The Council’s report which was prepared by Council’s officers is on the NHDC website, item 96
The presentation given at the Council meeting, written by The Hitchin Society, Hitchin Historical Society and Hitchin Forum is here Presentation to Council 31.01.13
The online petition created by Hitchin Forum and which attracted 3140 signatories is here – petition. Many comments were made, almost 2000 in all, can be viewed. They were inspiring and insightful, and showed what a passion people have for the town. The petition was mentioned several times in the debate, and there seemed no doubt that the number could not be ignored – 3140 – magnificent in just 1 week!
The key issues that had been highlighted leading up to the meeting were:-
- Simons accept that their scheme is not viable without an ‘anchor’ store like M&S or Debenhams
- In the last 3 years Simons have failed to secure an anchor (a large store, which might sink) store
- In the current ongoing economic/retail situation it is highly unlikely that one will be secured in the near future (if ever – Hitchin is very small compared to most other towns where this sort of development has attracted an anchor store – the only comparable town is Witney which has a Simons’ shopping centre – more info elsewhere)
- While NHDC is in contract with Simons they could not enter into negotiations with any other developer, which would have blighted Churchgate while Simons waited for Debenhams or another company to decide if they would want to invest in a new store here (does Hitchin need a Debenhams? What would Debenhams offer that Hitchin hasn’t got already in one form or another? What would be the impact on great local independents like Hawkins?)
- Simons asked NHDC for up to an extra £2.1 million of rate payers money to help them make the scheme viable, but that was found to be unnecesary in the week before the meeting. This increased the credibility gap – what would they decide next week, next year?
- The company that would own the area would control the multistorey carpark for their own profit – not for our council funds as with most of our existing town centre car parks.
- The current deal for Churchgate shops is that 40% of the rent they pay goes to NHDC; with the Simons’ contract NHDC would get only 10% of the rent from the wholesite (which could be 10% of nothing given the current economic climate)
- Simons’ Marriot’s Walk development in Witney which is the only comparable town in terms of scale to Hitchin to have the Simons’ treatment, has two anchor stores in it and yet even 3 years after opening almost a quarter of the other units are vacant… plus their multistorey carpark is FREE.
If Councillors had voted for an extension to Simons’ contract it would have
- blighted Churchgate for the foreseeable future
- blighted the market for a long and undetermined period
- not allowed any alternative options to be explored
- involved NHDC in unpredictable financial committments
The debate focussed on the changing retail scene, the financial risks and viability, and the unpopularity of the scheme with Hitchin people. While the idea of a large ‘anchor’ store on St Marys Square is widely seen as unlikely to attract a desirable store, unsightly and overshadowing the Biggin, this was not a material consideration when it came to the vote. Simons had just not made enough progress in 3 years. It was widely acknowledged that the financial situation has caused a slump in risky ventures, and that was bad luck for Simons, but probably good luck for Hitchin. It saved Hitchin from being landed with a development that was out of date before it was even started. Rather than see this as a missed opportunity, and there was a heavy emphasis on the 14 years this has been in the making, we should see the NO vote as the time to start again. If Simons had been given the green light it seems that they would not have been able to find a store and the money to do anything, and the project would have hit the dust in 18 months time, and then we would have to start again.
Hitchin Councillors worked hard to get the result we wanted. We look forward to working with them and the whole Council in making a fresh start.
We live in a democratic society and councils should always listen to the thoughts and feelings of the local residents. We are delighted that they have.