The subject of long running concern for the people of Hitchin is the area named Churchgate, consisting of an arcade and other shops and dwellings built around the adjoining block, built in 1971. This was described at the time as a “space age development to keep up with Luton and Stevenage”. Churchgate is in Hitchin, a market town of 34,000 population, being part of the North Herts District (population 127,000).
The area recently included for redevelopment, including St Mary’s Square and the Portmill Lane car parks, were included in a development proposal by the Hitchin Urban District Council and Herts CC in 1973, but no further plans for that area emerged for another 20 years.
The timeline of the campaign to redevelop Churchgate is:-
1984 North Herts District Council (NHDC) Local Plan said no major increase in retail space
1986 NHDC and residents said Churchgate needing refurbishment
1993-6 Local Plan expressed desire to redevelop whole area around Churchgate and St Marys Church
1998 Churchgate Development Guidelines being developed (Churchgate Planning Brief adopted 7 years later)
2001 Hammersmatch becomes leaseholder (the freehold is owned by NHDC)
2002 – 4 draft Town Centre Strategies produced by North Herts District Council, three being opposed by the community on the following grounds –
expansion of shopping area – out of scale and chain stores not wanted
displacement of market
This evoked a vigorous protest and led to a petition of 10,000 and a march around the town centre
2004 Town Centre Strategy agreed
2005 Churchgate Planning Brief adopted – much smaller development site plus enhancement areas identified
2007 NHDC Churchgate Working Party – identified much larger development site
2010 NHDC signed development agreement with Simons, one of several bidders, but Hammersmatch, the current leaseholders, were excluded at an early stage of this process. Simons would receive a 250 year lease of 7 acres of land in the town centre, and were obliged to produce a planning application within 3 years (by March 2013)
2010-11 Churchgate Liaison Forum, planned as a 2 monthly meeting between Simons, NHDC, councillors and community groups, to discuss emerging development proposals by Simons
2011 English Heritage saw little merit in the proposal emerging at Churchgate. “Simons scheme appears to have been generated by a wish to impose in Hitchin a standard & frankly alien retail development”
Nov 2012 NHDC Cabinet set to extend Simons contract for 6 months (then requested to 18 months), but if that were done there would likely be no actual end date
Jan 2013 Simons put on exhibition (~45 people agree with proposal, out of ~90 who completed forms , so they said that 50% of Hitchin residents supported the scheme!).
Simons also said that they would need an extra £2m from Council
key – blue, original Churchgate area requiring refurbishment: red – car parks to be areas of development: orange – existing market area: mauve – Biggin , 14th century priory. Simons intended to redevelop blue, red and orange areas
Jan 2013 – Hammersmatch put on exhibition, suggest a cinema as part of the development and much smaller redevelopment and refurbishment of Churchgate
Town Centre Manager and local councillors active along with all of the town’s main societies. Public Meeting to ‘Oppose Extension of Simons Contract’ arranged for Jan 22nd by Keep Hitchin Special. NHDC provided advice to Councillors stating that attendance at the meeting would amount to predetermination and exclude them from voting at Council on the proposal. This advice was questioned in the House of Westminster by local MP Peter Lilley, and was deemed to be wrong.
Petition arranged by Hitchin Forum using change.org (and not the Council’s own petition facility, which would have taken 3 weeks and more to deliver). Petition ran for 1 week and attracted 3140 supporters with the simple demand – Do not extend the contract with Simons to redevelop Churchgate.
A presentation to Council was made on behalf of Hitchin Forum, The Hitchin Society and Hitchin Historical Society. The main points were –
3 years and no serious plans emerging from Simons
Simons had not spoken to the town centre manager or the market traders for past year
No anchor store in sight, and no information provided on what inducements Simons might have offered to stores interested in this scheme.
Retail environment had changed, even the Council’s retail consultants, DTZ, said so, with high streets being under pressure and internet shopping becoming much more popular
To progress the scheme there would need to be compulsory purchase of the Churchgate lease, possibly costing £5m (and this had not been included in the risks declared by the Council!).
Blight on other opportunities with the market traders losing heart
Simons presented their latest ideas on the night – now they only needed a 150 year lease, they could provide a cinema, and they realised that they did not need the £2m.
The Council then voted not to extend contract, with the grateful thanks of Hitchin residents.
After March 2013 the contract with Simons became null & void. Hitchin Councillors felt that their long held but ignored views had been validated. However one immediate consequence was that a Councillor was sacked from NHDC Cabinet for supporting the campaign and not supporting the majority on the Cabinet.
The Council has said that it is open to all parties who wish to develop the area, but Hammersmatch seem to be the only player in this. Hammersmatch want to renegotiate their lease with NHDC before proceeding with refurbishment and smaller development proposal. They are waiting for the Council to respond and then hope to produce more detailed plans.
Further information on this website the-council-said-no/