Hitchin Town Hall: North Herts Museum fiasco enters fresh phase as new option is mooted for 14/15 Brand Street

PUBLISHED: 11:06 01 September 2017 | UPDATED: 22:15 01 September 2017

The new North Herts Museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street in Hitchin. Picture: Harry Hubbard

The new North Herts Museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street in Hitchin. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Archant

The long-running saga surrounding the opening of the North Herts Museum in Hitchin entered a fresh chapter last night, as a new option was floated to end the impasse surrounding the entrance to 14/15 Brand Street.

Hitchin Town Hall and the North Herts Museum in Hitchin's Brand Street. Picture: Harry HubbardHitchin Town Hall and the North Herts Museum in Hitchin's Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Work on Hitchin Town Hall and the adjoining museum has been dogged by budget overspends, money problems and bitter wrangling since construction began in September 2013, and has already cost taxpayers more than £1 million.

The latest phase of the fiasco has seen the district council deadlocked with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd – the charitable trust originally formed to oversee the project on the council’s behalf – and bankers HTH Finance Ltd over the purchase of 14/15 Brand Street, the entrance to the museum.

A price of £550,000 was agreed in March for the district council to buy 14/15 Brand Street from HTH Finance Ltd, but a deal is yet to go through. The museum, housing collections from both Hitchin and Letchworth, remains closed – albeit with behind-the-scenes tours now offered to the public.

Addressing a meeting for all North Herts District Council members in Letchworth’s Spirella Ballroom last night, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman Stephen Pike made the new suggestion of potentially transferring the town hall and museum to the Hitchin Town Hall Gymnasium and Workman’s Hall Trust, of which the district council is trustee.

“This valuable community facility for North Herts has had a considerable amount of council taxpayers’ money spent, and it is essential that the facility remains in the control of those taxpayers,” he said.

“I would urge you all to discuss this proposition democratically and make it happen for the good of everyone in North Herts.”

Mr Pike stressed that his members required Hitchin Town Hall, which reopened last April, to be protected as a community asset.

Hitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman Stephen Pike. Picture: Harry HubbardHitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman Stephen Pike. Picture: Harry Hubbard

He quoted an email sent by the Conservative council’s leader Lynda Needham last month in which she said that such community protection for a district-wide asset was “not permissible for the council due to its best consideration obligations and therefore cannot be considered”.

He concluded by calling for an open discussion with no further confidentiality – and floating the new idea involving the Hitchin Town Hall Gymnasium and Workman’s Hall Trust.

The town hall revamp descended into chaos after Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, which formerly held the lease for 14/15 Brand Street, sought to recover losses incurred during a bitter legal dispute with the district council after internal changes were made to the hall.

Receivers appointed by the project’s major funder, the Social Investment Bank, then offered 14/15 Brand Street for sale in mid-2016 – with the district council outbid by outside parties before a group of “concerned businessmen” formed HTH Finance Ltd, which clinched the site that August by offering even more.

HTH Finance Ltd, which insists it is separate from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, said it stepped in to prevent the site being bought by private developers – but the council questioned its motives.

HTH Finance director David Leal-Bennett – who represented Hitchin Highbury ward on the council until May 2016 – also addressed last night’s meeting.

He opened by saying there had been “a lot of misinformation circulating” regarding HTH Finance’s role, which he said was to save 14/15 Brand Street for the community of Hitchin.

David Leal-Bennett, former Conservative councillor and now director and company secretary of HTH Finance Ltd. Picture: Danny LooDavid Leal-Bennett, former Conservative councillor and now director and company secretary of HTH Finance Ltd. Picture: Danny Loo

“We knew of at least two developers who were interested, so the threat was very real and the building could be lost forever,” he said.

“Some of you have been informed that had we not stepped in, the district council’s bid would have secured the property. I can tell you absolutely categorically that this would not have been the case.

“If it were not for HTH Finance Ltd, we would not be here and the site would have been developed, probably shops. North Herts District Council would have had to spend over £800,000 for access, and there would still be substantial outstanding litigation.

“I am pleased that the business community were able to step in.”

He said that bankers HTH Finance wished for the district council to buy 14/15 Brand Street, but wanted this to happen in a way that would secure the town hall for the future and avoid any litigation.

“Those of you who have had a chance to visit the new museum will realise what a superb facility it will be, but that it needs 14/15 to work,” said Mr Leal-Bennett.

“The only confidentiality aspect that was important was the price of £550,000, but unfortunately this was leaked.”

North Herts District Council David Scholes has suggested there could be a meeting about the North Herts Museum next week.North Herts District Council David Scholes has suggested there could be a meeting about the North Herts Museum next week.

He said that HTH Finance’s directors were prepared to make a deal over 14/15 Brand Street as soon as the district council was ready.

Addressing the councillors directly, he said: “As representatives of the community of North Herts, I believe you need to have a democratic discussion about this facility, which is important for the whole of North Herts – and instruct your officers to ‘make it happen’.

“Our experienced local authority lawyer says that you are able to do this deal. This is now your decision.”

The district council’s chief executive David Scholes suggested at the end of the meeting that there could be a meeting next week.

A spokeswoman for the authority confirmed to the Comet this morning that its next update would be after the weekend.

The North Herts Museum is to replace the former Hitchin and Letchworth museums, which closed in 2012.

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