The Churchgate saga moved on one more step on July 18th with the Full Council considering a report – Main report 18.07.13 – with an addendum – Churchgate addendum 18.07.13 – on the future of the area. The agenda and all parts of the report are available here . In January the Council had decided that Simons had not come up with any plan and that the agreement with them should end – read here. If they had produced a viable plan by March 19th it would have had to be considered, but in the absence of that other parties could put forward their plans.
The Council’s report recommended waiting 2 years until the Local Plan would be adopted and only have discussions with potential developers in the meantime. We felt that would be an unnecessary and unwarranted waste of time.
At the Council meeting there was a presentation of a joint statement from Hitchin Forum, Hitchin Historical Society, Hitchin Initiative and The Hitchin Society, followed by a presentation from Hammersmatch, the current leaseholders of Churchgate. Hammersmatch have had discussions with the Council’s planning department and with the Hitchin societies since March and have produced plans which seem to be a realistic basis for developing Churchgate, refurbishing the properties that they currently have a lease on and building a small extension with a cinema, shops and restaurants.
The Council then debated the report and eventually modified one of the recommendations which now allows Hammersmatch (or any other developer) to proceed with a planning application.
Councillor Richard Thake, with support from Cllr Claire Strong, suggested the amendment which was finally accepted – ‘that the Council resolves to await the publication of the draft Local Plan while at the same time considering any development proposal’.
The recommendation about the Local Plan is changed so that any new development needs to be considered alongside the draft of the Local Plan, which should be ready within the next 6 months, so not leading to any delay if Hammersmatch’s emerging plans gain support. NHDC reported this in item 31.
The Hammersmatch presentation given by their agent is here Hammersmatch 18.07.13.
The joint Hitchin societies presentation was as follows –
PRESENTATION TO NORTH HERTS DISTRICT COUNCIL, 18 JULY 2013
OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE OF CHURCHGATE AND THE SURROUNDING AREA
I am speaking on behalf of Hitchin Forum, The Hitchin Society, Hitchin Historical Society and Hitchin Initiative who have met to discuss the report to Full Council of 18th July. We have some comments on the report that we hope Members will feel able to take into account in their deliberations.
We are pleased to say that we agree with many of the conclusions in the report. We are, however, concerned that the recommendation to await the outcome of the Local Plan and meanwhile continue discussions with potential developers is not an appropriate response to the issues we are facing at Churchgate and Hitchin town centre.
The argument in the report is that it is imperative to have the Local Plan approved before proceeding with any decisions on the future of Churchgate in order to reflect an updated policy context. Such an approach, if followed as a District-wide policy, would prevent any significant development in the District for the next two years (and four years if a planning brief is then considered necessary for any such development). It is certainly not appropriate in this instance:
- The officers’ report suggests that, in time, growth will return, and with it the demand for more retail space, but there is no evidence for that. Our joint report, Planning Hitchin’s Future, which was circulated to you all yesterday and presented to Hitchin Committee on 4th June, in contrast, reflects the national consensus that there have been major and irreversible changes in retail and that there will be little scope in the future to increase floorspace, and that town centres must develop additional roles – in Hitchin’s case as a major day (and evening) visit destination centre with a range of leisure and community uses.
- The Societies had a meeting with Local Plan officers on 6th June and there was no disagreement with the overall tenor of our section on Hitchin town centre, indicating that the Local Plan is likely to reflect this new expectation and that a ‘step change to retail provision’ is no longer the way forward for Hitchin, and that smaller scale incremental change is appropriate.
- In this context there is a strong case for actively pursuing a solution that is smaller in scale than the Simons scheme in order to meet these objectives and strengthen Hitchin’s role over the next few years. We would point out that the Planning Brief of 2005 had already moved on significantly from the 1996 Local Plan, reflecting the need to retain car parking capacity essential to the vitality of the town and to preserve areas of open space within the town centre.
Hammersmatch, as the current leaseholder of Churchgate, is in a unique position to implement change of an appropriate scale and mix of retail unit sizes together with other uses. The outline proposals from Hammersmatch that all of us have seen are larger than the current ‘footprint’, but considerably smaller than the Simons scheme. The proposals seem realistic, achievable, economically viable, and of financial benefit to the town, to the district and to the District Council.
We do, however, acknowledge some of the issues raised in the officer report regarding the Hammersmatch proposal including the implications for the provision of the market and continued parking in the surrounding area. In our view the search for an appropriate solution needs the active engagement of a wide range of interests including the Council and market traders.
One of those points of engagements may have been seen by some as a rival idea – local design professionals Brent Smith and Mark Wearne have circulated a few ‘masterplan concepts’, and they produced a second draft earlier this week. I talked to Brent today about that. They support the principle of the Hammersmatch proposals and are offering further ideas which Hammersmatch might chose to include in their development. They are not alternative proposals. We are singing from the same song sheet.
Our view is that the Council should use the staff resources that would have been involved in taking forward the Simons scheme, so as to explore positively these issues and other potential solutions.
In this context the 3 Societies and Hitchin Initiative suggest that the proposal to re-instate a Hitchin Town Centre Working Party, supported by members at the last Hitchin Committee, should be implemented as soon as possible.
The Working Party could be constituted so as to include Councillors, Societies and Hitchin Initiative (and with officer attendance), in order to bring together other appropriate parties and enable a full and free discussion of issues and potential solutions. We would suggest that the chair is held by a Councillor but that a vice chair from the Societies is able to help with setting the agenda – and with both ensuring that wider public participation is encouraged.
We do not wish to create another “talk shop” – it must be geared to practical outcomes. The Working Party would focus initially on Churchgate and current initiatives, but could also look wider. Regular report back to the Hitchin Committee in each Committee cycle would ensure that all members are involved as appropriate.
Our view is that this approach of actively seeking solutions within the context of the emerging Local Plan policies could create the right environment for a suitable proposal for Churchgate to be brought forward for implementation, perhaps as early as 2015. It also does not preclude the possibility of a specific proposal being brought forward for determination before that time, should the necessary conditions be satisfied.
Any issues around Best Value raised in the Addendum to the Churchgate report should be put against the financial risks of delaying for 2 years. Those risks include further deterioration of Churchgate and the market, and uncertainty created in retailers such as Iceland – all with financial implications for the town and the Council.
To summarize, we think that the officers’ report is not acknowledging the opportunities. If you agree with it time will be lost, for which there will be no excuse. You made the right decision in January and we urge you to make the right decision tonight.
They made the right decision and the plans can move on – wonderful!!