Hitchin Hackspace after Bancroft toilet block which could become café

Hitchin Hackspace members Andy Mansfield, Rob Berwick and Mark Mellors (left to right).

Hitchin Hackspace members Andy Mansfield, Rob Berwick and Mark Mellors (left to right). - Credit: Archant

A long-disused public toilet block in Hitchin is set for redevelopment – but into what?

The brick toilet block in Bancroft Recreation Ground was closed for safety reasons some years ago following misuse and vandalism, and its redevelopment was obstructed by a covenant reserving the Bancroft land for public recreation only. Now North Herts District Council has received permission from Herts County Council to reclassify it for B1 business and A3 restaurant and café use, and is advertising it for lease.

Among those pursuing the site are the craftsmen of Hitchin Hackspace, a non-profit community creative technologies group. They’ve lacked a permanent base since their formation in 2012, and a year ago they put together a detailed business plan to renovate the block. The district council told them that their proposal to share skills and socialise there would not be recreational use as defined in the covenant.

“We spotted the building about a year ago and approached the council,” said Hackspace member Mark Mellors, who is 33 and from Hitchin.

“They were going to knock it down as part of the Bancroft park redevelopment but they couldn’t get the grant to do that.

“At the moment we rent Ransom’s Rec Pavilion, but that’s only one evening a week and we can’t leave any permanent equipment there. That seriously limits the work we can do, and apart from us the nearest hackspace is in Cambridge.”

The toilet block’s redesignation potentially opens the way for the hackspacers to move in, but Mark isn’t convinced that step has been taken for their benefit.

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“I think some members of the council would like the block to become a café, and because of our involvement they’ve applied for change of use,” he said.

Councillor Judi Billing, who represents Bearton Ward – which includes Bancroft Recreation Ground – expressed strong support for the hackers’ use of the block.

“I really hope that we can steam ahead and let Hitchin Hackspace do the renovations,” she said.

“They’ve got some brilliant plans. It’s taken a ridiculous amount of time to let them get on with it on a scheme that is generally supported, and a building which has been allowed to go to wreck and ruin.

“If they do turn it into a café or a restaurant it will be an outrage. There are many of those in Hitchin and the only people who have ever shown an interest in that toilet block are Hitchin Hackspace. I wish them every success.”

Councillor Peter Burt, who holds the district council portfolio for waste, recycling and the environment, said: “This is a fantastic step forward for the historic block and it will be refreshing to see it put to worthy use and transformed into something new and exciting.”

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