Concern over Hitchin Town Hall’s finance comments

CONCERNS have been raised over the Hitchin Town Hall redevelopment project, after “surprise” comments were made regarding its financial viability.

The scheme to transform the building into a district-wide museum while keeping it for community use is estimated to cost �4.23m, with �3.5m of that coming from North Herts District Council (NHDC) funding.

But deputy leader and finance portfolio holder Cllr Terry Hone said that he was concerned about the financial viability of the project at a Cabinet meeting, as NHDC are preparing an application for �1m of lottery funding.

His statement, which included a comment that “the financial ducks are not lined up” left town centre groups and residents “disappointed”.

Brent Smith, chairman of Hitchin Initiative and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd said: “This has taken us all completely by surprise and we are very concerned at this statement, particularly when we are at a delicate stage in our discussions with funders to extend the drawdown timeframe of the grant and loan of �850,000.”

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Members of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd were also concerned about a throwaway Twitter comment made by Cllr Hone, thought to be related to criticism about his remarks.

The comment said: “Having problems with the ‘usual suspects’ in Hitchin. When will they learn that we are trying to help them (and throwing shed loads of cash).”

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David Leal-Bennett, finance director of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, called for an apology.

He said: “I am extremely concerned that Cllr Hone should take it upon himself to berate the people of Hitchin through his arrogant Twitter remark.

“I can assure him that the residents of Hitchin only want what is best for their historic market town and they have a democratic right to challenge any ill conceived remarks.

“To make such a statement when we are in negotiation with Futurebuilders England Ltd regarding the loan/grant extension is totally irresponsible and could cost us the funding.

“We have been consistently told that if NHDC’s �1m lottery bid is unsuccessful, the money will be found from another source and it will not impact the project or its timeframe. The ‘how’ NHDC finds the committed funds it has agreed to inject into the project is not our concern.”

NHDC reassured that funding would still be available and said that it was still fully committed to completing the project and that provisions had been made.

It added that if unsuccessful in its lottery bid, it would borrow, use proceeds from the sale of council assets, reschedule other projects or make use of other funds that it holds.

“Many people have worked long and hard to make this ambitious scheme a reality. The facility will be a wonderful asset for the district and an example of how the council and community can work together to achieve the best result for all,” said Cllr Tricia Cowley, portfolio holder for community engagement.

“We always planned to look for external funding towards the council’s costs. We are in the process of preparing an application for a National Lottery grant of almost �1m towards refitting the museum. If the lottery bid fails, we will look at alternative sources of funding.

“NHDC is fully committed to completing this exciting project with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd. We are establishing a museum and community facility that we will all be proud of for many years to come.”

Cllr Hone, who was on holiday this week, was unavailable for comment.

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