North Herts Museum: Council pledges to fight legal action ‘to the hilt’

PUBLISHED: 15:45 24 January 2018 | UPDATED: 15:57 24 January 2018

Hitchin Town Hall and the building intended as the North Hertfordshire Museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Hitchin Town Hall and the building intended as the North Hertfordshire Museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

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North Herts District Council has pledged to fight any legal action triggered by the Hitchin museum standoff “to the hilt”.

Councillor Julian Cunningham has said North Herts District Council is totally blameless in the Hitchin museum fiasco. Picture: NHDCCouncillor Julian Cunningham has said North Herts District Council is totally blameless in the Hitchin museum fiasco. Picture: NHDC

Speaking at last night’s cabinet meeting at Foundation House in Letchworth, Councillor Julian Cunningham insisted that the council was not at fault at all over the long-running North Hertfordshire Museum debacle.

A price of £550,000 was agreed last March for NHDC to buy 14/15 Brand Street – the museum entrance – from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, the charity originally set up to run the project. But there is still no deal, and Mr Cunningham said this was down to Hitchin Town Hall Ltd trying to insert “impossible” conditions.

Hitchin Town Hall Ltd objects to the draft contract prepared by NHDC, preferring its own lawyers’ later draft, and wishes to see a rolling five-year hold enshrined to help ensure the site is always kept for community use.

NHDC chief executive David Scholes. Picture: NHDCNHDC chief executive David Scholes. Picture: NHDC

The district council’s next set of negotiations with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and bankers HTH Finance Ltd is set for next Friday – and it has emerged that David Fergus, of the East of England Local Government Association, will represent NHDC instead of chief executive David Scholes.

A council spokeswoman said: “We felt that to give us the best possible chance of concluding the negotiations successfully, it would be helpful to all parties if we had a representative who can come to negotiations with a fresh pair of eyes, but who is also mindful of the requirements of the council.”

Mr Scholes last month walked out of talks rather than continue in the presence of HTH Finance’s David Leal-Bennett.

David Leal-Bennett, former Conservative councillor and now director of HTH Finance Ltd. Picture: Danny LooDavid Leal-Bennett, former Conservative councillor and now director of HTH Finance Ltd. Picture: Danny Loo

In a letter to council leader Lynda Needham yesterday, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd’s Stephen Pike said Mr Fergus’ introduction was an admission that progress had been held up by “personal animosity to us, and Mr Leal-Bennett in particular”.

NHDC, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and HTH Finance have all said they hope that talks will suceeed.

While prioritising negotiations, NHDC’s cabinet decided last night to progress alternative options to get the museum open – including acquiring 14/15 Brand Street through compulsory purchase, or not buying it and instead modifying the town hall.

The would-be entrance to the North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry HubbardThe would-be entrance to the North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Councillor Tony Hunter said: “We are extremely disappointed that we haven’t as yet reached an agreement with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd on the acquisition of 14/15 Brand Street.

“We sincerely hope that an agreement can be reached, as we really do want the building open to the public as soon as possible.

“However, because negotiations have been so protracted, we feel that it is in the interests of the council and residents to consider other options that would allow us to fully open the museum.”

On Monday, Hitchin Town Hall Ltd published a tranche of emails exchanged since August with Mr Scholes and Mrs Needham.

A public ‘crisis meeting’ on the site’s future is to be held tonight at The Sun Hotel, starting at 7.30pm.

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