Therfield Heath public inquiry: Objectors call for proceedings to halt in Royston after claims application ‘wasn’t legal’

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

The inquiry into the degregistration of a portion of heathland near Briary Lane and Sun Hill began on Tuesday at the Coombes Community Centre in Royston. Picture: David Hatton - Credit: Archant

There were calls for the public inquiry into the Therfield Heath land swap to be halted moments after it began yesterday, after questions were raised about the legality of the planning application.

The inquiry was called after the number of responses to the application 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 £1.4m in profit – by selling the release land for a development of eight houses.

The Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens – who manage the heath – said the money would be reinvested into sporting facilities, conservation and pay general running costs.

Inspector Mark Yates, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 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.

Supporting the plans were the Conservators, clerk David Smith, and their advocate Deborah Sharples.

Objectors Clive Hall, Karen Pearson and Don Shewan represented a people’s co-operative of residents who lived in the immediate vicinity of the release land and further afield.

Mr Hall called for the proceedings to be stopped on the basis that the proper procedures had not been undertaken in full – that to complying with section 16 of The Commons Act 2006 - that the applicant, down as the Therfield Regulation, must be the owner of the land.

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He said: “The conservators go under a number of different names and they are a very closed group and don’t tell when they change their name,

“For almost 100 years they were called the Therfield Regulation and changed the name in 1995. Unfortunately they are the ones who made application and it needs to be made by owners.”

Mrs Sharples responded: “I acknowledge the land owners are the Trustees of Therfield Regulation Trust, but they are the same people as the Conservators who used to call themsleves the Therfield Regulation.”

After more concerns from the audience over the legality of the inquiry – considering a decision couldn’t be made for sure on the owners of the land – Mr Yates said: “For me to say at this point the inquiry should not proceed would be unsafe because I don’t know the answer and it would take time.

“I dont think I would be confident to say I’m stopping the inquiry on that point. Yes it’s relevant but I think I would like to hear evidence, and I will deal with it should it need to be dealt with.”

he objectors also said that the inquiry notice did not have the inspector’s name or an address where case information could be obtained, to which Mr Yates said he would have to be sure people were prejudiced to call the inquiry off on that basis.

He said he would hear all the evidence and make a decision – and will consider whether the application criteria was met in that decision.

Conservator Dr Cynthia Combe was the first witness called.

She said: “I see a conflict of interest between the public to have open space and the wildlife it inhabits. I frequently spend hours on heath at weekends and see pleasure people get, but very few people are aware it is a nature reserve. If we don’t get investment there is a real risk the conservation will be degraded.”

When asked about how the decision was made for the Sun Hill land to be deregistered Dr Combe said she wasn’t aware any other land had been considered. Dr Combe said she had only been a conservator for two years, and also wasn’t able to say if she was formally elected as a Trustee – as per the Conservators’ policy.

Audience member Terrence Gould then said her evidence as a conservator and trustee was “worthless” as she couldn’t answer a number of questions on the history of the land or the decision to deregister it.

The day also heard evidence from former Conservator Duncan Ferguson and Helen Dunton from Herts County Council, who both objected to the application.

The inquiry is set to last up to seven days at the Coombes Community Centre in Burns Road, generally from 10am to 5pm each day.