Hitchin Town Hall overspend set to cost North Herts taxpayers an extra £250,000

Hitchin Town Hall

Hitchin Town Hall - Credit: Archant

The controversial project to renovate Hitchin Town Hall is set to cost taxpayers an extra £250,000.

How Hitchin Town Hall will look when completed.

How Hitchin Town Hall will look when completed. - Credit: Archant

District councillors agreed to fund an overspend increase at an extraordinary council meeting held on Tuesday night.

Councillors voted in favour of finding an extra £253,392 in its capital budget for the project following a fallout with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, the group formed to run the new-look venue once the transformation was complete.

And North Herts District Council has also confirmed that – in the likely event of the community group not being in a position to contribute the £490,000 it had agreed to stump up as part of the project – that money will also need to come out of the council’s coffers, making a total of £743,392 to be met from the public purse.

Before the vote took place, Conservative councillor David Leal-Bennett, a former trustee and director of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, was told by the chairman Tricia Cowley he could not vote on the decision or take part in the discussion.

The council’s monitoring officer had stated he could have been in breach of the council’s code of conduct, which Mr Leal-Bennett vigorously denied.

Before he left the council chamber, he said: “This is disgraceful.”

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Councillor Tony Hunter, who holds the council’s community engagement and rural affairs portfolio, said at the meeting: “There have been issues and delays caused with asbestos, the electric supply and with listed building consent.

“The council will make the amount of £743,000 payable if Hitchin Town Hall Ltd do not agree to pay it.

“With hindsight you can be aware of things after the event – but the probability is it would be the same cost. However, further payments may arise.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Steve Jarvis said: “It is regrettable. Surely because this is an old building, when pieces of it were torn up there might be things we weren’t expecting?”

Councillor Paul Clark, another Liberal Democrat who represents the Highbury ward, asked: “The work was originally reported in May 2014 – but why was listed building consent not mentioned until three months later?”

Strategic director John Robinson added: “This project has been very demanding – but Hitchin will get a community asset and the council will get a superb museum.

“However it is not possible to speculate on whether further payments will be required. We will know if Hitchin Town Hall Ltd will be able to make these payments on or around April 10.”

It was also confirmed there would be arbitration between the town hall company and the council on a future date to be arranged – and the council will be picking up the cost for that, too.

Council leader Lynda Needham said: “We did ask if the cost could be split but they declined so we have agreed to pick up the tab for arbitration.”

Councillor Judi Billing, who leads the council’s Labour group, added: “I hope we can move forward in a conciliatory way beneficial to the whole community.”

Stephen Pike, who chairs of Hitchin Town Hall Limited, said: “We await arbitration with interest.”

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