Public protest at Hitchin hall decision

A COUNCIL made a last-minute decision to continue discussions with members of the public over the possibility of building a new community hall in Hitchin, after pressure from user groups at a meeting last night (Tuesday).

Councillors at a North Herts District Council Cabinet meeting agreed to demolish Bancroft Hall, in Bancroft Gardens, when Hitchin Town Hall reopens following refurbishment in 2014.

Prior to the meeting, there was no mention or recommendation in reports of considering options to build a replacement facility after the demolition. But, after presentations from groups including Hitchin Forum, Hitchin U3A, Hitchin Bridge Club and chairman of Hitchin area committee Cllr Judi Billing, councillors also agreed to continue discussions with users of the hall to find another venue.

Prior to Cabinet’s decision, chairman of Hitchin Bridge Club Margaret Eddleston, criticised councillors for failing to listen to and consult the public, and said that community space in the town was too low. The group uses the hall three times a week, and has so far submitted two business plans to build another facility.

“The council has received two proposals for the hall, which are not even referred to in the report,” said Mrs Eddleston, to applause from the 50 Hitchin residents at the meeting.

“These proposals included detailed business plans and are supported by all current hall users, some potential future users and the main representative bodies in Hitchin.

“Why are these options not part of the alternatives considered? The users of the hall and the people of Hitchin have not been given the opportunity to consider and comment on these alternative options. The only course of action considered is demolition without replacement. There should be full public consultation on all possible solutions.”

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In her presentation to Cabinet, Cllr Billing said that alternative venues being offered, including churches, were unsuitable for many of the groups. She also claimed that reports given to councillors were “misleading”.

After the meeting, she said: “I thought that the community of Hitchin was badly let down by a Cabinet full of councillors who mainly seem unable or unwilling to understand the very simple issues.

“An aged and old fashioned community hall is to be demolished, leaving many community groups without a home. The groups would like to stay together and create a new facility close to the town centre. They are willing to do most of the work. Instead they are patronised and disregarded. It’s disgraceful.”

Tory councillors at the meeting disputed claims that there would not be adequate community space in Hitchin, if Bancroft Hall was to be demolished.

Cllr Tricia Cowley, portfolio holder for community engagement, told other councillors that there were plenty of other venues in the town for users to relocate, which resulted in laughter from the public gallery.

But figures produced by Mrs Eddleston, which suggested demolition of the hall would result in the council’s own standard of community space not being met, were not addressed.

When a decision was agreed, Cllr Terry Hone, portfolio holder for finance, warned that, even though the council was open to discussion, it would not mean suggestions would automatically be agreed to.

“Even if we take the decision to demolish, it does not mean that we cannot continue discussions,” he said.

“I won’t suggest that I don’t support the levelling of that building, I fully support that. But I think that, until the town hall opens, we should continue to look for alternatives in the park and elsewhere.

“We are going to talk about it and think about it, but it does not mean we will just say ‘yes’. We’d have to be convinced. There’s things in this plan which I don’t think can happen.”