Decision imminent on Hitchin's Churchgate

AFTER 10 years and nearly �1m of taxpayers money a decision on choosing a building firm to redevelop the Churchgate area of Hitchin will be made tonight. North Herts district councillors will vote this evening (Thursday) on whether to award a contract to

AFTER 10 years and nearly �1m of taxpayers' money a decision on choosing a building firm to redevelop the Churchgate area of Hitchin will be made tonight.

North Herts district councillors will vote this evening (Thursday) on whether to award a contract to Simons Developments to redevelop an area stretching from the east of Market Place through to the market area and the three surrounding car parks.

Simons are the last remaining bidder for the job, after three of the last four companies in the running pulled out of negotiations.

Yet despite being the biggest development in the council's history and no challenging bidder, no-one other than councillors and officers know the details of the plans because of a financial confidentiality agreement.

This secrecy has left community action groups in the town second guessing the scheme and worried that a choice is being made without the public having any say in the matter.

Keep Hitchin Special's Robin Dartington said: "It doesn't take a genius to see that what we will be facing is a demolition of Churchgate, the market is almost certainly going to be moved, and they are set to stick a modern shopping centre on the site and change the character of Hitchin.

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"Simons should prepare a planning application so that the public can have a say on any aspect. At the moment it is only afterwards that the public will be able to see if the character of the town has sold down the river.

"There were originally 12 bidders to start with - why are Simons the last man standing? If all your girlfriends walk away and one wants to marry you - why is that? What happens if agreements fail? I find the council incredibly na�ve, building contracts are a war zone, if you don't fight your corner they will walk all over you."

What the public is allowed to know at the moment comes from advice given by the council's senior lawyer. He has advised the council that if the project is awarded a new team should be set up to oversee the scheme, made up of members and officers including the leader of the council, portfolio holders for finance and planning and the chairman of Hitchin area committee.

He also proposed the creation of a forum between the council, developer and the public to allow public participation in the project. He said: "The forum would have no decision making powers, but would be a useful avenue for the developer to test ideas, helping to shape the project, and most importantly to communicate effectively with the town."

For the result of tonight's meeting log on to www.thecomet24.co.uk tomorrow.

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