“to support the principle of a joint venture regeneration of the Churchgate Centre in Hitchin, with the Council as funder of the regeneration. The potential joint venture between the Council and Shearer Property Group would see a ‘face-lift’ of the existing shopping centre, improving the quality of the units available and in turn make them more attractive to retailers. The scheme would also see improved public open space and investment in Hitchin’s historic market.”
The Council invited people to complete an online survey, but, following careful consideration, Hitchin Forum’s Steering Group suggests that the survey was so poorly designed that it would have been better to send a letter/email with your views instead. A copy of the questions in the survey is here Hitchin Churchgate survey
Shearer Property Group proposals – from the Council minutes –
Proposals for Churchgate Centre
8.1 The proposal being investigated is a regeneration of the Churchgate Centre on its existing footprint. In broad terms a new frontage would replace the existing and the centre re-roofed, with some re-configuration of the existing units as required in order to make them suitable for the targeted tenants. In particular the frontage onto Market Place would be completely redesigned and reworked. This transformative “face-lift” of the Centre is intended to create a step change in the quality of the units available, thereby making them more attractive to retailers. The significant advantage of the COUNCIL (8.2.18) approach being proposed is that it addresses all of the issues listed in paragraph 7.2 which have affected previous attempts to regenerate the site.
8.2 With regard to potential tenants, a mix of food and beverage operators and aspirational/lifestyle retailers would be targeted, with some smaller units currently remaining earmarked for existing tenants. On the proposals currently being investigated there would not be any one single large operator anchoring the centre. Feedback received from agents to SPG is that there is good demand from operators for the right type of units in Hitchin. This has also been confirmed by the Council’s consultant. As with any shopping centre key elements in reaching agreement with potential tenants are the incentives they would demand as part of any lease negotiations (for example rent free periods, or contributions to fit out costs) and ensuring an attractive environment from which they operate. Proposals for Hitchin Market and the Public Realm
8.3 Hitchin is an historic market town. The market rights are owned by the Council and it is currently managed by Hitchin Markets Limited, with the contract expiring on 31 July 2018. This arrangement started in 2008 and the management contract includes a break clause that allows the Council to terminate the arrangement (with no liability for costs) for reason of development of the Churchgate Shopping Centre, provided at least three months prior written notice is provided.
8.4 As stated at 8.2 above one of the key challenges in attracting retailers is ensuring the surrounding environment is attractive and a vibrant space which supports the investment being made in the shopping centre. The market has been without significant investment for a number of years and there now exists an opportunity to invest in it in order to re-invigorate it and ensure it continues to meet the needs of the community going forward. The proposals being considered include investment in the market and surrounding public realm, with a new public space being created adjacent to the shopping centre and the market broadly in its current location, but with the core of it being at the Queen Street end of the current space. The proposal would include a mix of new stalls, both permanent and demountable, which could spread across the terrace below the St Mary’s car park towards Portmill Lane, and could include a covered area over the permanent stalls. Please note the indicative plan at Appendix A shows a potential layout for stalls, but should not be taken as any indication of the potential number of stalls. 8.5 In order to most efficiently and effectively facilitate and manage the investment in the market the current thinking is that the contract for the management of the market would be allowed to expire, with the Council managing in-house the operation of the market in the short term both before and after the regeneration of it. Consideration will be given to the future management of the market as part of the ongoing assessment of the proposals and any in-house management would not preclude an outsourced arrangement, or other alternative arrangement, at any time in the future. In-house management of the market would of course mean that any direct surplus generated would be retained by the Council. Any surplus would provide a contribution towards the management and regeneration of the market. If Full Council agrees to the principle of the regeneration investment a separate report will be taken to the March meeting of Cabinet for a decision on the Hitchin Market contract. 8.6 With regard to the public realm, resurfacing of the ‘mall’ down the middle of the Churchgate Centre, the new public space, the market area and terrace and steps in front of St Mary’s car park would transform the look and feel of the area. Removal of the walls between the current market and the Church would open up the space and COUNCIL (8.2.18) provide enhanced views of the Church from the new public space. Additionally consideration can be given to relocation of the electricity sub-station and refurbishment of the toilet block. The level of investment in the public realm and market is dependent on the cost and funding available.
Discussions within HF are continuing about how to help the Council find the best way forward – if you have thoughts do send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
The following points to NHDC were suggested by us in April:-
1. Support the principle of investment in the market and a refurbished shopping centre rather than wholesale redevelopment of the Churchgate centre and surrounding area.
2. Question the Council’s intended process and schedule – interested parties need to be able to have their say before plans are finalised.
3. There are two main items which need further consultation: a) design of the shopping centre refurbishment b) plans for the market.
4. Express concern that the current drawings show the market separated from the shops. This is under the guise of creating a new public space.
And some further thoughts and comments on the online survey:-
1. There is no vision or context. The fundamental problem with the survey is that the questions on Churchgate (& indeed, Hitchin Market as well) are asked in isolation of anything else. How does Churchgate relate to / balance commercially & in other ways, the rest of the town centre? Indeed, what is the vision for the role of Hitchin town centre? What is the unique character of HTC, its unique selling points? This could lead to discussion about independent retailing, the town centre as the social as well as commercial heart of the town, how Churchgate & Hitchin Market contribute to this & how they could do it better. None of this is touched on in the survey.
2. The survey inappropriately emphasises shopping. Q11, 12 & 13 are largely about what kind of food outlets/shops people would like to see in Churchgate. This is rather pointless; the type of shops or restaurants will be determined by the commercial market, not by the Council & indeed, the Council has no expertise in this area. However, by identifying a vision for the town centre and Hitchin’s unique selling points, particular commercial operations may be attracted to contribute.
3. There should be greater consideration of the town centre as the social heart of Hitchin. Q8 alone mentions “leisure facilities”. As the principle funder of the project, the Council should ensure that there is more than just retail and aim for a balance of environmental, social & economic benefits. Perhaps there should be an emphasis on families with a children’s play space or a flexible meeting room space for local groups; you will doubtless have other suggestions.
4. Refurbishment of Churchgate. We recommend that you support regeneration of Churchgate by refurbishing the existing buildings (Q10). However, it should be noted that Q10 only refers to regenerating it “to provide improved shop units, i.e. updating the existing buildings”. Q9 mentions “more attractive environment & more attractive buildings/shop fronts”. We would expect Conservation Area principles to be rigorously applied to ensure the best possible design in terms of its sensitive position on Market Place and in creating attractive, welcoming spaces.
5. The survey also treats Hitchin Market in isolation from the rest of the town and fails to recognise what it means that Hitchin is a Market Town. Be wary of what is termed “the principle of regenerating public space to the rear of Churchgate”. Q14 actually refers to NHDC’s proposal to move Hitchin Market further away from the shops to create a ‘new public space’. While it might benefit both shops and the Market to have more space between them than at present, what is actually proposed would disadvantage the Market by moving it away from the retail centre of the town and towards Queen Street.
6. Support for investing in the Market. Q19 (Do you support the principle of investing in Hitchin’s market to ensure it is fit for the 21st century?) can be supported, but of course there is considerable debate to be had about how many and what kind of stalls, what mix of permanent/demountable stalls, flexibility to cater for different days, layouts, whether there should be a floating canopy over part of the Market etc etc.
7. What is the process the Council intends to follow on this project? For a start, there needs to be meaningful consultation, not just an online questionnaire. Comprehensive consultation with public and traders before a scheme is finalised means involving market traders, Hitchin Markets Ltd, Hitchin Initiative, Churchgate traders, customers, businesses, residents. There needs to be opportunity to discuss and address what are very complex issues, starting with the character of the town and what it needs. How is this going to be achieved?