Conservators discuss car park charges, litter and costs at public meeting

The Therfield Heath public meeting was held on Zoom. 

The Therfield Heath public meeting was held on Zoom. - Credit: Archant

There was much debate over the notion of charging to use the car parks at this evening's public meeting of the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens.

Conservators chair Clare Swarbrick - who was elected a year ago - opened the Zoom virtual meeting.

She said "we are really pleased to be able to have this open meeting" and that it was an opportunity to "bring residents up to speed" and listen to their views.

"It's been a year since I became a conservator, thank you to my fellow conservators for making me welcome - the last 12 months have been bit of a rollercoaster."

The Therfield Heath public meeting was held on Zoom

Chair Clare Swarbrick speaks during the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens Zoom meeting presentation - Credit: Archant

Ms Swarbrick also introduced her fellow conservators:  John King, Clive Hall, Colin Smith - who recently became a stintholder representative after Neil Guttridge stepped down - Ben Harrop and Robert Law. She added there was a vacancy, but this would be filled when they are able to hold a COVID-secure election. 

The chair thanked Mr Guttridge for his six years' of service and introduced new clerk Carol Fossick - who she thanked for her "energy and efforts".

Reflecting on the year, Ms Swarbrick told the meeting:  "it's been a really unprecedented time, and the local community have enjoyed using the heath over the last 12 months."

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She said there has been a lot of pressure on the much-loved local landmark, which is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI)

It was explained that the main heath is 143.3 hectares/354.14 acres - the equivalent of around 200 football pitches. The conservators remit also includes all of the 19 greens around Therfield and Kelshall

Ms Swarbrick said: ""Therfield Heath is common land and the SSSI is predominantly a chalk grassland site and supports a varied and rich flora including a number of notable rare plants - most people know of the pasqueflower on Church Hill.

"There's  golf course, sports centre, café and horse gallops, the site is used for a range of recreational activities. In 2019 Natural England commissioned a visitor study, in the region of 215,000 person visits to Therfield Heath per year and we are certain that this has increased in the last 12 months - certainly from the evidence we have.

"We have a responsibility to tenants, the public an the visitors all stakeholders. We receive all of our funding from the tenants and that's why they're critical to the financial sustainability and the conservators ability to manage the heath and greens. Most of our tenants have been adversely affected by COVID-19.

"As a group we are committed to openness and transparency and publish summary minutes every month.

"We have built on the greater communication and engagement and last summer we reinstated the Joint Advisory Committee for all our tenants and are committing to more open meetings.

"Lots of views and perspectives and managing and balancing them all can be challenging and we try to get it as right as we can. Especially as we are a small organisation with limited capacity."

Conservator Colin Smith's report included maintenance of the heath and greens and a management plan for the SSSI.

The Therfield Heath public meeting was held on Zoom. 

Conservator Colin Smith speaks at the Therfield Heath public meeting on Zoom - Credit: Archant

Mr Smith said: "My background is in commercial, where it's said if you "fail to plan, you plan to fail.

"We may not have all the answers this evening yet this is the start of the dialogue to develop a management plan.

"A management plan is a live document. It's interactive. It allows us to forward think with a budget and develop a detailed work schedule and helps us to gain and source financial help for specific projects.

"It allows us through structure to talk with outside contractors who can advise us on the best way to for example resurface and make good the New Road car park. 

"We've often depended on, and I would like to thank, the Brian Racher Trust. They helped us two years ago, but the potholes are back. 

"We can't always depend on the Racher Trust to repair our car parks or pay for a second hand scarifier that costs £35,000, yet, still needs a tractor to pull it for probably only 12 weeks a year.

He said this would be looked at in more detail.

He continued: "You'll know without sheep grazing we need to find alternative solutions to maintain the heath.

"A management plan gives us the platform to develop and share ideas with third parties to find new ways forward.

"There is always somebody else you have to get permission from, approval to get things in place. 

"SSSI designation comes from Natural England and we work with them and Herts County Council as we are also a Local Nature Reserve.

"We have no external investment apart from our tenants - John Jenkins at the gallops, Toby from the Heath Cafe, and the golf club - we still have to seek approval from these bodies before we can do anything.

"This takes time and careful planning and as you know we are all volunteers. I wish I could get paid for this with all the hours we put in. Simply its what can we do, when can we do it, how much will it cost and who does it - I hope the why is obvious.

"Our programme of maintenance has been severely disrupted due to COVID. We've not been able to maintain our most precious area,  Church Hill, however last autumn we were able to cut and collect on Lankester Hill and we have replaced the dogs teeth  across the site to make sure that cars can’t get onto the common and destroy some areas of the SSSI.

"We are trying to restore access to footpaths 9 and 10 which runs along the eastern edge by the houses leading off Briary Lane, its been neglected for nine years and now needs major work.

"However,  from March to September we're not allowed to cut and collect to take it away so we are preparing a plan of works and costing up a full clearance for six months

"We are interviewing next week for a warden and conservation outreach officer. This person will play a leading role in showcasing the heath’s unique ecology, history, and conservation - and they will be skilled in those areas.  We need that experience to help us maintain and improve the site. I am really looking forward to getting this role filled."

Mr Smith then spoke about Sun Hill Common, and praised the efforts of those who maintain it.

"Sun Hill Common was registered as an Asset of Community Value in 2019," he said. 

"The residents led by Karen Pearson, Don Shewan and Nick Beale have developed a plan to maintain the common and it’s been great to see people using the space and football goals and we're having discussion about what can be done next to make that an even more usable portion of land.

"We also work closely with Therfield Parish Council. We have highways work and we have initiated the regular cutting of Hay Green and are in negotiations with local residents about other historic issues around boundaries and nuisance vehicles on Bridleways. These are constant battles we have to account for.

"I am pleased to congratulate to the Friends of Therfield Heath and Greens on their recent North Herts District Council Green award, we are very grateful for their support and volunteer litter pickers, especially Dave Bubbins. They all do a great job to help keep the heath tidy. I believe the next litter pick is on Sunday, April 18."

Conservator Ben Harrop spoke about his frustration about litter left on the heath. 

He said: "I wonder what people's thoughts are - there's one thing for sure the way you will stop litter on the heath is to make people take it home.

"My view is that putting more bins on the heath isn't necessarily going to solve the problem

"There are people who chuck the odd cup or crisp packet, you're never going to eradicate that .

"What I found is people who tidied up their rubbish and put it in a bag and put it by the bin. If there wasn't a bin there, would they take it home?

"I have a theory that if we created a culture of people not expecting to leave their rubbish on the heath they might take it with them - but I accept it would take an awfully long time to instil that.

"When I have seen people in groups having picnics, I say 'can you take your rubbish with you?' One group of girls were having a picnic, and one said of course we will, we don't want to end up on Royston Reporting [Facebook page]."

When it was asked if they could install bigger bins. Mr Harrop's response was: "It costs the conservators - it comes down to money and in my personal opinion we shouldn't be paying to tidy up after other people. Some people believe people will tidy up after them."

Mr Harrop also spoke about maintaining footpaths as another priority for this year.

He said: "I reckon we've got more than seven miles of footpaths. Seven miles to put some kind of surface on, a bit like the paths they have at Wimpole - my estimate is a cost of £1.5m, it's a massive financial challenge.

"I don't know exactly what we could do there. For this year, I'm trying to get the main path that runs from the golf club side to the café resurfaced. I spoke to Redrow to see if we could take their clean chalk and they can't give it to us, we would need to be a registered tip to take it. 

"I don't think anyone would appreciate it if I applied for there to be a registered tip on Therfield Heath."

The conservators chair then spoke about the heath's finances. 

Ms Swarbrick said:  "We want to have greater transparency with the way we present financial information. I am going to talk through the 2019 accounts, these numbers have been reviewed and agreed by all Conservators and were submitted to the Charity Commission last October.

"It should be noted that the accounts are prepared on a receipts and payments basis and income and costs are recognised when they are incurred and not necessarily in the period which they relate.

"This explains why the rental income has dropped and is due to a timing difference - so sometimes it might look skewed or strange.

"The heath had just over £40k in reserves at end of 2019. Our annual turn over is £80k.

"Expenditure in the year to 31 December 2019 was £86,110 and income was £79,020 which led to a deficit of £7,090.

"As a result, the reserves dropped slightly to £41,337 as of December 31, 2019.

The rental income has not dropped and is due to a timing difference. We were lucky to received a £13,000 donation from the Brian Racher Trust to repair the main car park And we also had a donation of £300 for a tree poppers received from the Friends and from the Rotary Club and we were really grateful for.

"We greed a new lease for the Therfield recreation ground allowing Therfield, Royston and Kelshall Sports Association - TRAKSA - to think about replacing their pavilion.

"Royston Cricket would also like to bring cricket back to the heath maybe for a 3rd team and ladies team and we have started discussions.

"We also agreed a new lease for the Heath Sports Club in 2019, giving security of tenure to allow the tenants to undertake renovations.

"The legal and professional fees remained high, £16,113.40 was on costs including contract renewals and lease amendments, reports on rental values.

"In 2020 it's significantly lower. we have already managed legal costs down even further by being open and transparent about how we organise ourselves and about the way the organisation is run.

"Accountancy fees were higher in 2019 due to advice regarding VAT.  We wanted to make sure we were getting that completely right.

"We have paid less warden fees because we had a combined clerk/warden role from March 2019."

Clare finished the talk on their finances by saying "we are committed to breaking down this income and giving greater detail, there's nothing to hide so we should show more granularity."

Stintholder Robert Law explained that his grazing agreement came to an end at the middle of last year. He said COVID put a massive pressure on the heath it would've been impossible to graze it last year, due to the sheer number of people. He said it was becoming "uneconomic" to graze the heath, and that he had experienced "a lot of theft and damage."

"it might be possible to do some grazing on the west side towards Church Hill, any grazing on the other side is not practical at the minute," he added

The chair said grazing was something they were working with Natural England on. 

Chris Lee asked about steps in the woods steps in the woods that were taken out.

Colin Smith said: "They became very dangerous, people were slipping and falling - we've discussed whether to reinstall them. , it is potentially something we can explore."

Regarding litter and rats around McDonald's car park, Ms Swarbrick said: "We are aware of the rats in the car park, McDonald's are good neighbours they empty the bins -  we have to look at all these different options."

She said they would consider whether the bin design was adequate and said there have been conversations with the regional manager of McDonald's. She said they would have to consider the visual impact - a large bin or skip would impact that. 

Audience member Bob Hayzen spoke passionately about the need for finance. 

He said: "Surely there must be some way that considerable income could be raised from car parking? You have limited income to carry out an enormous task and surely this is something that really does need to be seriously considered to provide future income.

"If you control the means of parking so people have a 20-minute free period but a figure that could be £20 per year that could bring in substantial income. I would recommend you have a proper study done.

Bob also suggested that that the Friends of Therfield Heath and the conservators could  benefit from charging an annual subscription.

Ms Swarbrick said the long term financial situation keeps her "awake at night", and explained that at the  Annual Town Meeting last Thursday there was an idea brought about to look atat a precept for residents - a small amount of money from every home to go towards managing the heath. 

Ben Harrop responded that they did discuss the possibility of charging for parking at a public meeting two years ago but "a decision was made that it wouldn't work.

"All of these things rely on it being policed, and the unintended consequences, like people parking on streets"

Comparisons were then made to car park charging at the Wimpole Estate and at the Ashwell Show. 

Audience member Melanie Hill said: "Wimpole [Estate] has charged for parking and its caused no end of issues.

"Yellow lines and permits are about to be introduced in the village as residents have been so seriously impacted."

Bridget Long said: "At the Ashwell Show we used to charge for parking, and the village ground to a halt. And when it was free people used the car park."

Janet  Rossignol-Bubbins said Gog Magog Hills and RSPB Fowlmere have parking meters for donations. 

Ms Swarbrick closed the meeting by thanking those who attended, and saying "The fact that you are engaged and willing to turn up is fantastic and it shows people are passionate about the heath and its long term future."

For more information on the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens, including if you're interested in putting yourself forward for the election to serve a three-year term, go to