Hitchin town centre redevelopment controversy rages on

A DECISION to award a contract to redevelop the historic heart of Hitchin has finally been made, but the public are still not allowed to know what the future holds. The contract to regenerate the Churchgate area of Hitchin, encompassing the Churchgate sh

A DECISION to award a contract to redevelop the historic heart of Hitchin has finally been made, but the public are still not allowed to know what the future holds.

The contract to regenerate the Churchgate area of Hitchin, encompassing the Churchgate shopping centre, the market, and three car parks surrounding St Mary's Church was given to Simons Developments by North Herts District Council on Thursday night.

But despite choosing a developer to create a mixture of shops, residential buildings and civic space on the 7.5 acre site, the public are still in the dark as to what exactly the authority has signed up to financially and structurally, as the cabinet continues to cite commercial confidentiality.

Angry Lib Dems, while backing the award, denounced the Tory cabinet's move to gag councillors.


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Hitchin Highbury councillor, Lawrence Oliver, said: "All the major decisions taken by the council have been done in secret. This is not the way such an important and expensive development should be handled. It is absurd that residents know so little about the scheme."

But leader of the council, F John Smith, said: "It's not particularly helpful to talk about specifics at the present time. It's much better if people are patient for a little longer and then they can see the whole concept. There's going to be a public exhibition in a month or two. We don't want to raise people's expectations or diminish them.

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"It's a decision of the council and that decision's been made. After many years we have finally got the chance to get on with it. Let's concentrate on getting the result."

Asked whether the �50m figure cited by council consultants DTZ in 2008 to redevelop the area was still a ball park figure, Cllr Smith said: "I suppose so. It's not come from us."

Council relations with Hammersmatch, which has an 88 year lease on the Churchgate shopping centre and approved plans for a �4m facelift, appear frosty. Asked whether there had been discussions on how this would be dealt with, including a possible compulsory purchase order of the site, Cllr Smith said: "It works both ways - they can get in touch. I'm not aware of much, no. I can't forecast anything like that."

There has been an inkling of what the future may look like however from southern rural committee chairman, Cllr David Barnard who will sit on a new liaison forum set up to communicate between Simons, NHDC and the public.

He said one of the ideas floated was to bring the river Hiz above ground where the market stands, widen it, and create a piazza-style area.

Another idea mooted is moving the market to its original home, Market Place, a respectable source said.

The contract is expected to be signed in mid-March after a mandatory 'standstill' period has elapsed.

After a year long public consultation, work is scheduled to begin in May next year.

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