Hitchin Town Hall and museum evidence: Panel prepares report on what went wrong

PUBLISHED: 16:31 18 August 2019

North Hertfordshire Museum and Hitchin Town Hall. Picture: Danny Loo

North Hertfordshire Museum and Hitchin Town Hall. Picture: Danny Loo

Danny Loo Photography 2018

North Herts District Council's overview and scrutiny panel has gathered for three special meetings to discuss the issues faced when redeveloping Hitchin Town Hall and creating a district museum through a partnership - a debacle that spanned almost six years.

What was envisaged the hall and museum would look like. Picture: NHDCWhat was envisaged the hall and museum would look like. Picture: NHDC

An agreement to develop Hitchin Town Hall and open a district museum to the side of it - which would replace Letchworth and Hitchin museums - was signed by both NHDC and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd in September 2013, but the relationship soon became strained.

Following a series of disagreements and delays, it was only in June this year that the museum open its front doors to customers in Brand Street, with the original expectation for completion and opening being set for 2015.

In the wake of this, evidence was given with the aim of evaluating the issues which arose during the project, to judge the effectiveness of the contractual agreement between the council and HTH Ltd, look at shared risk assessment and management, performance issues that arose and to make recommendations to improve future partner relationships.

Independant chairman John Richardson sat on the panel alongside councillors Sam Collins, Ian Moody, Helen Oliver and Val Shanley for all three sessions.

Pipe services behind the stage concrete wall, released as evidence for breach of contract action against North Herts District Council in 2014. Picture: Hitchin Town Hall LtdPipe services behind the stage concrete wall, released as evidence for breach of contract action against North Herts District Council in 2014. Picture: Hitchin Town Hall Ltd

The council's call for evidence to be put forward for the overview and scrutiny hearings received 14 responses, which were all dealt with across the three meetings - the last concluding earlier this month.

During the first meeting, the panel heard witness statements from John Robinson, former project executive for NHDC, resident Colin Dunham, Chris Parker from Keep Hitchin Special, former HTH Ltd director Rosemary Read, Ellie Clark and Jane Arnold, on behalf of the Hitchin Forum/Hitchin Society, and NHDC's service director Steve Crowley.

Points were raised by each speaker who spoke of issues faced during the partnership.

Former project manager Mr Robinson claimed at the meeting that the partnership should not have been a replacement for a legally binding contract or public consultation.

Hitchin Town Hall in Brand Street in 2015.Hitchin Town Hall in Brand Street in 2015.

He also claimed that there had been some aggressive behaviours experienced from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd directors, and that the company had used the media to circulate misinformation, particularly regarding control of finances.

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His written statement said: "At the outset relations with partners were good and characterised by a strong common purpose and resolve, but as the initial 'community alliance' transferred responsibility to a limited company/registered charity and entered into at a contractual development agreement (DA), the competing pressures to control costs, ensure financial sustainability and satisfy community aspirations caused the principle relationship with HTH Ltd to become increasingly commercial in nature - and fraught.

"Increasingly HTH Ltd sought to influence public and political opinion to its favour in a contractual dispute whilst the council, mindful of its financial, exposure and legal obligations, sought to progress resolution as envisaged in the DA.

(Right to left) Hitchin Town Hall Ltd director Brent Smith, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman and trustee Stephen Pike, Hitchin Town Hall Finance Ltd director John Ray and Hitchin Town Hall Finance Ltd director David Leal-Bennett sign the documents in January 2019. Picture: Danny Loo(Right to left) Hitchin Town Hall Ltd director Brent Smith, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman and trustee Stephen Pike, Hitchin Town Hall Finance Ltd director John Ray and Hitchin Town Hall Finance Ltd director David Leal-Bennett sign the documents in January 2019. Picture: Danny Loo

"In the end neither approach was successful."

In his opinion, the key issues regarding the project were that Hitchin Town Hall Ltd has promised results that they could not deliver as well as political power struggles in the Conservative Party on NHDC's part.

To learn from the situation, he suggested: "Future working relationships with partners should ensure that attempts to influence public/political opinion to the financial benefit of those partners are precluded more effectively."

Also giving evidence was Rosemary Read, who was the director of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd from 2011 to 2015.

What it is envisaged the hall and museum will look likeWhat it is envisaged the hall and museum will look like

In her written statement, she said: "The project was billed as being a "partnership" between HTH Ltd and NHDC, which implies a high degree of equality and openness between parties.

"However, throughout the project our experience was that dealings with the council were far from open or equal."

Other key issues raised included NHDC's "failure to consult", "breaches to the agreement" and that HTH Ltd directors were placed under "gagging orders" by NHDC when trying to communicate problems to the community.

The panel is currently sifting through the evidence which was said and written during the meetings and is trying to find recommendations for the future.

North Hertfordshire Museum and Hitchin Town Hall. Picture: Danny LooNorth Hertfordshire Museum and Hitchin Town Hall. Picture: Danny Loo

To read all the statements, go to democracy.north-herts.gov.uk/mgCommitteeDetails.aspx?ID=277.

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