Hitchin Churchgate regeneration: Details emerge ahead of vote on joint-venture idea

PUBLISHED: 15:36 30 January 2018 | UPDATED: 15:51 30 January 2018

The Churchgate centre in Hitchin town centre. Picture: Harry Hubbard

The Churchgate centre in Hitchin town centre. Picture: Harry Hubbard

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North Herts District Council is to tomorrow brief members on its new regeneration proposal for Hitchin’s Churchgate centre, after councillors complained they had been kept in the dark.

Some members of the Conservative-controlled council took issue on Friday afternoon when the leader Lynda Needham announced that councillors would vote next Thursday night on the principle of a joint-venture regeneration of Churchgate, with partners Shearer Property Group.

The report was prepared by deputy chief executive Anthony Roche with the involvement of Mrs Needham and Councillor Julian Cunningham, executive member for finance and IT. It was not discussed at cabinet or within the Conservative group before Friday, and more than one Tory claimed to have first learned of it from our online report that day.

A council spokeswoman told the Comet that an information note was sent out on the matter earlier this month – “hidden way back in the stuff that went out”, one Tory insider said – and that all members had received NHDC’s Churchgate statement before our story was published on Friday evening. NHDC added that members had been invited to tomorrow’s briefing back on January 19.

The council says this latest plan for Churchgate would see the centre regenerated on its existing site – with a new frontage and roof put in, and some of the units reconfigured to better suit the desired tenants.

“In particular the frontage onto Market Place would be completely redesigned and reworked,” a spokeswoman said.

“The potential tenants would be a mix of food and beverage operators and aspirational or lifestyle retailers. The proposal does not include any residential properties.”

The report proposes bringing running of the town’s market in-house from Hitchin Market Ltd once its contract expires on July 31, so NHDC can retain “any direct surplus”. The district council submitted an application for Hertfordshire LEP grant funding late last year – without a vote from councillors – to cover the potential cost of “investment in the market and public realm”.

The report also proposes to fund the majority of investment into the Churchgate regeneration by borrowing, as all NHDC’s capital reserves are committed – with the coffers topped up by selling off land and buildings.

It suggests that NHDC’s share of the potential income from a regenerated Churchgate would be “over and above the costs of borrowing and the income currently generated from the ground rent”, and could help support provision of council services generally.

Labour councillor Ian Albert, vice-chairman of NHDC’s Hitchin committee, has responded to the idea with cautious optimism – saying it “could be a workable solution”, but that more needed to be cleared up regarding costs, the impact on Hitchin Market and the district council’s ability to part-run another major project.

The meeting next Thursday night will be at Letchworth’s Spirella Ballroom from 7.30pm.

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