Hitchin Churchgate: Meeting to be held tonight on future of redevelopment

Hammersmatch's vision for the shopping centre

Hammersmatch's vision for the shopping centre - Credit: Archant

COUNCILLORS will make a key decision on the future of Hitchin’s Churchgate development tonight (Thursday).

The Churchgate visuals, by Brent Smith and Mark Wearne

The Churchgate visuals, by Brent Smith and Mark Wearne - Credit: Archant

Full council will meet at North Herts District Council offices from 7.30pm, to decide on its aspirations for the site.

The Churchgate visuals, by Brent Smith and Mark Wearne

The Churchgate visuals, by Brent Smith and Mark Wearne - Credit: Archant

Officers recommend doing nothing for two years, while awaiting the outcome of the Local Plan. It is a proposal met with anger from residents and town groups, who say action should be taken now.

Current Churchgate shopping centre owner Hammersmatch has confirmed it will be at tonight’s meeting to make a presentation. Town groups are also expected to talk.

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“ALL we need is the opportunity” – those are the words from a developer about its plans to bring a cinema and refurbished shopping centre to a town.

Hammersmatch, which already owns Hitchin’s Churchgate shopping centre, has responded to a report published by North Herts District Council (NHDC) ahead of tonight’s (Thursday’s) meeting on the future of the area.

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It wants to refurbish the centre, relocate the market, build a cinema and provide apartments in the town.

But, as reported by the Comet last week, the council has recommended not to proceed exclusively with the company and its officers suggest waiting for two years for a local plan adoption before deciding on the area’s aspirations.

Officers also recommend continuing talks with all “interested parties”.

In a letter to NHDC, released this week, Hammersmatch managing director David Payne said: “Hammersmatch are prepared to invest considerable additional finance towards achieving the win-win scenario – all we need is the opportunity.”

And he also warned officers: “I am content that these other developers are given an opportunity to bid in an early competition, but we will not sell our shopping centre.”

In an addendum report, also published this week, it was revealed the developer has sought pre-application advice from the authority.

But the report claims financial information from Hammersmatch is missing, and officers say they do not believe “it is appropriate” to make any “binding decision” as a result.

Cllr Lynda Needham, leader of the council, said: “The council have held initial discussions with Hammersmatch regarding their proposals for the Churchgate area although the information we have received is limited and does not give financial information, due to the early stage their proposals have reached.

“The council meeting on Thursday evening will consider all the options for the Chuchgate area, which will take into account the development of a new local plan for North Herts, however at this stage officers are recommending that the council should not enter into exclusive discussions with Hammersmatch or any other party.”

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TWO residents have come up with their own plans for a town, in a bid to encourage discussion and debate.

Brent Smith and Mark Wearne have created a masterplan and drawings, depicting their vision for Hitchin town centre.

They have shown them to Churchgate shopping precinct owners Hammersmatch, although they have stressed they are not working with the company.

Building surveyor and designer Mr Smith and designer and visual artist Mr Wearne originally released a draft document in April. Their latest masterplan has been created following comments and feedback on those plans.

“Neither of us have any financial interest in the site or the scheme, we are doing this at our own cost because we feel that we need something to be done,” said Mr Smith, who is also chairman of Hitchin Initiative and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, and a director of Hitchin Markets.

“Too much time was wasted with the tendering of too large a scheme and particularly with the Simons group.

“We want to see a local solution to the problem. We both love our town and expect to spend the rest of our lives here.”

The pair say the view of St Mary’s “is very important” in their masterplan.

And their plans include a cinema – the same as Hammersmatch’s.

“The current Hammersmatch proposals could easily be modified to fit in with our masterplan,” said Mr Smith.

Both Mr Smith and Mr Wearne have said they are acting as individuals, not on behalf of the organisations they are members of.

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