Neil Aitchison, a chartered surveyor and retired Managing Director of Hertfordshire-based property consultants and estate agents Aitchisons, has supported the Hospice since the very start, using his expertise, knowledge, connections and dogged determination to help turn the Originals’ vision into a reality.
From providing rent-free office space for the Hospice’s first pop-up shops and negotiating the purchase and sale of its Shrublands Road site to finding land for a new hospice site in Shootersway, he also bought the first brick in the new Hospice Capital Appeal and successfully navigated the complexities of planning law to win permission to build on the Green Belt.
He recalls: “I was determined to win and so were Dr Ros Taylor and the trustees. Instead of being frightened off by negativity, we battled our way through and won.”
Here Neil, from Berkhamsted, shares his memories of the ups and downs of that journey…
“My father started the business in Berkhamsted and Hemel in 1935 so we were well known when Pam Macpherson rang me in 1979 and asked if I could help with property.“
I remember going to a meeting at her house in Kingsdale Road and she said they wanted to have a hospice in Berkhamsted, they’d had a prayer meeting and they thought it was the right thing to do.
We all thought it was a jolly good idea. My wife Edda was a practising Berkhamsted GP so we both understood very well the need for good end of life care. The only problem was how were we going to raise the finance! But scepticism aside, we went ahead in good faith on the basis that we’d try to make it work - and so the fundraising started.
Pam was the big driving force - without her, none of this would have happened. She was very driven, very determined and very persuasive.
For nine months, whilst my firm was appealing against the local authority refusal to give us planning permission to put in a new shop front and extend in Berkhamsted High Street, I had half an office empty, so for two periods of several months in 1980, I gave Pam the space rent-free to host pop-up shops selling bric-a-brac. During one period of six weeks alone, they raised £1,849, which was a lot of money in those days.
Pam had great support across the Christian churches in the area and somehow was aware of a group of nuns who were closing down their convent - a large Edwardian house at 27 Shrublands Road.
They were such nice people, they weren’t after any money but when they went to their diocese for consent, they were told they needed a proper valuation and someone to advise them. By coincidence that person was Crispin Harris, a partner at Raffety Buckland (as it was then) whom I knew.
Pam and I met him and told him we’d like to buy it but we didn't have enough money. I remember some cigar-chomping character sent from Westminster who said we had to go away and raise the money then come back. Pam didn’t like the way he did it, knowing the nuns would have been happy to give it to us, but they wanted £85,000.
Fortunately for us we were in recession and the nuns weren’t quite in a position to move so I think Pam persuaded them not to even put it on the market. I also needed to solve a few issues with neighbours and get planning permission for change of use from residential to institution. I carried out a structural survey too and fortunately the only major defect was the guttering.
Conveniently Crispin held the door open for us for about a year until finally, in July 1982, the convent became The Hospice of St Francis, keeping the connection with the Franciscan nuns who’d lived there.
About a year after the acquisition, Pam said lots of money was coming in, which needed banking almost daily. She asked me to be the first treasurer but I told her I was a surveyor - what we needed was a retired bank manager or an accountant. At that stage, I had to step back.
The first bed was opened in 1986 and over the next 10 years they acquired the day Hospice ‘Blue Mist’ next door, which I wasn’t involved with but helped in securing a larger site.
Towards the end of the 1990s and with the Care Standards Act of 2000, Shrublands as a building was starting to fall short in terms of space, disability access and other problems. They looked into extending it, but the building they required to service their needs for the next 20 years would have completely saturated the site.
Two carloads of trustees and advisers went to look at a hospice in Banbury, which crystallised what had to be done and provided the model to work from. It was fabulous, out of town, with a beautiful Japanese garden. We didn’t want a cramped urban environment with difficult neighbours and np parking for visitors, volunteers and staff and so the search began for a new site.
We had two to three frustrating years trying to secure a new site but the land was either too expensive or unsuitable for other reasons.
Dacorum Borough Council planners suggested we build next door to Hemel Hempstead Hospital, but the sound of ambulance sirens day and night was the last thing that was needed.
Finally in 2001, I located land at the site of the old Charles Harrowell Brickworks off Shootersway. It had its problems – it had been used as a building waste landfill so contamination was an issue. It was also brownfield but was zoned Green Belt, meaning a hospice was a non-conforming use. So we had to negotiate a hugely complex planning process and prove exceptional circumstances to win permission to build, which we did with later endorsement from the Secretary of State for the Environment.
The Hospice bought the land from the owner of the golf range on an option agreement for £0.5m with a generous £0.5m bequest. The land value was low (£100,000 per acre) because permission to develop was so hard to win, but that meant the Hospice could take on board the extra costs that would eventually be needed in the ground and the design.
It was a nightmare and hugely frustrating. We had terrible battles and I remember many tears from the ladies from the Hospice who used to attend the meetings of the Council’s Development Control Committee where our representations in response to the officers’ recommendation for refusal were considered - and time and again knocked back.
The staff and trustees couldn’t understand how planning officers could be so negative – and neither could we, but the trustees - people like Jo Connell, Joan Gentry and Bill Frew - and Hospice Director, Dr Ros Taylor, were very supportive and driven.
We finally secured outline planning permission with 18 conditions in July 2003 and detailed planning permission under ‘special rules’ in 2004. All I could think was thank goodness for democracy.
The upside of a protracted battle was that we were able to add value to the Shrublands Road site by securing planning permission for flats. Thanks to this, a rising market and an attractive design we achieved around 25 bids and about £2.25m - £450,000 over the £1.8m we’d hoped for, which helped pay for the new facility.
I’ve enjoyed being involved in such a vital local charity in our community. Bill Frew and I ran the Hospice Golf Day at Ashridge for 10 years, Edda and I have organised Austrian evenings to raise funds. I was an Association Member for many years and I’ve given the Hospice advice about their shop leases too. If you live in a town, it’s good to leave something behind which is well planned and lasts - and that’s all I could ever hope for for the Hospice."
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