Breakthrough claimed in North Hertfordshire Museum entrance negotiations

Hitchin Town Hall and the would-be entrance to the North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street.

Hitchin Town Hall and the would-be entrance to the North Hertfordshire Museum at 14/15 Brand Street. Picture: Danny Loo - Credit: Archant

The stand-off over the would-be North Hertfordshire Museum entrance in Hitchin’s Brand Street could finally be over, this paper understands.

According to a statement today from Stephen Pike, chairman of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, North Herts District Council has backed down on the main point that had been holding up the authority’s £550,000 purchase of the entrance at 14/15 Brand Street.

Charitable trust Hitchin Town Hall Ltd, the district council’s former partner in the Hitchin Town Hall revamp and North Hertfordshire Museum project, has agreed to let museum staff access rooms in 14/15 Brand Street while negotiations continue.

The district council has been deadlocked with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and its bankers HTH Finance Ltd over the purchase of 14/15 Brand Street for more than two years.

During this time, the the Conservative-run council has managed to get the museum open – without access to parts of it that are in 14/15 Brand Street. But the deal has snagged over the insistence of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and bankers HTH Finance Ltd that the terms enshrine a five-year rolling hold over the town hall, giving the people of the town opportunity to buy the site if the council ever decides to dispose of it.

District council leader Lynda Needham said at a cabinet meeting last month that she couldn’t understand why Hitchin Town Hall Ltd thought it could seek conditions over the town hall.

But according to Mr Pike, the district council has relented.

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Mr Pike said: “We have, after much protracted negotiations, reached a point where North Hertfordshire District Council have mostly come round to our way of thinking to protect the use of Hitchin Town Hall.

“We have secured that the town hall remains in community use, with any change to such use requiring that the district council must give the community always a five-year timeframe in which to put forward a plan to operate or acquire it.

“We have, therefore, issued notices today to call an extraordinary general meeting of the charity on October 30 to ratify the agreement.

“As a gesture of goodwill, and to assist NHDC museum staff, the trustees of the charity and the directors of HTH Finance Ltd have agreed to permit access to the three rooms currently ‘landlocked’ by our Brand Street property, which we hope will speed up the opening process.

“We have always permitted NHDC to use our property for disabled access and fire escape.”

A spokesman for HTH Finance Ltd, whose directors include former Conservative councillor David Leal-Bennett, told this paper they were “delighted that negotiations appear to have resulted in an agreement between Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and NHDC” – and saluted the museum staff, who he said had “worked extremely hard in difficult conditions during the long negotiations, and are to be commended”.

He added: “We all look forward to attending the grand opening in due course.”

Mrs Needham said in response: “We understand that directors of Hitchin Town Hall Ltd and HTH Finance Ltd have put forward the council’s version of a settlement agreement which went to cabinet on September 25.

“We await the decision of their extraordinary general meeting on October 30, but are hopeful that this will finally mean a way forward can be agreed in the best interests of the people of North Hertfordshire.

“If the decision of the extraordinary general meeting is to accept the deal, this will then be subject to final approval by an extraordinary meeting of cabinet at a date to be confirmed in November.”