North Herts Museum: Calls for Hitchin Town Hall deal at meeting

PUBLISHED: 13:38 25 January 2018 | UPDATED: 14:10 25 January 2018

Former Comet editor Darren Isted in the chair at the Hitchin Town Hall 'crisis meeting' at The Sun Hotel, flanked by speaker Ian Albert (left) and panel member Steve Jarvis. Picture: JP Asher

Former Comet editor Darren Isted in the chair at the Hitchin Town Hall 'crisis meeting' at The Sun Hotel, flanked by speaker Ian Albert (left) and panel member Steve Jarvis. Picture: JP Asher

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More than 100 people gathered in Hitchin last night to demand answers at a 'crisis meeting' about the town hall and North Hertfordshire Museum fiasco.

The Sun Hotel, where the public meeting was held. Picture: Harry HubbardThe Sun Hotel, where the public meeting was held. Picture: Harry Hubbard

Former Comet editor Darren Isted chaired the meeting organised by campaigner Jackie McDonald, with HTH Finance Ltd director David Leal-Bennett and several opposition and backbench councillors grilled by the public.

No North Herts District Council cabinet member came. Councillor Tony Hunter, responsible for community engagement, sent a statement apologising for his absence and outlining the cabinet’s decision of Tuesday night – to look at buying the museum entrance at 14/15 Brand Street from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd by compulsory purchase or not at all, while still prioritising negotiations.

A price of £550,000 was agreed last March for NHDC to buy 14/15 Brand Street from Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, the charity originally set up to run the project. But there is still no deal.

NHDC’s next set of talks with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and bankers HTH Finance is set for next Friday, with David Fergus of the East of England Local Government Association representing the district council.

Ms McDonald, the first to speak at last night’s meeting, summarised the affair as a “public scandal” and called on the district council to agree a deal for 14/15 Brand Street without delay.

Mr Leal-Bennett then gave a 20-minute account of the saga, ending with the meeting on December 15 – when NHDC chief executive David Scholes walked out rather than negotiate with Mr Leal-Bennett present.

Hitchin committee vice-chairman Councillor Ian Albert, attending in a personal capacity, expressed disappointment that no cabinet members had come.

He also argued against an attempted compulsory purchase order, which he said would just lead to years of costly legal action, and called for personalities to be put aside ahead of a “deal for the community on February 2”.

The mood of the audience was perhaps summed up by the second-last person to ask a question, who said the meeting had left him “with a profound sense of sadness, as affairs seem to be run by the council in an unprofessional way”.

All speakers and panel members expressed hope that a deal would be struck on February 2.

The Comet’s JP Asher live-tweeted from the meeting – see his Twitter feed at twitter.com/journo_JP for more of what was said, or look up the hashtag #HTHmeet.

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