Hitchin Churchgate Saga

19 May 2017

A brief history of the ongoing headache that surrounds the ambitions to develop Hitchin's Churchgate.
By DJN for the North Herts and Stevenage Green Party


Why develop Churchgate? Aesthetic reasons tend to be given:


  • Unappealing 1970s development
  • Deterioration of market and shops has occurred over time
  • Churchgate is near the market, which affects how it looks from the market side on non-market days


However, the main problem with Churchgate is that it’s a tantalising opportunity that’s being missed…but no one is quite sure of what this opportunity might be. NHDC have spent over £700,000 of taxpayers’ money on advice on how to develop the Centre - £732,000 of which has been spent on “consultancy costs” from private companies. Other groups with involvement include:


  • Keep Hitchin Special (passionate about keeping the market and see it as vital to the town)
  • Hitchin Forum
  • The Hitchin Initiative
  • Hitchin Historical Society




Initial plans to redevelop Churchgate began in 2005 with Simons Developers. These plans were rejected in 2013 as a result of public pressure and also as “no viable scheme” had been delivered. NHDC plumped for a less ambitious revamp from Ware-based Hammersmatch Properties Limited who are the current leaseholders and own 80% of Churchgate land. Hammersmatch put forward a 3-storey design with retail, a cinema and residential floors. However in 2016 they withdrew this scheme as they couldn’t find a cinema company to get on board and felt Churchgate was “unsuitable for retail”. The project is now back at square one, and is looking to the Local Plan for guidance (2017).


What are the issues?


All plans hit the same problems:


  • The design requirements have to be in keeping with Hitchin, our historic market town.
  • All 10 or more schemes so far relocate the market, which is felt would harm the market and is bitterly contested.
  • Schemes tend to use car park space for various aspects, which is seen as counter-productive and might make people go elsewhere.
  • Schemes need to be financially viable, and be assessed for impact on other NHDC landholdings.
  • Public land might be given away for a development neither needed nor wanted by the people of Hitchin.
  • There is fear of runaway costs.
  • Developments might overshadow St Mary’s Church
  • There may be loss of open spaces in our town centre.



It’s now agreed that due to major and irreversible changes in retail (i.e. Internet shopping) Hitchin must become a day and evening “visit destination” with a range of leisure and community uses, and any Churchgate re-development should boost this aim.


The Future


Development of the town centre will follow guidelines laid out in NHDC Local Plan (2011-2031). There is emphasis on employment; on promoting, protecting and enhancing retail and service functions; supporting development where it is appropriate in size, scale, function, catchment area, historic and architectural character; identifying primary shopping frontage and expanding this; and maintenance of up-to-date town centre strategies which can adapt to change.


These guidelines seem vague and are unlikely to lead to resolution of the Churchgate saga.












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