North Herts Museum: How did we get here? Here's a recap
PUBLISHED: 14:35 21 June 2018 | UPDATED: 08:04 22 June 2018
Danny Loo Photography 2018
If you're confused about what's going on with the North Hertfordshire Museum project in Hitchin, you're probably not alone. So we've put together this recap of the past six years to try to help clear it up.
North Hertfordshire District Council originally planned to renovate the town hall and create a district-wide museum to its side – behind 14, 15, 16 and 17 Brand Street – to replace the Hitchin and Letchworth museums.
It was decided to incorporate 14 Brand Street and later 15 Brand Street as well, which would allow the creation of a better entrance to the museum and ensure parts of the existing hall could be retained for community use.
This made the scheme more expensive, so the charity Hitchin Town Hall Ltd was formed in September 2012 to raise funds and cover the shortfall. Its directors included accountant Stephen Pike, who is now its chairman, and investment banker David Leal-Bennett – who was at the time a Conservative councillor.
Hitchin Town Hall Ltd brought more than £1 million to the project, including £510,000 loaned from Future Builders – now the Social Investment Bank – and a £340,000 grant.
The district council planned to invest about £3.5 million and lease the town hall to Hitchin Town Hall Ltd to run on behalf of the community for 125 years, with the facility expected to open in 2015.
A development agreement was signed in September 2013 between North Herts District Council and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, the latter of which that month acquired 14 and 15 Brand Street from the Hitchin Property Trust. John Ray, one of the property trust’s directors, formally handed over the keys.
But the partnership between the district council and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd was strained, and finally collapsed in March 2014 when contractors working for NHDC built a brick wall across the width of the town hall stage – something Hitchin Town Hall Ltd said was a breach of contract by the council. Those condemning the wall included the Hitchin Society’s Jane Clark, who called it “vandalism”.
The dispute was not resolved and eventually Hitchin Town Hall Ltd announced the development agreement was terminated, claiming breaches by the district council. The council, which insisted the development agreement remained in place, was left with a big hole in the project budget. Protracted legal wrangling ensued, with each side accusing the other of failing to meet its obligations.
In the summer of 2016, the SIB appointed a receiver to sell the freehold of 14/15 Brand Street. North Herts District Council attempted to buy it but was outbid by a consortium of businessmen called HTH Finance Ltd – whose directors were Mr Leal-Bennett and Mr Ray. Mr Leal-Bennett had resigned from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd in November 2014, and lost his seat as a councillor in May 2016.
HTH Finance – which insists it has no connection to Hitchin Town Hall Ltd – paid off the charity’s debts to SIB and thereby acquired the charge over 14/15 Brand Street, effectively replacing SIB as Hitchin Town Hall Ltd’s bankers.
HTH Finance said it had stepped in at the 11th hour to thwart private developers who had outbid the district council for the site, and said it wanted the district council to buy 14/15 Brand Street in a way that would secure the site for the community and avoid any litigation. The council, which this paper understands had bid £217,000 for 14/15 Brand Street, claimed HTH Finance and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd were trying to hold it for ransom.
Hitchin Town Hall Ltd then ordered the district council to quit 14/15 Brand Street, and in August 2016 changed the locks – with tape and barriers put down to separate the areas owned by the council from those owned by the charity.
Negotiations over 14/15 Brand Street have now dragged on for almost two years. The district council has managed to get the town hall and museum operational without it, but this means museum staff cannot use areas in 14/15 Brand Street that were supposed to be parts of the facility. It has also created an accessibility issue regarding the museum’s upstairs sections for people with disabilities, as the lift is in 14/15 Brand Street.
There is a lift shaft in the town hall that the district council could use, but the adaptations necessary to utilise this and to resolve accessibility and other issues without 14/15 Brand Street might cost more than buying the site.
In spite of everything going on around them, it is widely agreed that the North Hertfordshire Museum team have done a superb job creating a facility of which the district can be rightly proud.
A price of £550,000 was agreed in March 2017 for the district council to buy 14/15 Brand Street, but no deal has been completed. In December 2017 the council’s chief executive David Scholes walked out of talks with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd rather than continue in Mr Leal-Bennett’s presence.
The district council then brought in David Fergus of the East of England Local Government Association to negotiate on its behalf instead of Mr Scholes – something Mr Pike said showed progress had been held up by “personal animosity to us, and Mr Leal-Bennett in particular”.
Hitchin Town Hall Ltd said it wanted a rolling five-year hold on the town hall as part of any deal to help ensure the site remained for community use. District council deputy leader Councillor Julian Cunningham said the charity was trying to insert “impossible” conditions and that NHDC would fight any legal action “to the hilt”.
A public ‘crisis meeting’ was held on the saga at Hitchin’s Sun Hotel in January – shortly after the district council’s cabinet resolved to look at either buying 14/15 Brand Street by compulsory purchase, or abandoning it and modifying the town hall instead.
Hitchin Town Hall Ltd that month indicated its willingness to allow interim access to 14/15 Brand Street while negotiations continued, but the district council has not taken this up. The district council, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and HTH Finance Ltd issued a joint statement regarding 14/15 Brand Street on February 2, saying there was “an outline agreement on the great majority”, but the standoff is still not resolved.
The prospect of a compulsory purchase order for 14/15 Brand Street inched closer on Tuesday night, when NHDC’s cabinet decided to recommend it to full council if there is no deal by August.
Mr Leal-Bennett and Mr Pike reacted to this with a joint statement saying a deal was imminent and that “posturing” by the district council was unhelpful. Mr Leal-Bennett said they were “finalising the agreement with lawyers”.
Speaking to this paper yesterday, district council Labour group leader Martin Stears-Handscomb said: “The people of North Herts have been denied full use of their museum for far too long and one has to wonder why a deadline wasn’t set before now.
“Going forward, we’d like to see some transparency. The failure of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, HTH Finance Ltd and the cabinet to reach agreement in a timely manner is scandalous.
“Elected councillors and the public deserve to know what exactly could have justified such protracted negotiations – particularly as we understand the differences between the parties are very small.”