Conservators share funding concerns at public meeting

Therfield Heath

Therfield Heath - Credit: Archant

Uncertainty over funding was the theme of an open meeting of the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens yesterday evening.

The land at the top of Sun Hill and Briary Lane was the subject of a public inquiry earlier this yea

The land at the top of Sun Hill and Briary Lane was the subject of a public inquiry earlier this year. Picture: David Hatton - Credit: David Hatton

The panel at Royston Town Hall was made up of John Davison, Neil Guttridge, Colin Smith, Margaret Gregorios and Dr Cynthia Combe, with Mark Weatherhead in the front row of the audience.

Clerk David Smith and chairman John King were unable to attend, and Rev Richard Morgan was no longer in his conservator role due to having stepped down as the rector of Therfield parish church.

Problems with tenants, the lack of sheep grazing, and costs were all spoken about, followed by presentations by representatives of organisations and the many sports clubs associated with the heath.

Colin Smith then read a statement from the conservators, addressing some of the issues the group had experienced over the past few months, including the land swap public inquiry and the ongoing Gladman application for a development of 100 homes that could be accessed via Briary Lane.

The inquiry into the degregistration of a portion of heathland near Briary Lane and Sun Hill conclud

The inquiry into the degregistration of a portion of heathland near Briary Lane and Sun Hill concluded in February. Picture: David Hatton - Credit: Archant

Mr Smith said: “You all know that we wanted to sell land at Briary Lane, parts of the £1 million plus proceeds would have funded an all-weather pitch, and proceeds from that would be put back into the heath and fund much-needed wardens.

“The deregistration was refused, so that is now behind us and we move forward. We are cutting the grass on Briary Lane and will review this each year.

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“We are constantly under a barrage of Environmental Information Requests, Crow articles and letters suggesting improper operation and accounting, responding and refusing reports to the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Charity Commission take time and effort and adds to accountant and solicitors’ costs.

“A very small number of people instigate these activities – it only takes moments to email an EIR request and minutes to send a letter to the Crow or offer an article – but their effort is disproportionate.

The inquiry into the degregistration of a portion of heathland near Briary Lane and Sun Hill conclud

The inquiry into the degregistration of a portion of heathland near Briary Lane and Sun Hill concluded in February. Picture: David Hatton - Credit: Archant

“We would like it to stop, so we can focus our energies on the heath. We have nothing to hide. We are not operating improperly, nor illegally.

“This, coupled with a limited income from our tenants, puts further pressure on our resources as we wait and look forward to income from S106.

“Our understanding of what is in the pipeline means more pressure on the heath – with around 1,000 new houses on land north of Baldock Road, north and south of Newmarket Road and at the top of Briary Lane.

“We the conservators objected to developments Ivy Farm 3 and Briary Lane. As we stated at the last meeting, we have no agreement with Gladman written or oral – they have made us formal offers, which if we accept and they are successful will secure future funding for the heath and for the future.

“As trustees of the charity it’s our duty to look and consider this seriously, and we have appointed a land agent to work on our behalf. There is an increased demand for sporting facilities on the heath as well an increasing number of walkers. How do we recover £7,500 for emptying other people’s rubbish and dog faeces?

“You’ve heard about the lack of grazing and end of Higher Level Stewardship funding in potentially less than a year, so future funding and maintenance is in question.

“Social media has meant conservators have to be more public and we talk on as many social media platforms as we can to get our message out. Is there anything else we should be doing?”

The floor was then opened to questions from the public.

The panel were asked if they would guarantee to “not do any deal with Gladman”.

Neil Guttridge said: “What Gladman is doing with the planning application is nothing to do with conservators, the conservators did lodge an objection to the first application.

“It’s very much a planning matter and not anything to do with us as conservators – we as conservators look after interests of the heath not the interests of Royston. First and foremost we look after interest of the heath and people that use it, so anything we do with planning will have that in mind – not the interest of the town as that’s for other people.

“The reason we objected previously was because we thought the application would have an adverse affect on the heath.”

When asked who the land agent they were dealing was, the response was that it was “confidential”.

It was asked if they knew what facilities S106 monies would be spent on, and John Davison said: “No we don’t – we’ve been through an extremely turbulent time, we thought there was a windfall because we had planning permission for the houses – we thought that was going to be a done deal.

“It wasn’t, and now Gladman is on the horizon who knows what will happen with that – we certainly don’t.

“We will be looking at the financial situation we see ourselves in.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with HLS agreements, politicians say ‘don’t worry, after Brexit we will ensure that money will be spent on ecology’ – who knows?

“So we don’t know what the facilities will be. There’s an awful lot of demand.

“Long term it would be wonderful for the heath and Royston if a rich benefactor could dip their hand into their pocket and come up with £10 million or so to replace the existing sports club, the Portacabins used for changing rooms and the Portacabins used for storage – but there aren’t too many rich benefactors that have come knocking on our door.”

About Briary Lane, Friends of the Heath founder Rod Kennedy said: “That land at some point will be developed, that may be an opportunity for more funding for the heath. It’s a planning matter, so in the meantime join the friends and give generously.”

Regarding maintaining Therfield greens, questions were raised about why the plan was to only cut them six times a year, with a reply that they had to be looked after in an “ecologically friendly manner”.

It was also said by the conservators that Therfield Parish Council wouldn’t be able to take over maintenance as it would be “too expensive”.

Audience member Alan Evans, from Royston, commended the panel as the meeting drew to a close: “Our family has used the heath for in excess of 100 years and it’s now used by my grandchildren, so one thing I’ve learned from this evening is that the conservators care about the heath.

“I’m not too bothered that you’re experts or not experts, because you can hire experts.

“I know now the heath is in safe hands, and I can report back to our family that they’ll be in position to enjoy the heath for the next, hopefully, 120 years.”

“We all make mistakes, we all do unfortunately, but the mistakes will be with good intention, and you’ll get by and improve.

“I’m very pleased with what has happened this evening, and very pleased with your attitude, and the way you are conducting yourselves – you should be proud.”