North Herts Museum: Council invited to fresh Hitchin meeting after walk-out

PUBLISHED: 11:14 05 January 2018

Hitchin Town Hall and the building intended as the North Hertfordshire Museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Hitchin Town Hall and the building intended as the North Hertfordshire Museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Archant

North Herts District Council has been called upon to return to the negotiating table over the Hitchin Town Hall and North Hertfordshire Museum debacle.

The would-be entrance to the North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry HubbardThe would-be entrance to the North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

For more than a year, NHDC has been deadlocked with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd – 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.

District council chief executive David Scholes last month walked out of negotiations with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman Stephen Pike rather than continue in the presence of HTH Finance Ltd director David Leal-Bennett.

According to an urgent report to NHDC’s cabinet four days later, Mr Scholes had expected to deal with HTH Finance director John Ray rather than Mr Leal-Bennett, and so withdrew “as HTH Finance Ltd substituted their representative without prior notice to or agreement of NHDC”.

Yesterday Mr Pike and Mr Leal-Bennett wrote a joint letter to council leader Lynda Needham, calling on the authority to return to negotiations “with whomsoever you wish to represent NHDC”.

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

The letter concludes: “We have no issues with all negotiations being in the public domain and, indeed, given the degree of misinformation, would prefer this.”

In response, Mrs Needham told the Comet last night: “NHDC has not refused to return to the negotiating table – however, we need to consider the way in which these can continue.”

Work on the hall and adjoining museum has cost the taxpayer millions since the ill-fated revamp began in September 2013.

A price of £550,000 was agreed last March for the district council to buy 14/15 Brand Street from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, but a deal is yet to go through. The museum remains closed, albeit with tours now offered to the public.

North Herts District Council leader Lynda Needham. Picture: NHDCNorth Herts District Council leader Lynda Needham. Picture: NHDC

Mrs Needham last month told the Comet: “We are doing everything that we can to utilise the museum subject to the legal constraints that the owners of 14/15 Brand Street have put on us.

“Regrettably there remains some distance between the two parties as to the nature of any final agreement.

“NHDC believes that it is appropriate to make one final attempt to try and resolve the matters before taking action which may well cause further delay and costs.”

Community campaigner Jackie McDonald has called a public meeting on the future of the town hall and museum for 7.30pm on Wednesday, January 24, at The Sun Hotel in Hitchin.

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