Churchgate: Simons and NHDC speak out on development

CHURCHGATE contractor Simons has spoken out about its proposals for the Hitchin redevelopment, while confirming that rumours it is in talks with another company to become joint venture partners are true.

The Comet reported last week that Simons had been criticised in top satire publication Private Eye, and that there was speculation it was in talks with company Development Securities to become partners for the project.

The Comet put questions to Simons, and it has now been confirmed that the company is discussing the possibility of entering into a joint partnership for the scheme, although it would not confirm who with.

The contractor also said that it is in the process of drawing up revised plans in the wake of last year’s public consultation.

“We have been in talks to bring in a joint venture partner for the development,” said project manager for Simons, Charles Vyvyan. “This would help us to acquire key assets that would enable progress to be made on certain elements of the scheme, including the purchase of the existing Churchgate centre.

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“A joint venture partner also has the potential to be the long-term owner and operator of the site.”

Under the terms of the development agreement between the contractor and NHDC, Simons can seek a joint venture partner, but it must be approved by the council.

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Although the council have said that it was aware Simons was in talks, it said that no proposals had been put forward by the company at the time of going to press.

Simons said that it would still head the development and be responsible for its delivery.

“We are still committed to liaising fully and openly with the local community on this project,” said Mr Vyvyan.

“We will continue to update people through the Churchgate Liaison Forum and through further public consultations events once we have a revised scheme ready to present to the public.”

Simons also defended claims that it had made no progress with the development.

Hitchin residents have criticised the company for failing to provide updates on the project and for moving along with plans too slowly.

“We are currently in a stage of the project where we are considering the feedback received from last year’s public consultation period, our subsequent meeting with the Churchgate Liaison Forum and continuing meetings with other key stakeholders,” said Mr Vyvyan.

“We are aiming to ensure the revised plans take into account the views of the public and, as this is a complex scheme, we want to provide sufficient levels of detail when we next present the scheme to the local community.

“I can reassure the public that the scheme exhibited in May 2010 will change and that any scheme put forward for planning in due course will be different.”

Leader of NHDC Cllr Lynda Needham echoed the claims, and said that people’s views and opinions on the development were still being taken into consideration.

“We are aware that some people are interpreting this quiet period in the consultation as evidence that the project has stalled,” she said.

“This is simply not the case. We want to make sure that all of the views and opinions expressed already are considered, to ultimately deliver a better scheme for the people of Hitchin and all town centre users, and this process takes time.”

Simons have also confirmed that it will pay a minimum ground rent of �200,000 a year to NHDC for the land where the Churchgate centre currently stands. The rent will be paid from the first day the scheme opens.

It has been estimated by Simons that NHDC’s rental income will be around �350,000 per year on average, based upon the council receiving 10 per cent of an estimated overall income from the scheme of �3.5m.

But NHDC have said that this figure is only an estimate at this stage as the detailed financial model is still evolving.

The figures follow further criticism in the Private Eye article, which claimed that Simons would not have to pay any money in rent until it hit annual profits of more than 23 per cent.

“The project will bring an estimated �50m of investment into Hitchin town centre,” said Cllr Needham.

“In the current financial climate it is extremely unlikely that the council could afford to carry out any of this investment itself.

“We hope that people will realise the benefits of this investment and we ask them to give Simons the time it needs to put together and present a new improved scheme which takes into consideration the initial concerns of residents.”

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