‘An enormous failure’ – Hitchin’s Churchgate under scrutiny

Hitchin's Churchgate

Hitchin's Churchgate - Credit: Archant

The Churchgate saga has been an enormous failure by North Herts District Council – that’s view of a Hitchin resident who will be speaking at the authority’s scrutiny meeting next week.

Deteriorating Churchgate off Market Place has been labelled an eyesore since discussions initially took place more than a decade ago to try and revamp the area.

But years of stasis despite a multitude of meetings, plans and ill-fated proposals have seen the site remain the same – while the rest of the town has flourished.

West Hill’s Robin Dartington will be presenting a critique on Churchgate to the council’s scrutiny committee at 7.30pm on Tuesday, where members will reflect on the scheme.

As many people as possible are being encouraged to attend the meeting, held at the Letchworth Heritage Foundation headquarters in Icknield Way, where the Mr Dartington will read his damming report prepared in association with Keep Hitchin Special.

In a document seen by the Comet, he slams the district council, saying: “The Churchgate project has been an enormous failure by the council, causing not only financial loss but also damage to reputation.

“The root cause was failure to assess the management needs of such a sensitive and complex project and to assume appointing unqualified and inexperienced officers from the council would enable them to understand the issues and then plan and control the project adequately.

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“The inexperience of the project staff led to over-dependence on consultants.”

Simons – tasked to lead a project to rebuild the area – wanted to relocate the market and build a department store before being cast aside. While Hammersmatch, which owns the shopping centre, has previously suggested plans for a cinema and new precinct. Yet despite rising consultant costs incurred by the council, plans to revamp the area are no nearer than they were a decade ago.

Mr Dartington added: “The council should abandon ambitions to treat Hitchin town centre as a cash cow – but invest in overdue enhancement of the market and the river terraces.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s scrutiny meeting – when Hitchin Swimming Centre and the district council office refurbishment schemes will also be discussed – a spokesman for the council told the Comet: “We have long held an ambition to see Churchgate and the surrounding area improved from what is a poor quality 1970s development.

“We incurred significant expenditure in producing a planning brief for the site which included input from all community groups, businesses and local residents.

“We appointed a developer to progress a regeneration scheme. Due to a number of factors, including a global recession, local opposition and commercial viability, the scheme was unable to progress within the timescale set out on the development agreement.

“The council managed the project appropriately with a combination of experienced internal and specialist external resources.

“We remain open to any further proposals from the current owners of the centre.”