Therfield Heath inquiry: Land swap is not an easy way out, say Conservators

Land of the public inquiry land at top of Sun Hill and Briary lane - which the Conservators of Therf

Land of the public inquiry land at top of Sun Hill and Briary lane - which the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens wish to deregister. Picture: David Hatton - Credit: David Hatton

The clerk to the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens has hit back at claims that the group had not explored other avenues when it came to raising funds during the inquiry into the heath land swap.

Objectors to the proposals – which would see common land near Sun Hill and Briary Lane swapped with woodland to the west of Therfield’s New Road – have criticised the Conservators for taking the “easy way out” deregistering the land and selling it for housing to drum up funds for sporting facilities and general running costs.

First to be cross-examined by the supporters’ advocate Deborah Sharples at the inquiry yesterday was Don Shewan, one of the objectors on the panel, which represents a co-operative of residents in the town. To the question of what alternatives to funding he could suggest, Mr Shewan said: “That should be done with a group of knowledgeable people who know what they’re saying.

“Royston has now got a significant population, many of whom are interested in the heath, and they’ve got a whole range of ideas – but they’ve not been included, why not?

To which Mrs Sharples said: “What makes you suggest the Conservators are not well informed?”

Mr Shewan said: “I think people with greater knowledge should be consulted and they haven’t been.”

Next was Echo Hill resident Orivaldo Barros, who told the inquiry: “The Conservators have failed to present a robust and transparent business plan for the money they could generate from selling the land.

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“With better engagement with the locals and wider users of the heath they could generate income through crowd sourcing, public funds, events, volunteers, sports competitions, to name a few.

“I’ve seen there are many funds available as a quick internet search review, including through local businesses such as Johnson Matthey.

“Unfortunately, the Conservators simply decided to take the easy route. They are simply seeking an easy, short term solution to a long term problem with long term consequences.”

If the release land is sold the money would be used to provide “an all-weather sports pitch, manage the heath and provide ecological value, a warden, changing rooms” and more according to Conservators’ clerk David Smith.

Mr Smith, who has been in the role since 2012, said: “The release land does not show evidence of regular recreational use the rest of the heath has higher ecological value as does replacement land.”

He also said they would look to provide better access on the heath for people with mobility difficulties.

Regarding a business plan and funding, he said: “It would be rather a waste of time and effort to produce a plan for 2018 because we don’t know if we are going to get deregistration, to produce one for 2019 would be perfectly possible.

“As we already receive Higher Level Stewardship – HLS – money we can’t access further government funding. Funds from Johnson Matthey, for example, are really quite small, and some grants require match-funding.”

When asked by Mrs Sharples about raising money in the community, Mr Smith said: “We’re talking about raising £1.2 million, how much are we going to raise by jumble sales, bring and buys, and crowdfunding?”

And about charging for car parking at the heath, Mr Smith said: “It would cause an outcry, it would bear on the poplation who are less rich, and it would cause more parking on Downlands and Baldock Road.

“It would be so unpopular it would make the opposition to this deregistration look like a storm in a teacup.”

The inquiry at the Coombes Community Centre in Burns Road is expected to continue until Thursday.