‘users group’ to address the inevitable ‘snagging issues’. Signage to the centre was installed by Hertfordshire County Council’s highways department, and double yellow lines were painted by the District Council to prevent parking on the access road, to enable emergency vehicle access, and additionally, to improve the line of sight to the entrance/exit. Bike racks were installed in the car park and litter bins across the greenbelt site to prevent the inevitable littering from picnics and use of the site.

Construction at Cottonmill Cycle Centre, St Albans
Credit: Emma Matanle

The official opening was in March 2023, hailed as ‘a model of partnership working and community activism’. The final bill was £2.7m, with a good amount of that funded by the Council, but through CaSH, the community gave more than £79,000 from fundraising events and initiatives whilst British Cycling’s Places to Ride Fund and Sport England together gave £350,000. The Health Protection Board contributed £78,000 towards building costs with a further £150,000 to enable outreach work in the surrounding community to improve health and wellbeing. The County Councillor for the division (St Albans South), Sandy Walkington, contributed £10,000 from his Locality Fund.

The centre is now a vibrant hive of activity with warm hub sessions, coffee mornings, free supermarket rescued food collection, women’s fitness classes, community social nights, children’s film afternoons and a Friday night youth club all now using the facility. The café also is providing a much-needed place to go for those who just want to pop in for a drink and chat – crucial for a post-pandemic recovery.

The centre is not just for the residents, anyone can visit and pay to use the facilities, so if you have a budding cyclist who wants to try their hand at the pump track, then make your way to St Albans. Details can be found here.

Have you got an example of a successful community project in your area? Share it with LGIU readers by getting in touch



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