Council's renewed plans to buy Churchgate after failed bid

Churchgate Shopping Centre, Hitchin. Picture: DANNY LOO

Churchgate Shopping Centre, Hitchin - Credit: DANNY LOO

Councillors in North Herts have backed renewed plans to purchase a Hitchin shopping centre, despite a failed bid last autumn.

North Herts Council has committed to exploring the purchase of Churchgate, off Market Place, with councillors indicating progress has been made on the proposals – although specific details on the deal are being kept private.

At a meeting of full council on March 23, council leader Cllr Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg said taking control of the site would give the council “a real opportunity” to regenerate Hitchin town centre.

In November 2021, it was reported that North Herts had missed out on purchasing the leasehold to the site, but this deal has not progressed, with the council now eyeing-up more options to take control of the site.

The council has been trying to regenerate the site for more than 20 years, and the administration has said failed efforts to get plans off the ground show the developer-led approach has failed.

A recommendation was brought to council which would agree, in principle, that the council should purchase the leasehold interest and that any regeneration of the area should come following further consultation with the public.

However, opposition councillors raised concerns about whether it was a feasible venture for the district council given failed attempts in the past and refused to support the motion.

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While the council could publicly back the recommendation, councillors discussed more specific matters in a confidential ‘Part 2’ session, meaning any details on the timescale or cost of any acquisition is still unknown.

Cllr Dennis-Harburg told councillors: “What the specifics of the regeneration scheme might look like are something to be considered much, much further down the line.

“What we’re looking at here is that overarching principle that a council-led approach to the regeneration of a fundamentally vital economic asset in one of our key town centres is the right way to go, as opposed to passing the thing, or allowing it to lapse, into the hands of private developers who might not have the same public spirit, or the best interest of our communities at heart that the council would have.”

Cllr Dennis-Harburg said the council had considered the future of the site between agreeing a resolution to acquire the site in 2019 and the failed bid last year, but said it was still in the district council’s interest.

She added: “While much has changed since that February 2019 resolution, it does remain the case that a developer-led approach to the regeneration of Churchgate hasn’t actually worked.

“If the council is able to secure the leasehold for the shopping centre it will ensure the council has full control of the asset and this, aligned with our existing property interests in the area around Churchgate shopping centre, provides the council with the best opportunity to fulfil its long-term aspirations for the regeneration.”

However, in response opposition group leader Councillor Claire Strong said previous plans commissioned by the council had not progressed because the risk was too significant.

Cllr Strong said: “This is difficult because this is a massive project, something that certainly in all the year’s I’ve been on this council I have never seen anything come along that is this, and with the skill set that is needed.

“There is nothing in this [public report] which actually gives the full financial information and for me, whenever I’ve been making a decision as a councillor, it’s always that I need to go and look at what is the financial consequence of what decisions we’re making because this is public money that is spent here.”

Cllr Strong added: “It’s very nice to have a new town centre for the district, but there are implications on that for the rest of the district when everything is looking towards Hitchin.”

The group leader’s comments were cut short after claims it risked discussing confidential matters, and she ultimately voted against the recommendation.

The council’s administration noted the recommendation brought to council said any purchase or project would only go ahead if there was a viable business case, and this was only an agreement in-principle.

Councillors agreed to continue exploring the purchase of the shopping centre by 19-11, with one abstention.