Therfield Heath inquiry: Objectors and supporters make closing statements after eight-day hearing
- Credit: David Hatton
After eight days of evidence the Therfield Heath inquiry came to a close yesterday, and now the inspector must decide whether common land in Royston can be swapped and sold off for housing.
The inquiry was called after the number of responses to the application under section 16 of the Commons Act 2006 to swap common land near Sun Hill and Briary Lane in Royston with land of a similar size to the west of New Road in Therfield to make a possible £1.4 million in profit – by selling the release land for a development of eight houses.
During proceedings many supporters and objectors gave evidence before inspector Mark Yates, who was acting on behalf of the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs. He said he must consider the interests of those with rights on the land to be deregistered as well as the interests of the neighbourhood and the public.
The Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens – who manage the heath under the Therfield Regulation Trust – said the money is needed for the future of the heath and would be reinvested into sporting facilities, conservation and pay general running costs.
Objectors claimed they were taking the easy way out by selling the land, and the views of the public should have been considered.
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In his closing statement, objector Don Shewan said: “Interpretation of the Therfield Regulation Trust legal status differs from ours and we feel this matter should be investigated by somebody with expert knowledge.
“The replacement land is a considerable distance from Royston, it has been in public use for generations and has been rejected by the Conservators as a suitable site for exchange at an earlier occasion.
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“They are losing the opportunity of tapping into the wealth of knowledge and experience available to them from the residents of Royston and all who use the common.”
In Karen Pearson’s closing statement, written with Dr Nick Keep, she said: “We do not want the release land sacrificed – in fact we do not want one inch of common land lost. This piece of land has played such a big part in the life of the community and provided such enjoyment for a wide range of age groups and interests. We can see no justification for taking such a radical step.
“The trustees expect us to take a leap into the unknown without any facts, figures or finalised plans. It is unsafe and far too early for a decision to be made. The whole project needs revisiting.
Clive Hall said: “The sad fact is this entire application is predicated on the idea that the objectors simply would not show up, and not on the strength of the applicant’s case.
“The Conservators have used this process to consult and, while I‘m sure their thinking has moved forward, it is too little too late to save their illegal application and I ask the inspector to reject the application.
“This process has been adversarial – not just in this room, but on the internet, and in the press. We must have regard for the wider neighbourhood who had an expectation from this process and believe that promises were made.
“I continue to be disappointed that the people who have responsibility for looking after such a valuable asset are so keen to rudely dismiss beneficiaries’ reasonable questions relating to other options.”
Deborah Sharples, who is the advocate for the Conservators, responded to claims the application was illegal having been made by the Therfield Regulation and not the Therfield Regulation Trust. She said: “The Conservators are individuals and those individuals are always the Charity Trustees of the Therfield Regulation Trust. The Therfield Regulation is a legal arrangement. All legal arrangments with respect to the charity are undertaken by the Conservators as charity trustees, including those in relation to its land.
“There can be no doubt that the application was made by the Therfield Regulation Trust. To dismiss this application on the basis that it was made by the wrong applicant would be both unreasonable and legally wrong.”
Ms Sharples also spoke about the usefulness of the money to the heath. She said: “The heath is an area of outstanding ecological value which contains nationally important populations of a number of species and on which management reaps abundant rewards in terms of recovery. It is also a heavily used area which also creates a heavy demand for management.
“You can be confident that the proceeds will be invested and spent on the management of the heath.
“Those who criticise the Conservators’ management do so with little understanding of what is appropriate or of what has been and is being done – and with no realistic acknowledgement of the limitations which are imposed by lack of funds.
“The accusation will be levelled against the Conservators that they have not consulted enough and clerk Mr Smith acknowledged that more could have been done and that there is a wish to do more. The guidance in a Common Purpose is, however, only guidance – as with all things, what can be achieved is limited by resources.
“Several suggestions have been made for alternatives ways of raising money. Mrs Pearson’s suggestion for fundraising were undoubtedly sincerely offered, but it is most unlikely that fundraising activities could raise enough to justify the resources required.
“There were no other areas of land available and no one was able to suggest any. The Conservators are subject to criticism for the price agreed for the replacement land. Good arable land would undoubtedly be far more expensive, even if it was available.
“It is noticeable that councillors from all tiers of local government support the application as being in the public interest. They are people who look at the bigger picture and who are elected to protect the interests of locals.
“It is my submission that this application is very much in the interests of the public and that the exchange should be allowed.”
The inspector will make his decision in due course.