Hitchin museum fiasco reaches new level of farce as North Herts District Council is outbid over site entrance

Hitchin Town Hall and Museum

Hitchin Town Hall and Museum - Credit: Archant

In a dramatic twist to the Hitchin museum fiasco it has been revealed North Herts District Council has been outbid over plans to buy the entrance to the site.

The Comet understands the district council offered an amount of £217,000 as part of a private bidding process to secure the site of 14/15 Brand Street, effectively the entrance to the museum.

However, we can exclusively reveal a consortium of ‘concerned businessmen’ called HTH Finance Ltd outmanoeuvred the council in clinching the site by offering more – despite the council publicly questioning their motives.

The troubled revamp, overseen by North Herts District Council, has seen outside parties bid for the front section of 14-15 Brand Street – which houses the museum in the back of the building.

The action came after it was put up for sale by receivers appointed by the project’s major funder, the Social Investment Bank.

But the latest news could mean an end is in sight to the long and bitter saga of overspends, rifts and delays – if the council agrees to negotiate to buy the entrance from the consortium – albeit at a further potential cost to the taxpayer of between £480,000 and £600,000.

The costly scenario has arisen after Hitchin Town Hall Ltd – the company formed to oversee the running of the building on the council’s behalf, and which holds the lease to 14-15 Brand Street before both parties were embroiled in a bitter legal dispute – sought to recover losses incurred during the wrangling.

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A spokesman for HTH Finance – which insists it is separate to HTH Ltd – said: “The council put in a bid and were informed last Thursday they were a ‘significant under bidder’. Clearly such a low bid could not have taken into account the cost of failing to win – which it is estimated will be at least £480,000 for the extra work.

“The cost of a new lift in the town hall for disabled access, would be £80,000. To gain access to three rooms, whose access currently is only via 14-15 Brand Street, will be at least £400,000.

“In addition there will be considerable costs for moving services and to comply with fire regulations – raising a number of serious questions about access and further substantial cost to the taxpayer.”

The consortium have effectively stepped in to prevent a private developer buying the site and turning it into a restaurant or shop.

Their action has also saved wheelchair users from being unable to access the museum and the town hall.

For if the building was to fall into private hands to be converted to another use it would have also resulted in wheelchair users being unable to reach the Lucas Room on the first floor of the town hall – a place where many community events are to be held.

The last few days have seen the council frantically seeking formal confirmation from SIB about the outcome of their own bid to secure the ownership of 14/15 Brand Street, and the identity of the successful bidder.

Once they learned they had been outbid councillor Terry Hone, deputy leader of the district council said: “It is sad and regrettable the directors of HTH Ltd seem to be determined to hamper and therefore delay the opening and full operation of this prestigious community facility.”

However HTH Finance explained: “For clarification HTH Finance has no connection with HTH Ltd which has not been party to the transaction.

“Fortunately the property does not now belong to a developer because at the last minute HTH Finance stepped into the shoes of SIB to take over the debt and security.

“We have no wish to see the opening of the museum delayed.

“We believe the residents of Hitchin will understand just how powerless we have been, despite all of our best efforts, and will judge the council as being at fault.”

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