Shops plan halted

A MULTI-MILLION pound redevelopment of the Churchgate centre in Hitchin has been put on hold. North Hertfordshire District Council has put the brakes on the project after realising it may have to advertise the venture for a second time – this time across

A MULTI-MILLION pound redevelopment of the Churchgate centre in Hitchin has been put on hold.

North Hertfordshire District Council has put the brakes on the project after realising it may have to advertise the venture for a second time - this time across Europe.

It has only previously been advertised in the UK when the council took out an advert in the magazine Estates Gazette last October.

But Chris Parker, of Keep Hitchin Special, said he told the council about the need to advertise across the continent last year but it ignored his advice.

"Do they never learn?" Mr Parker asks.

The council has announced it has suspended the process while it takes legal advice on whether it needs to advertise the 7.3acre site in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU).

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The decision comes after similar schemes across the country fell foul because they were not advertised Europe-wide.

The council has notified all eight organisations on its shortlist - those organisations who replied to the October advert in the Estates Gazette - to put their ideas on hold.

In a report to next Tuesday's Hitchin area committee meeting, it says: "Parties already expressing an interest have been contacted and asked to hold their proposals in abeyance until they are advised of a revised submission date which would appear in OJEU."

Mr Parker said the council was told about this back in October when he wrote a letter to the Audit Commission to complain about the council's handling of certain Hitchin issues including the market and the town hall.

The district auditor Debbie Hanson then wrote to John Campbell, the council's chief executive, on October 2 and said: "I enclose a copy of a letter received from the chairman of Keep Hitchin Special and would be grateful for your response to the issues raised. In particular I would be grateful if you could provide comment on... the tender process adopted and compliance with both EU procurement rules and the council's own standing orders and financial regulations..."

This letter was sent to Mr Campbell 18 days before the council advertised the development in the Estates Gazette so why, asks Mr Parker, did the council not take this on board?

"So far North Hertfordshire District Council has failed to manage professionally the tendering process for Hitchin Town Hall, Hitchin Market and now Churchgate, all of these being aborted and money being wasted inappropriately, and this is just in Hitchin. What next?" Mr Parker said.

A decision on the future of the tendering process is expected soon.

Referring to the Mr Parker's comments, a council spokesman said: "An important point is that this correspondence was specifically on the subject of Hitchin Town Hall and not Churchgate.

"We followed our contract procurement rules... subsequently in late November a development in European case law cast doubt on whether we do now need to follow the EU process.

"While the legal position has not been fully clarified, the advice we have at the moment leads us to believe that we do.