Friday, October 05, 2012

Arrested Development - or How Local Politics Works

North Herts District Council’s decision to sign over the development of Hitchin town centre to self-styled “property solutions” firm Simons, on a 250-year, lease may not just be against the will of local people – but also against the law! In its Summer newsletter, local body Hitchin Forum notes that the original OJEU tender made a clear distinction between “enhancement” and “development” – and identified specific areas marked for each – with the intention of preserving as much of the historic character of the town as possible. However, the Council’s Leader, Lynda Needham, has now penned a letter to local people, rewriting history by claiming that the plan has always been full-scale development.

Local Conservative Councillor David Leal-Bennett is talking tough, announcing that is time for Simons “to put up or pull out” but his Tory chums don’t seem to share his views, refusing to respond to FOI requests from Hitchin Forum about the deal. The sorry saga has been prolonged because Simons says it is feeling the effects of the recession – and because the key Churchgate area (“Area 1”) remains leased to another firm, Hammersmatch Properties. Now Hammersmatch has come up with a new proposal for Churchgate which could derail the Council’s schemes and see Simons walk away completely – seven years on from signing the deal! Such a waste of time and money would be an embarrassing irony for a Council which boasts, in its own Summer newsletter, on resisting “the extravagance of the previous government.”

The nub of the issue is concern over the impact of development on ten-thousand year-old St Mary’s Church, The splendid view of the church from the main traffic route on Queen Street, and the residential properties around it – highlighted in the Planning Brief and therefore protected by EU Law - would be ruined by Simon’s plans to usher in another God, Mammon, by building a department store in front of it on St Mary’s Square (“Area 4”). As Andrew Wearmouth of Hitchin Forum wearily points out, “if the Council approves a scheme that does not comply with the Planning Brief and the OJEU advert, it seems that it will be breaking EU Law on two separate counts.”

The efforts, of local residents and businesses, to prevent Hitchin becoming a “clone town” continue, but received a further blow with the arrival, in another part of town, of . . . Tesco. Treble Clubcard points all round!