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Association of North Thames Amenity Societies

 

Newsletter Spring 2002

Civic societies from Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire that are not currently members of ANTAS have been invited to the meeting on 13th April at St Michael’s Church Rooms, St Albans.

Chief Executive of the Civic Trust, Martin Bacon said “Across the country federations of Civic Societies are beginning to find their feet as more and more realize that they have a lot to learn from each other. ..many of the issues they face are common and collectively they can have more influence by presenting a united front.”

The Civic Trust invited ANTAS to liaise on formulating a Communications Strategy, with emphasis on new media, to become a role for everyone in the civic society movement, and the meeting will be a symposium to which all will be invited to participate.  Martin Bacon will be attending along with the Civic Trust Registrar Saskia Hallam, Alexandra Thompson the Communications Officer, our own web master Chris Woodman. Delegate numbers have been increased for the occasion.

In this Issue

West of Stevenage Update

Robin Howard’s Contribution

The Chairman Writes

Planning in Whitehall’s Backyard

Agricultural plots in the Green Belt

Traffic amongst the pedestrians

A Not-So-Green Paper

Hitchin’s Town Centre Strategy

 


The Association of North Thames Amenity Societies


President:  Jennifer Moss, J.P., D.L.

Chairman
Dr Peter Diplock

Vice President
Ian Morgan

Hon Secretary
Anthony Wethered*

Vice Chairman
John Davies

Hon Treasurer
Ronald Sims

Vice Chairman
Peter Trevelyan

Web Master
Chris Woodman

Newsletter
Merrin Molesworth


*Correspondence to:  Remnantz, West Street, Marlow, Bucks, SL7 2BS
email:  wethered@remnantz.freeserve.co.uk

 

ANTAS Newsletter Produced, Published and Edited by Merrin Molesworth

Telephone:                        01494 773381                    Email:  merrin@lineone.net

Printer:                              Hemel Copy Print, 102 London Road, Apsley
Hemel Hempstead  HP3 9SD                  01442 212636

 

Member Societies

Amersham Society

Hitchin Society

Aylesbury Society

Hoddesdon Society

Beaconsfield Society

Marlow Society

Buckingham Society

Potters Bar Society

Chesham Society

Radlett Society

Hertford Society

St Albans Society

High Wycombe Society

Stony Stratford Community Association

Hitcham & Taplow Preservation Society

Wendover Society

Reciprocal Membership

Chiltern Society

London Forum

Registered with the Civic Trust

 

West of Stevenage up-date

John Davies

The saga continues but slowly. Last Autumn, the developers put in two planning applications, one for 5,000 houses and one for 3,600 houses on the Green Belt west of Stevenage. In reality, these are the same scheme, and represent the first phase of what would be likely to grow over time until the original aim of 10,000 houses is achieved.

CASE, the Campaign Against Stevenage Expansion, put in comprehensive and compelling objections against both applications. The Hitchin Society also made objections as did many individuals. As had always been suspected, a fundamental weakness of the developers' case is the impact the scheme would have on the road network of Stevenage, North Hertfordshire and beyond.

The developers based the transportation part of their environmental impact statement on completely unrealistic percentages of journeys being made by public transport, walking or cycling, thereby minimising the number of car journeys unleashed onto the road system. The CASE objection exposed the reality of what would happen, effectively destroying the myth that West of Stevenage is in some way a sustainable development.

Consultants working for Stevenage Borough Council would not accept the developers' transport projections, and so the developers have been told to rework their transport model before the planning applications can be taken forward. Revised transport figures were to be produced by January, but they are now not expected until later in the year - perhaps reflecting the difficulty in producing credible projections of car use while still claiming that the scheme is in some way sustainable.

A determination of the planning applications is still a long way off, and an eventual Public Inquiry could not be held until after the Public Inquiry into the Revised Local Plan for Stevenage as a whole.  That is scheduled for autumn, so a West of Stevenage Inquiry would not be before 2003.

Meanwhile the Urban Capacity Study conducted by independent consultants throughout Hertfordshire has shown that there are sufficient potential housing sites in the county for the housing requirements to be met without the need for West of Stevenage. Some districts and boroughs are of course contesting the figures, hoping for housing development to go elsewhere. But it is already clear that there is no "exceptional need", the original justification for allowing development on the Green Belt. It is hoped that this will eventually lead to a new County Structure Plan showing that Hertfordshire's housing needs can be met without any incursion of the Green Belt.

Robin Howard

Anthony Wethered

Members will be sad to learn that Robin Howard, a good friend of ANTAS and a tireless fighter for environmental causes, died suddenly of a heart attack in January. At the time of his death he was chairman of his Town Group, having previously served with distinction as chairman of the Potters Bar Society. As a tribute to him and all he did for the town, the Millennium clock presented to the town by the Society has been named the Robin Howard Clock.

Robin's life's work was in adult education. He was particularly committed to adult literacy and to the teaching of English to first generation immigrants, believing that through their mothers the children would then acquire the language. He also worked unstintingly with the elderly and handicapped.

Among his many other interests was a love of music. Robin was a gifted self-taught musician and it may come as a surprise to those who knew him only slightly that he once had his own dance band, RIP Howard and his Four Clouds of Joy, which played regularly on the dance circuit in Teignmouth.

Robin came to our very first exploratory meeting, at the Malt House, Chesham, in June 1993. He showed enormous enthusiasm for the project and would have liked to sign on there and then, two and a half years before ANTAS actually got of the ground. With Chester, his large woolly dog, in tow he attended almost all of our meetings and made important contributions to our discussions. He will be much missed.

The Chairman Writes

Our guest speaker at the AGM last October was Martin Bacon the Chief Executive of the Civic Trust, and afterwards he wrote to Anthony Wethered with the following suggestion:      (would you) “… ask ANTAS to become a model for societies across the country in terms of having websites and communicating with others electronically. I do not know what this might involve for ANTAS, but you have made a good start. Perhaps it could be developed into a project, with which we can help you to obtain funding and support - a practical way in which societies and the Trust work together to help each other. If we succeed, it would inspire other societies and associations to follow suit.”

Effective communication is crucial for the success of both individual Civic Societies and also for an organisation like ANTAS. The invitation from the Civic Trust was felt to be an excellent opportunity to improve our communication, and develop a model that could possibly be used by other groups of civic societies such as ANTAS. At our meeting we will let you know what preliminary work has taken place and get input from you. In addition, through Martin Bacon, we have invited civic societies in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire that are not currently members of ANTAS to come to the meeting.

An important aspect of the project is to ensure that all forms of communication are included. Although electronic communication is much quicker and cheaper, we must ensure that those people who rely on words on paper are kept up to date and involved in every aspect of what we do.

Once again, this newsletter contains thought provoking articles which deserve more than to be just read and put down. Please provide some feedback, either written (to me or the editor ) or electronically to our web site. It may be even more appropriate to contact the article’s author: if you find it of value, if you have a contribution, or if you want to join a campaign – Hitchin Town Centre Strategy, Agricultural plots in the Green Belt, Traffic amongst the pedestrians and West of Stevenage. We also wonder what impact any changes following the Planning Green Paper will have on our towns, villages and countryside.

ANTAS has sent a formal response to the Planning Green Paper – thanks to Anthony Wethered, and there are also two related articles in this edition. Keep looking at the ANTAS website to see the results of the consultation.

I look forward to seeing you all in St Albans on 13th April.


Don't put planning in Whitehall's backyard

Reprinted here by kind permission from the author Simon Jenkins

Quietly, surreptitiously, the Government is overturning the English planning system. Slid through the House of Lords or dumped on a House of Commons shelf are plans for the future of towns and cities, the countryside, national parks, historic buildings, the coastline, everything that lasts and matters about England.

The proposal on 19 December 2001 was to end local control over the building of projects such as power stations and airport terminals. They will be decided by ministers, disguised as “Parliament”. Mr Blair’s friend, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, abruptly ended a century of planning by county councils, deciding that ministers should do this too, disguised as “regions”. In future, planning decisions should run more to time, like Mussolini’s trains. Like those trains, they require the taking of dictatorial powers. His lordship’s purpose is expressly to make land-use planning “work better for business”. The land at issue is the countryside. The business is that of building over it.

The old village of Meonstoke in Hampshire, writes a resident, is to have a 14-dwelling housing estate “spatchcocked into a plot in the middle of its historic conservation area”. Not far away, the village of Headley is to have 50 houses crammed on to an adjacent field. In Dorset 1,350 houses are to be built on Thomas Hardy’s lovely Holt Heath. In Bedfordshire, 2,450 houses a year are now to be erected, 1,000 of them on green fields, at five times the present rate of building. In meadows outside Stevenage, 10,000 (sic) houses are planned.

These developments are fiercely resisted by local electors. Some counties, such as Kent and East Sussex, have threatened to take ministers to court. But ministers will not tolerate such democratic insubordination. They are stripping the counties of any power to resist. In future they will decide how much countryside should go to “business”, imposing targets on local communities through regional offices. What was once central to the democratic dignity of a community, its right to order its pace of change, is to stop. Housing targets will be designated a “national and regional” matter and be imposed from the centre.

To judge these proposals, we need to know whence they come. Two thirds of Britons claim they would like to live “in the countryside”, yet the same number profess to regard the existing countryside as the most precious thing they like about England. No genius is needed to see the conflict. The not-in-my-backyard brigade is up against newcomers eager for a rural home. Local democracy is, in a sense, pitted against national. Yet the yearning for rurality cannot be met by more building, or it swiftly negates itself. As open space and tranquillity become ever more scarce, local democracy must predominate. Nor is an executive housing estate a new London airport.

The new structure does not recognise this. It sides with the swift suburbanisation of rural England. The proposals are clearly meant to appease the construction lobbies which have been pressing to relax the planning regime for years. They include the Construction Industry Board, the House-Builders’ Federation, the Retail Consortium and Whitehall’s own Construction Sponsorship Directorate. Their collective fingers are all over these documents. Their sole concern is how to ease building on greenfield sites, which all developers prefer to more complex and expensive urban renewal.

There is nothing wrong in self-interest, the healthy pursuit of profit. What is wrong is the inability of ministers to distinguish self-interest from sound policy. Witness Lord Falconer’s totals for so-called housing need. This choice relic of socialism’s “predict and provide” holds that planning should forget price and allocate houses “to each according to his need”. Hence Hampshire people are said to need 40,000 homes, Berkshire 6,000, Bedfordshire 21,000 and so on. These statistics are dumb, sustained only by the building lobby. They ignore multiple occupancy, second homes and migration, not to mention the worth of the countryside. They are on a par with counting how many cars “need” Park Lane and widening each year accordingly. These bogus figures have clearly mesmerised Lord Falconer.

Planning ministers are reputedly under great pressure from men in dark suits claiming to be “friends of Downing Street”. The pressure is the same as was put on Nicholas Ridley by the Tory party’s retail grandees in the mid-1980s. The result was awesome. Inside ten years, out-of-town shopping soared from 30 per cent to 65 per cent of retail sales. Shops in villages and towns were devastated. Traffic surged out into the countryside. Light and noise pollution increased. Fields were “in-filled” with estates. England was truly “leas’d out . ... like to a tenement or pelting farm”. It was a planning disaster. Yet this Government wants a repeat, this time with business parks and housing estates.

Nobody could quarrel with the need to smarten up the planning process. The courtroom model for inquiries, beloved of the planning bar, is expensive and absurd. But the answer cannot be to make planning less democratic and more centralised. Ministers may dislike local councils, but the public does not. If every local plan is now to be over-ridden by Whitehall prefects “to fully reflect changes to national and regional policy”, there is no accountability. Lord Falconer even proposes to lift all planning control on business development “where not necessary”. Who defines not necessary? Two questions should have underpinned what is described as “the biggest shake-up in planning for 50 years”. The first is to ask who is planning’s true consumer. Lord Falconer’s answer is unequivocal, “business”, nowhere defined but in reality the property business. This is outrageous. The true consumer is the citizen as resident, his or her wishes resolved through the institutions of local democracy. That is how it is in every other country. There may be social benefits to commercial profit, but there are also social benefits to landscape conservation and local citizenship. These proposals are oblivious to the latter benefits. They want only to “make the system work better for business”. This is constitutionalised sleaze.

Rural England has never been under greater threat. Its chief defenders in the past have been county planning committees. However imperfect, they have been less corrupt than subordinate district committees and certainly more accountable than regions. They are better placed to decide local land use than most districts. People may not know their district or their region. They know their county.

For this affectation they are to be all but abolished. Ministers hate shires, regarding them as full of hobbits and humans. In the boot camp of British government, they represent territorial identity. This is not permitted in the age of central authority. Counties are to be replaced by anonymous planning regions. Cornwall is to be put in with Gloucestershire, Norfolk with Essex, Kent with Bedfordshire, Staffordshire with Goodness knows where. The centralism is crass. How, I wonder, would Tony Blair feel if Brussels lumped Britain with Denmark and Iceland as the “North-West European Region” for planning purposes? Every month I find myself in parts of England on which this new planning structure will have its impact. Some, such as the South Coast, are poor advertisements for planning’s past. But the surviving stretches of countryside are desperately vulnerable. It passes belief that they now need less protection from their guardians rather than more.

Planning ministers should be forced always to inspect the scenery fashioned by the decisions of their predecessors. They would be shocked. At it is, they seem to regard countryside as something that need exist only in Italy or France. It is too good for the English. For them it must be swept and patted and made comfortable for “business”.


Agricultural plots in the Green Belt

Peter Trevelyan

There seems to be a growing menace of creeping sales of agricultural plots on the fringes of urban areas and elsewhere in the Green Belt. I am aware of three particular examples and think it worth bringing to wider attention the different methods that are being used.

One method is to divide up a field backing onto residential areas into small strips some tens of metres long mirroring the adjoining residential plots, and then to try to sell these to the adjoining landowners. Bits of the field further away can also be divided up, an 'agricultural' track laid down, and sold off to other nearby residents.

The other method is to market the plots to unsuspecting punters, who are sold the idea of buying a "development opportunity" on the edge of a rural village. The marketing seems to focus on the ethnic minority communities living in London. Presumably, there are enough gullible people around to make it worth the scam.

Once land is actually sold in this way, of course, the local planning authority is left with a real enforcement nightmare, opening up a vista of never-ending (and I mean never-ending) planning strife. Article 4 Directions can be used to prevent most unwanted 'development', such as means of enclosure, but they do not prevent putting sticks in the ground to mark ownership, or the planting of trees, shrubs and other vegetation. The result, I fear, is that this is emerging as yet another way in which the urban edge becomes increasingly messy and unattractive.

The potential scale of the problem around the London conurbation appears enormous. I don't know if local authorities are aware of the issue, or whether any co-ordinated national response could be engineered, but I think this issue needs looking at before the countryside is landed with an unappetising legacy.


Traffic amongst the pedestrians

Bernard Meldrum

The Chesham Society is campaigning for a nationwide change in speed limit legislation in all areas where pedestrians predominate. We would like to see vehicles restricted to a walking pace, but because regulations only require vehicle speedometers to be calibrated above 10 mph we have settled on a maximum speed of 10 mph. Although Chesham’s pedestrian dominated High Street initiated the campaign, we believe consistency of approach across the country is needed. Variations in policy will cause confusion and a reluctance of many drivers to conform. A nationwide policy will be more acceptable.

Reducing the risk of accidents is not the only consideration. Streets are closed to traffic to enable pedestrians to be and to feel safe, traffic passing at 30mph destroys this feeling and deters potential shoppers, thus is counter-productive. It is the perception of being safe that encourages shoppers to use the High Street, or conversely encourages them to shopping precincts and out of town complexes.

Streets closed to traffic on Market Days should be included in a 10 mph speed limit in pedestrian dominated streets (on non-market days the usual limits would of course apply, as now).

We want to encourage shoppers to come into the town centres. Chesham High Street and others nationally are losing trade to shopping precincts but a variety of shops will return to the town centres if customers patronise them. This policy conforms to the government’s declared intention of ‘reducing the need to travel’ which is part of the transport strategy. We want to create a climate where our country’s town centres can prosper, and residents will maintain an identity with the areas in which they live. Larger out of town shopping centres, regional hospitals, more remote local government offices, and DSS offices all conspire together rapidly destroying any sense of belonging anywhere. Civic pride is dying as a consequence.


“The proposed changes look like an axe which will pollard the system, producing weak new shoots, rather than judicious pruning to restore health and vigour.”
The Buckingham Society

A Not-So-Green Paper

Anthony Wethered

The Planning Green Paper has received a poor press. Read Simon Jenkins' article, reprinted in this Newsletter, which bitingly exposes the Paper's bias towards business over the environment. Jenkins' Times colleague Martha Cornwall calls the Paper “a charter for developers.” Both are concerned at how undemocratic the planning system is becoming, how increasingly difficult it is for the public - e.g. with public inquiries to be abolished - to make its voice heard. Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society, writes, “these are tough times for green spaces and all those who enjoy them.” And Hugh Ellis, planning campaigner for Friends of the Earth, calls the proposals “one of the biggest blows to environmental protection and democracy in the UK in the last fifty years.”

Are these comments fair or are the writers going overboard? The stated aims of the DTLR are to simplify and speed up the planning process, to give it greater transparency and to involve interested parties at an early stage. No quarrel there, surely. But what about the measures that will bring such welcome improvements about?

As early as the fourth paragraph on page 1, there sounds a little alarm bell. The new planning system, we're told, “will value the countryside and our heritage while recognising that times move on” (our emphasis). In our view this translates as, “We reserve the right to allow 10,000 houses to be built on green fields to the west of Stevenage, or anywhere else.” It's the fingers crossed behind the back.

Measures to simplify the planning process include a makeover of the plans themselves. Thus the clearly and sensibly named Local Plan becomes, in DTLR jargon, a Local Development Framework. True, it will contain material changes, some of which such as improved enforcement procedures are to be welcomed. But in essence it will still be a Local Plan and to give it such a pompous new name is self-defeating and silly.

The Chiltern Society finds the Paper “over-critical of the current system” and appearing “heavily weighted towards the Business and Development sectors.”

It deplores, as others including Simon Jenkins do, the squeezing out of the counties from the planning system. County Structure Plans are to be abolished and their function subsumed into “Regional Spatial Strategies,” which is DTLR-speak for Regional Planning Guidance. This, as Kate Ashbrook rightly says, leaves a question mark over the future of County Councils.

We came close to losing our County Councils a few years ago (and under another Government), but better sense prevailed and they continue to exercise the responsibilities for which they were elected, including the provision of Structure Plans. For local planning purposes the Regions are too big, too remote, answerable to the Government but not to the people. How can one feel loyalty or affection towards a Region? By and large the Structure Plans have served us well, partly as a check on local Districts where self-interest has sometimes been known to appear among the grass roots.

As the CPRE notes in its response to the Paper, “Regional planning must carry weight but the county and local plan opportunities for public involvement and intelligibility of scale must not be lost.”

Then there is the threat of “business zones,” which “will allow planning controls to be lifted where they are not necessary.” No controls over density, or unsafe or unsightly buildings? And who is to decide where planning controls are or are not necessary?

There are indeed some pluses in the Paper. One is a promise to clarify which Guidance or Plan takes precedence over which - something for which ANTAS has been lobbying for years. We agree that repeated applications and “twin tracking” should be disallowed, and that five-year consents should be replaced by three-year consents. Similarly, we agree that three months rather than six should be the time allowed to consider whether or not to appeal.

We like the idea of a mediation service to resolve disputes, always depending on how it is composed. We believe that local authorities should give reasons for permissions as well as for refusals (some already do). And we share the Civic Trust's enthusiasm for Statements of Community Involvement as a way to make sure that developers heed local opinion.

But welcome as these and other measures are, there's a sense that they are tinkering at the edges. The big questions arising from the Paper are: “Is the planning system becoming more democratic or less?” and, “Is environmental protection being strengthened or weakened?” The answers to these are extremely worrying.

Our formal response to the Planning Green Paper can be seen on the ANTAS web site.  Opinions expressed here without attribution are the writer's own. 


Hitchin's Town Centre Strategy

John Davies

In 1969 the Council decided to give Hitchin a new shopping centre. They said unless Hitchin modernised itself, shoppers would go elsewhere. To compete with nearby towns such as Stevenage and Luton, Hitchin must have a "space age shopping centre" - 1969 was the year of the moon landings.

So they demolished one side of Hitchin's Market Place, a pleasant, traditional East Anglian town square that had evolved over many centuries.  There had been changes over the years, but each change remained essentially domestic in scale and the overall effect remained in keeping.

But the new shopping centre was anything but in keeping. Not only did its brick and reinforced concrete façade dominate one side of Market Place, but its nondescript pedestrian shopping precinct included an area for the open-air market built over Hitchin's river, the Hiz. The development also reached as far as Churchyard, the green area surrounding St Mary's Church, giving the name "Churchgate" to the whole development.

The development was deeply unpopular when it was built. The Hitchin Society campaigned vigorously against it, but achieved only limited changes to the 1960's brutalist architecture. Churchgate remains deeply unloved to this day for the damage it has done to Hitchin town centre. Opinion polls support nothing less than total demolition.

And it is not as though Churchgate contributed to the economic success of Hitchin as a shopping destination of choice. Hitchin's success has been due to the range of smaller speciality shops, the variety of cafés and restaurants, and above all its ambience as a traditional market town. Churchgate has been characterised by empty, boarded-up units. It was a commercial failure.

The issue now is how can this be put right. Over the last three years various schemes have been put forward by Churchgate's leasehold owners working with the District Council who still own the freehold of the site. In 2000, a scheme was well advanced for recladding the structure of Churchgate to change its appearance. Although given planning consent, this essentially false and make-belief scheme did not go ahead, and the lease was sold to new owners, the third in as many years.

For the last twelve months the latest owners and the council have been working closely together in drawing up plans. These provide not only outline plans for what should happen to Churchgate, but also a strategy for the town centre as a whole. And it is this strategy, revealed for the first time in January as a consultation draft, that has been so controversial.

The Strategy

Much in the council's draft strategy is highly desirable. There ar sensible policies for protecting the historic environment and for more sustainable forms of access. Proposals are made for enhancing economic vitality, noting the strength of the retail sector and in particular Hitchin's open-air market which has grown over recent years while markets elsewhere have been in decline.

The draft goes on to identify various development opportunities. Some are non-controversial; the redevelopment of sites such as a 1950's government office in an otherwise virtually unspoilt street of medieval or Georgian buildings. But the problems start when the strategy reaches Churchgate, fundamentally due to the sheer scale of the proposed redevelopment. The 1960's structure would be demolished, but replaced by a far more extensive development providing for new, larger retail units extending over the area used for Hitchin's market. It would also include new shops and flats on the other side of the River Hiz, on land which was cleared of buildings as long ago as 1929. This raises fundamental problems, as the open views across to St Mary's Church are greatly valued, and any modern buildings in this open space will be highly controversial.

Quite apart from the impact of the proposed development on the historic environment of Hitchin, the work of consultants hired by the council shows that there is little, if any, demand for retail floorspace on this scale. This could lead to still more empty units and a loss of retail business in other more peripheral shopping streets.

And that is not the end of the problem. To make space for the new larger shops, the developers are insisting that the market must move out. Other consultants hired by the council advised on the viability of the market and the suitability of other locations. Their recommended site is a key town centre car park, although there is only just enough parking space in Hitchin, and there is a shortage on market days. Hitchin serves an essentially rural catchment area, and is dependent on visitors arriving by car. The loss of car parking space would be particularly damaging to its retail trade, however much the use of town centre land as surface car parks might otherwise be regretted.

Even then, the chosen car park is not large enough for the market. The council's solution is to take over a much-valued public open space - grass and trees - belonging to the church, and use this as additional space for the market. This is unacceptable by any standard, and will be fiercely resisted. Fortunately, the church has indicated that the land is not far sale.

Objecting to the strategy

So, the conclusion from all this is that the council's plans are simply not viable. The Hitchin Society and other community groups have all said so in no uncertain terms. The Society's objection to the strategy covers all the above issues and more. The full text of the objection may be seen on the society's website www.hitchinsociety.org.uk . Meanwhile large numbers of individual members of the public have made their own objections, and the letters columns of local papers have been full of protests.

A particular concern was the council's timetable for adopting the strategy. We were told that the council's Area Committee was due to approve the strategy within ten days of the ending of the period of public consultation. The council's Executive Committee would then formally adopt the strategy a week or so later. All this seemed to indicate that there was little or no scope for the strategy to be modified to take account of public opinion.  With the Area Committee due to meet on 18 March, a high profile campaign was launched in the local press, and the Hitchin Society and other groups asked to be allowed to address the meeting.

The Council meeting

Realising the high level of public concern, the council arranged for the Area Committee meeting to be held in a local theatre. On a wet Monday night, well over a hundred people attended knowing that they could not actually participate in the discussion. The meeting started with four community groups, led by the Hitchin Society, giving a presentation summarising their objections. Not surprisingly, the audience was strongly supportive, but also the councillors reacted positively to what they heard.

Contrary to all the earlier indications that the strategy was to be fast-tracked through the system, it was clear the councillors recognised the force of 300 written objections, and a petition with almost 10,000 signatures presented by the Hitchin market traders. The motion before the meeting was therefore not to approve the strategy, but to ask for much more work to be done. In contrast to the way in which the strategy had been produced behind closed doors, the meeting also approved the setting up of a "stakeholder group" to develop the strategy further. The Hitchin Society asked that this should not exclude the voluntary sector, with the stakeholder group not being limited to commercial interests. This was readily accepted by the councillors.

Overall, the conclusions from the evening were feelings of relief that the strategy had not been approved, and that much more thought will now be put into the real needs of Hitchin before a revised draft is presented to the Area Committee in the autumn. Also that a civic society through a vigorous and well argued campaign, and working with others in the community, can achieve a change of approach. And a final thought is to acknowledge the courage of North Herts District Council on taking the objections on board, and being willing to think again about what is best for Hitchin.