- 1. INTRODUCTION
The Hitchin Town Action Group was set up by The Hitchin Society, Hitchin Forum, Hitchin Historical Society and Hitchin Initiative to enable local people to have a say on the future of Hitchin Town Centre.
The launch meeting took the form of a workshop to which local people were invited via emails to those who supported the petition on Churchgate in January 2013, the memberships of the organisations, and by use of local publicity through a poster and articles in the local press. Appendix A summarises the information provided by attendees on how they heard about the event.
There were 79 attendees. Two thirds of attendees were over 60 years old, with all but four of the rest being over 40. The need to target younger people for future events is recognised by the steering group, and suggestions are made in the final section of the report  – responding to specific suggestions made at the event.
The home post codes of attendees show an even spread through the town with the exception of Westmill and Walsworth/Purwell. There were only a few attendees from the villages (reflecting the lack of response to the posters provided – see above). The steering group will use this information to target a wider range of areas for future events.
The evening was designed to enable attendees to write down their own ideas on a series of general topics with minimal help from facilitators. It was suggested that Churchgate issues should not be a main focus of discussion at this stage pending further work on the current proposals. Each attendee was able to comment on all of the topics summarised in the next section. The final section (‘Next Steps’) will be available shortly, and will outline the priority actions the steering group recommends are taken forward, based on the issues and suggestions raised.
- 2. SUMMARY OF MAIN FINDINGS
Feedback notes for all the topics are to be found at www.hitchin.co.uk.
Main findings are presented here under the topic heading where they were discussed most fully by respondents. Where there is a different insight on the issue elsewhere a reference is given to the relevant section.
2.1 Shopping and Services
People value highly the variety offered by Hitchin’s many independent and specialist shops. The historic character of the town centre, together with the wide range of coffee shops and eating places, reinforce Hitchin as a very attractive shopping destination.
Potential improvements include:
- More of specific types of shop including children’s clothing and toys;
- Better designed and maintained public toilets;
- Street improvements including more greenery and less street clutter;
- More traffic-free streets and better and lower cost parking (see also 2.4).
Suggestions for meeting long term change include:
- Some larger units to accommodate national chains, but no more supermarkets or out of town development;
- Shops offering a wide range of services, using the internet to enhance business, and opening for longer periods;
- Meeting needs of younger people and an aging population (see also 2.2);
- Accepting that shopping area may shrink with more residential use on the fringes (see also 2.2).
Hitchin Market is highly valued, but there is scope for improvement in terms of quality and variety, including the replacement of the existing permanent stalls to increase flexibility of use of the area (see also 2.3 and 2.5). Consideration should be given to a market hall; and also more farmers’ and foreign markets (perhaps in Market Place).
Other suggestions include promotional schemes such as introducing a “Hitchin pound” with possible incentives (for instance free parking for a specific amount of spend).
One of the most important of Hitchin’s assets is the physical layout of the town centre and particularly the Market Place and other spaces in providing a ‘gathering ground’ for people to meet and participate in events. Existing facilities, including meeting places in the churches, pubs and cafes, are considered to provide space for a wide range of activities for different ages.
However, the needs of younger people require greater attention in terms of provision for recreation, sport, leisure and education/work opportunities. Suggestions (that would also serve the wider population) include:
- Use of vacant shops and upper floors for studio space, workshops and display;
- Provision of multi-purpose flexible rental space for indoor leisure, clubs and organisations – including multicultural;
- Provision for an ‘arts’ cinema; and for Rhythms of the World or a ‘Hitchin Fringe’;
- Potential for more use of facilities at the Library, Church House (possible redesign), Queen Mother Theatre, British Schools Museum (and the New Museum).
Measures are sought for specific buildings and open spaces:
- Development of a creative hub/arts and crafts centre at the Old Museum (see also alternatives in 2.6);
- More public events (such as vintage fashion shows), street entertainers, music and theatre at for instance Market Place, the Market area and The Dell;
- Protection and improvement of such places as the Riverside Walkway (see also 2.5), Butts Close (bridging where floods), and Hine Garden;
- Retention of sports facilities at, for instance, Bancroft and Top Field; and development of centres of excellence for, for example, hockey/netball;
- Inclusion of allotments where appropriate as part of community open space.
The meeting of specific housing needs is supported to increase liveliness and security in the town centre, though there is concern at potential of loss of other facilities (such as pubs) and of small open spaces and gardens. The need for greater controls over opening hours is mentioned in this context – as is the importance of the Rangers and policing.
2.3 Historic Environment and Tourism
Hitchin’s historic environment with its architectural variety and alleys and pathways is seen as a main attraction for shoppers and visitors. The Market is seen as important and needing to be given priority in planning of the town centre with opportunity for improvement (see also 2.1 and 2.5).
Measures to enable environmental and maintenance improvements could include:
- Use green spaces and riverside more imaginatively – but not overdesign or sanitise, ‘allow a little ricketiness to survive’ (see also 2.5) ;
- Encourage wide range of activities including artisan activities and workshop spaces (see also 2.2) with more use of, for instance, hanging signs to advertise facilities;
- Increase co-operation between business, local authority and town groups (possibly through a trustee group) to enable implementation.
The town centre has suffered from some poor planning decisions and developments in the past, but there are examples of new development that are appreciated and there is scope for good modern design in new developments sensitive to the historic context.
There is strong support for increased local and wider promotion to visitors:
- Set up town centre tourist office to guide people to historic buildings/areas (including the ‘Minster’) and events;
- Provide more history information boards and guided walks;
- Appoint a town centre events manager to co-ordinate tourism;
- Advertise nationally and internationally through for instance website and rail stations, and references in national guide books; include in mystery tours;
- Encourage use of centre as a filming location, and general media coverage of the town;
- Develop shuttle bus links from Luton airport to town centre (and the new hotel).
Of the transport related comments, two issues are dominant – the need for traffic calming and problems with car parking:
- There is considerable support for the introduction of 20 mph zones, both in the town centre and more widely, but a very clear objection to speed humps;
- There is much concern about the quality and quantity of the town centre car parks and objection to the level of charges compared to elsewhere in North Herts. Pay on exit charging would be welcomed. The Lairage in particular needs improvement and better signing.
Other issues raised include:
- Lack of action on congestion caused by all-day parking on streets close to the town centre and the station;
- The need for less clutter on footpaths from A-boards, café chairs and cyclists which would aid pedestrians, as would better maintenance of footpaths;
- Much better facilities to be provided for cyclists;
- Improved footway links including the Hiz walkway;
- Lack of centralised bus facilities and real time indicator boards;
- The need to find a new access route for HGVs to the industrial area, and to remove through traffic.
Specific suggestions include:
- A proper taxi rank nearer the Market Place in the evening to stop pavement parking;
- Restoration of two-way working at Bedford Road to improve safety and environment at Paynes Park, and potential fuller use of the Lairage car park (see also 2.6);
- Provision of a multi storey car park at the station to ease congestion elsewhere;
- Improvements to dangerous junctions, notably Willow Lane and Parkway.
2.5 St Mary’s Square and Woodside
At St Mary’s Square there are two aspects that are particularly important in considering new development:
- The view of St Mary’s from the east is the key view in Hitchin and must be protected.
- The Market is very important in this location and at about the current size – but it should be .smarter, work better at night and be used on non market days (for example for farmers and craft markets).
The general relationship between buildings and open spaces is also important:
- Open space needs to be better interlinked, together with more use made of The Cloister area and improved planting including of trees to provide an urban park while retaining views;
- River Hiz needs improved environment, access and maintenance;
- Massing of new buildings should be kept as low as possible, with a free (rather than rectangular) building form considered;
- Replacement of other buildings should be pursued in wider area along Queen Street (as at PO site).
At Woodside gradual improvement to provide improved cultural and other facilities was considered appropriate:
- Attractions could include youth activity centre and informal space , adventure play area, performance area (eg open air theatre at The Dell);
- Access could be improved with multi storey car park, better signage and pedestrian links, and shuttle bus (station/ Woodside/ town centre).
2.6 Paynes Park and Moss’s Corner
Paynes Park area has positive aspects including the gardens at Library/Old Museum, the small shops at West Alley, and the Brookers development (and its public art). But suggestions were made to increase the attractiveness and use of the area:
- The one way system should be changed to allow local traffic only on Paynes Park at 20mph, and improve pedestrian access into the town centre;
- The Arcade and West Alley area could be improved visually and extended to form a creative quarter;
- The Old Museum could provide for arts or community uses (see also 2.2);
- Paynes Park should be treated more coherently with proper frontages, planting and seating;
- Car parking areas including the Lairage need to be made more attractive (see also 2.2).
Moss’s Corner is a busy area that could benefit from a redesign to cover the following:
- Changing the split levels and steps to provide a space that is easier and safer to use;
- Improving surfaces, seating and planting, possibly with public art and potential for a performance space;
- Integration of disabled parking;
- Use of an information board to explain the history of the immediate area.
2.7 Other issues
Most of the comments provided in the free time at the end of the meetings have been included where appropriate in sections 2.1 to 2.6 above. There are, however, some topics not covered elsewhere.
There is appreciation for the process being undertaken in consulting local people on ideas, but concern that:
- The process should be extended to cover younger people including those at school to ask how they see the future of Hitchin;
- There should be greater clarity beforehand of what material would be covered so that people can prepare in advance of any meeting;
- There should be a shared long term vision for the town, with all the groups working together as a team to achieve it and to make sure we are not left behind by other towns;
- We should however avoid ‘over sanitising and neatening up’, or making Hitchin look too much like Letchworth.
There are also comments on implementation and maintenance, including questioning of the practicality of changing the one way system, and concerns about the condition of specific open areas (such as local roundabouts and the Wymondley by-pass). There is a suggestion that more use should be made of S106 monies for community benefit.
Other town wide comments include recognition of the housing needs of younger families, but also concerns about Hitchin continuing to grow and the loss of Green Belt.
- 3. NEXT STEPS
The report has been circulated to Hitchin councillors and discussed at the Hitchin Committee on November 12th, where it was well received. It will now be considered more fully by the HTAG Steering Group. Watch this space!
 Part 3 of the Report (‘Next Steps’) will follow shortly, after further discussion by the HTAG Steering Group.
 It is expected that there will be a HTAG meeting on Churchgate in 2014 when more information is available.