North Herts Museum: Council could seek compulsory purchase if no deal by July 31

PUBLISHED: 15:05 20 June 2018 | UPDATED: 15:05 20 June 2018

The would-be entrance to North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street in Hitchin. Picture: Danny Loo

The would-be entrance to North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street in Hitchin. Picture: Danny Loo

Danny Loo Photography 2018

North Herts council could try to acquire the entrance to the new district museum in Hitchin by compulsory purchase order if no deal is made by the end of July.

The North Herts District Council offices in Letchworth. Picture: DANNY LOOThe North Herts District Council offices in Letchworth. Picture: DANNY LOO

North Herts District Council’s cabinet passed a recommendation to this effect last night, after years of wrangling over the effective front of the museum at 14/15 Brand Street – which is owned by Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, the charity originally formed to run the museum project.

The district council says it still prefers a negotiated solution with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and bankers HTH Finance Ltd over 14/15 Brand Street. A price of £550,000 was agreed last March, but there is still no deal.

Addressing cabinet at the district council’s Letchworth offices, community engagement portfolio holder Councillor Tony Hunter said: “The time has come – not only to put the recommendation to council in principle that we seek a compulsory purchase order, but that we now put our offer to Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and HTH Finance Ltd, and suggest or state there’s a deadline or date to be adhered to.

“We have gone as far as we can possibly go as a council.”

Councillor Tony Hunter, who is North Herts District Council's cabinet member for community engagement. Picture: NHDCCouncillor Tony Hunter, who is North Herts District Council's cabinet member for community engagement. Picture: NHDC

Referring to Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and HTH Finance Ltd, he added: “If you have a will to bring this thing to an end, here it is.”

Cabinet agreed to take the question of a CPO to full council if there is no deal by July 31.

HTH Finance Ltd’s David Leal-Bennett told the Comet afterwards that NHDC had “decided to start the process of a CPO knowing that we are finalising the agreement with lawyers”, something he said was communicated to the district council on June 6.

In a separate joint statement to this paper, he and Hitchin Town Hall Ltd chairman Stephen Pike said a deal was very close and that “posturing” by the district council was not helpful.

HTH Finance Ltd director and former Conservative councillor David Leal-Bennett. Picture: Danny LooHTH Finance Ltd director and former Conservative councillor David Leal-Bennett. Picture: Danny Loo

“Voting for a CPO is unnecessary and politically insensitive to the residents of Hitchin,” they said.

“It is simply posturing. Any CPO would be very costly and would take another 18 months. Neither would it be guaranteed. It is a pointless exercise.”

District council Labour group leader Martin Stears-Handscomb told the Comet NHDC’s new sense of urgency felt long overdue.

“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,” he said.

Hitchin Oughton councillor Martin Stears-Handscomb, who leads the Labour group on North Herts District Council. Picture: NHDCHitchin Oughton councillor Martin Stears-Handscomb, who leads the Labour group on North Herts District Council. Picture: NHDC

“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.”

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