Agenda item


To receive petitions, comments and questions from members of the public.


The Council was addressed by the following members of the public regarding the regeneration of Churchgate Shopping Centre, Hitchin.


(a)        Mr Robin Dartington (Hitchin Resident)


(b)        Mr Brian Foreman (Churchgate Retailers Association)


(c)        Mr Alan Doggett (Hitchin Market)


The Council was addressed by the following members of the public regarding the regeneration of Churchgate Shopping Centre, Hitchin.


(a)        Mr Robin Dartington (Hitchin Resident)


Mr Dartington advised that he was speaking as a concerned member of the public, who was aware of the many previous abortive attempts to improve Churchgate, and was anxious that this time it was a success.  Although speaking just for himself, he stated that he had 40 years’ experience in the development industry, and so was representative of the many qualified professionals in the Hitchin Community.  He also believed that a majority of Hitchin residents would welcome this new initiative, but not support the Council rushing to terms with a property company before there had been much more investigation.


Mr Dartington commented that the lessons from the failed Simons project were summed up in 10 points from the Scrutiny Committee, all supported by the Cabinet in September 2017.  Three were relevant at this stage and he hoped Members agreed that, when considered, they supported the following suggested amendments to the recommendations in the report now before the Council, to make this project a success:


1.      In Recommendation 1: add change to “That Full Council support regeneration of the Churchgate Centre and of Hitchin Market”.


Reason: The Visitor Survey revealed that Hitchin Market was the second most quoted reason for visiting Hitchin – the Market was far more important to Hitchin than the few shops in Churchgate, especially now that comparison shopping was so much easier on-line.


2.      Recommendation 2: change totally to “Delay negotiations with Shearer Property Group until there has been meaningful consultation with the Hitchin Committee, Hitchin Market and the public - and until an experienced Project Director has been brought into the Negotiating Team”.


Reasons: (1) Just to inform major stakeholders only a few days ago – and the public not at all - was frankly insulting.  There must be opportunity for meaningful consultation outside of Cabinet.

(2) To proceed with negotiations, without including an experienced team member, would be an insult to the property industry.


3.    Recommendation 3: Change totally to “Extend the existing Market Contract until the start of actual work on Regeneration”.

Reasons: The Council has no experience in operating the Market. Hitchin Market Ltd has, so just let the contract run until the site needs to be cleared.  Why load officers who are already over-stretched? 


Mr Dartington considered that the above amendments were supported by the following Scrutiny recommendations:


Recommendation 9 – “The Council should ensure there is meaningful consultation with the public prior to it finalising its plans; and make sure it continues to inform the public throughout the life of the project.”


Hitchin was a special place, with a 1,000 year history, that had shaped its very attractive, but very complex, character.  It had a very active community, expressed through a large number of organised groups.  Unless the public was brought on board, the scheme would turn out bad.


Recommendation 6 – “The Council needs to have clear, documented objectives before it embarks on projects”.


All that the report included was a general assumption that “poshing-up” the shops, and diminishing Hitchin Market, was a whizz idea.  Clarity was needed on what, and crucially who was Hitchin town centre now for?  Were all sectors of society given equal opportunity?   Was the right priority to posh-up shops for affluent visitors or did Hitchin need more starter opportunities, more space for leisure activities?  Where were open markets now going? The trend in London was towards food halls, offering home produced food to eat in a communal setting.  Perhaps there were enough cafes in Hitchin, but we should look around.


The Chairman thanked Mr Dartington for his presentation.


(b)        Mr Brian Foreman (Churchgate Retailers Association)


Mr Foreman advised that he was the Voluntary Advisor to the Churchgate Association, which represented the interests of the Shopping Centre tenants.  There were three main issues he intended to address, namely the awful present state of the Centre, the improvements that were needed, and the footfall.


Mr Foreman was of the view that it was a disgrace and an eyesore which, despite money that was paid to Hammersmatch for servicing and maintenance by the tenants, had been allowed to deteriorate for the last 17 years.  As a result there were a serious number of health and safety issues for tenants, employees and members of the public which had not been addressed by the landlord or NHDC.  NHDC could be considered culpable for not carrying out the routine inspections under the contractual arrangements.  Sadly the exterior problems were all too clearly evidenced in the main thoroughfare with the rusting and decaying canopies, filthy electrical lighting underneath, with fascias covered in dirt.  The regular contractual two coats of good quality paint simply had not been applied.  In side the shops tenants had reported dangerous ancient electrical fittings, heating systems not working, broken toilets, water ingress, and even possible subsidence of outer walls in one area of the Centre.


Mr Foreman stated that, whilst getting repairs done had been lengthy and difficult, it had become impossible.  Withholding rents had been considered.  The rear exterior shop walls on both sides of the main walkway were truly looking dreadful, lacking the essential maintenance needed.


Mr Foreman commented that improvements were urgently needed, but the first step was to make an inventory of what needed to be done, with an inspection by Council officers seeking co-operation from all the tenants to compile it.  Churchgate had been largely forgotten by Town centre Management and had not had the investment or help received by other retailers in the town.  Where was the street furniture with seating and flower tubs?


Mr Foreman considered that roofing of some kind would be needed if the canopies were removed and not replaced.  Improved lighting was essential to combat the dark and dangerous parts of the main walkway in the winter months.  Whilst the entrance from Market Square could be improved, that wall was far better than the other end facing the market.


Mr Foreman felt that it was independent shops rather than chains that drew people to Churchgate.  Whether the two charity shops opening shortly would be beneficial remained to be seen in increasing the footfall as Hitchin already had so many.  Some of the retailers certainly considered the market days to be an asset in attracting additional trade.  Any decline leading to a reduction in market stalls raised concerns over loss of footfall and issues of market management.


Mr Foreman stated that to what extent had concerns reported to him of aggressive unfriendly action against stallholders taken their toll?  Had rent increases and the failure to undertake truly proactive advertising campaigns led to the market decline?  Could there not be a plan for future growth and development put out for public comment?  NHDC raising car park charges had affected trade for the market and town in a negative way.  The market office was better where it was located in the market.  If the river bank opposite St. Mary’s Church was made into more of a picnic area with seating and refreshments there would be no need to remove more popular stalls in an area also used on Fridays and Saturdays as a piazza.


Mr Foreman was of the view that any investment in the Churchgate Shopping Centre by NHDC, together with the right business partner, was money well spent.  Some Churchgate retailers would feel that their money spent on shopfronts, window displays and interiors had been worthwhile after all.


The Chairman thanked Mr Foreman for his presentation.


(c)        Mr Alan Doggett (Hitchin Market)


Mr Doggett advised that the Board of Hitchin Market Limited (HML) were strongly supportive of the principle of refurbishing Churchgate and rebuilding the market.  However, acknowledging that the plan was indicative, HML were concerned that the market footprint illustrated was about halved.  Whilst the existing fixed stalls of 170 (of which 55 were shuttered in) were sometimes more than needed, the average stall use on a Tuesday was 90, whereas Friday was 130 average and, on Craft and Farmers’ Saturdays, the total rose to 150+.  Restricting the market to some 40 fixed stalls, plus demountables, would entail a very different market with a very different cost base.


Mr Doggett commented that there was further concern that the substantial “public realm” area illustrate, which appeared to be the same size as the Market Place, would (even on market days) look empty and bleak, thereby distancing the market from the rest of the retail offer.


Mr Doggett felt that Members should be aware that reliance on demountable stalls, which could not be left overnight for fear of vandalism, carried huge operational costs.  The estimated costs to get teams out at 5.00am and in the evenings would be in the region of £30,000 per annum.  This was about the amount that HML paid annually to NHDC under its operating contract.


Mr Doggett explained that HML was a social enterprise, part of Hitchin Initiative, run by volunteer directors for the benefit of the town.  It took on the operation of the market in 2008, in partnership with the Council, who had previously run the market at a loss.  During that time, stall numbers had increased and the contract renewal application anticipated paying NHDC £34,000 annually under the licence (as well as opening the lavatories 4 days a week at an annual cost to HML of some £14,000), and so it was anticipated that an in-house operation would not be cost effective.  HML had successfully operated in partnership with NHDC for nearly ten years, and considered that they were best placed to continue this, under a different contract, for any development period.


Mr Doggett hoped that Members were also understanding of the uncertainty that now existed and that people’s livelihoods, families and financial existence was all at stake.


The Chairman thanked Mr Doggett for his presentation.