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With plans for a multi-million-pound redevelopment of its shopping centre, and with a resurgent market bucking the national trend, Hitchin's future looks bright, as Louise McEvoy discovers
HITCHIN is a medieval market town with narrow streets and lanes, a large square and a strong and vibrant town centre which spreads out from Market Place.
As one of the largest towns in North Hertfordshire, with a population of about 30,360, Hitchin has good rail and road links and is the main shopping, market and commercial centre for a wide area in Hertfordshire and parts of Bedfordshire. The nightlife is lively with more than 40 restaurants, clubs and bars, and a continental feel is provided during the day by the cafes and coffee shops.
Hitchin has a strong identity and offers a good mix of retail, business and leisure activities to its visitors, with independent specialist shops complementing high street chains and the town boasting thriving markets and attractive public spaces.
The Churchgate shopping centre and surrounding area in Hitchin is set for a multi-million-pound redevelopment after North Hertfordshire District Council awarded the contract to Simons Developments Limited in February last year. Simons is in negotiations with potential joint venture partners to help them meet their brief, which is to ensure that there are opportunities to attract the right mix and types of shops to the town, and that it becomes more attractive whilst at the same time its historic character is retained. The current plans would provide more retail floor space and include a proposal for a large retail anchor store.
The Hitchin Initiative was set up in October 1995 by a group of local landlords and traders who, concerned about the future of Hitchin town centre, decided to see how the town could be improved through a collective effort. It is run by town centre manager, Keith Hoskins, and aims to improve the retail offer and encourage events and activities. Keith, who has been the town centre manager for almost 15 years, says, Its focus remains on bringing community, commercial and council interests together, and its about the three of these working in partnership to deliver a vibrant town. I think we invented localism before it became a buzz word for this government.
In April 2009, Hitchin businesses voted to establish a Business Improvement District (BID) scheme, with all the traders involved paying a small annual levy to fund projects and services which will ultimately improve the whole business environment.
Since then, three town centre rangers have been appointed to log and organise action on graffiti, littering, cleaning and anti-social behaviour incidents, as well as work on promotional events. Through BID, CCTV has either been improved or introduced in certain areas of the town centre, lighting has been improved in poorly-lit areas, and market improvements have resulted in more stallholders and a greater footfall. BID has picked up a lot of the janitorial functions of Hitchin Initiative and its enabled the Initiative to become more of a community interest company, explains Keith. BID has a five-year mandate and delivers projects businesses themselves have identified as key to improving their environment, as well as levering in outside investment.
Asked about the future of the retail side of Hitchin, Keith says, Its tough out there, lets make no bones about it, but the towns unit vacancy rate is less than half the national average five-and-a-half per cent against a national average of 14 per cent. We also have a resurgent market, which is against the national trend. We are being a bit more robust than many town centres, but there are peripheral areas that seem to suffer more than the main ones.
Hitchins award-winning general market is held every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and there is also an antiques and collectors market every Friday, a car boot sale every Sunday, and on the last Saturday of every month there is a farmers and craft market.