Letter from the Conservators to Sir Oliver Heald MP regarding the siting of the Kite Festival from 2024

The Chair of the Conservators wrote the following reply in response to a letter received from Sir Oliver Heald MP, expressing concern about recent statements on siting of the Kite Festival from 2024 onwards.

This letter is published with permission from Sir Oliver.

31st May 2023

Dear Sir Oliver,
Thank you for your email about the Kite Festival. The Conservators welcome the chance to explain more fully what has happened. We endorsed this letter at our meeting yesterday and have discussed its contents with the Rotary Club, although this is not a joint communication. The Conservators are not opposed to the Kite Festival however we do have concerns about the scale of the event, the amount of car parking requested (1200 cars), the impact on the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the general environmental impact of the event. The Kite Festival is compatible both with the objectives of the Therfield Regulation Trust and the Conservators.
Both the Conservators and Rotary are volunteer and democratic organisations. This means that although individuals from the two groups meet and discuss matters, the final decisions have to be taken at representative meetings after discussion, either by consensus or a vote. There is a range of opinions amongst the Conservators and the agreed position often is a compromise that no one fully agrees with. It is probably the same with Rotary. This has to be then fed back to the other organisation. This is a slow process.
For the past two years we have been working with Rotary to find an alternative site on the Heath for the Kite Festival. We have made a proposal to move the arena off an area of SSSI which Rotary have rejected, and they have made one that we could not accept in full. There comes a point each year where Rotary say they need a firm decision to allow them to complete arrangements. When it came to the final decision, we have always allowed the Kite Festival to continue in the same way as it has. This year we did the same but pressed Rotary to produce a plan, acceptable to both sides, for next year. Rotary believed that all options for moving the event had already been discussed and rejected by one side or the other and so decided to see if they could find another site, hence their press release. We have not said no to a kite festival for 2024, but we still want to modify the event. Rotary concluded looking for a different site might be their only option for 2024.
It might be helpful to lay out our thinking in more detail, and with your permission, we will put this letter on our website for the people of Royston to consider before we make a decision on 2024.
It is a civil offence to drive or park on a Common other than in a designated car park. This not only allows the Conservators to enforce parking, but the Conservators could be pursued for loss caused by allowing parking outside designated car parks. This happened on a common near Bristol Zoo where the council and common owners allowed overflow parking. In a case backed by the Open Spaces Society local people obtained a large out of court settlement. The main car park for the Heath will only hold around 300 cars. We have allowed extra car parking for the Kite Festival, but it is dependent on the weather conditions.
The current site for the Kite Festival is part of the Therfield Heath SSSI. The citation for the SSSI states “The site contains some of the richest chalk grassland in England”. As agreed with Natural England in the recent Habitat Management Plan, the best practical regime, other than grazing, for the highest quality grassland on the Heath SSSI is to ‘cut and collect’, i.e., mow and remove the clippings, once a year from September to March when the plants, insects and birds have largely completed their life cycle. The area of the Kite Festival is not in the highest category of grassland but would improve for nature with a regime closer to best practice. The problem with holding the Kite Festival in early August is that area really needs to be cut regularly from mid-March to give a good surface and to prevent ground nesting birds nesting, which would prevent us cutting the grass later. We were rather late this year but did not find any nests in the area to be cut, which allowed us to proceed. Since the golf club stopped using this area as a golf driving range several years ago, the main reason to cut this area regularly is the Kite Festival. There is also the carbon footprint of cutting the grass to consider. Rotary have recently covered the financial cost.
Funding opportunities for the Habitat Management Plan (which is broadly supported by local people) means we need to assure management regimes to get Rural Payments Agency (RPA) money to manage the Heath. At the moment there are several separate agreements with the Conservators, Golf Club and Racing Stables, each have different detailed conditions. We have just applied, with the agreement of the other stake holders, for a new unified scheme for the whole Heath. We have applied to keep a flexible cutting regime for the kite festival area, so a decision for 2024 remains with us.
We explored with Rotary whether the Kite Festival could be held off the SSSI in the area between the golf club house and the Heath Café. This was on the cards for some time but unfortunately the kite flyers decided there was a high risk of not having enough wind in that area. They did think it would be possible to hold the kite flying on the area west of the main carpark, where archery often practice. This however was the area traditionally used for extra car-parking during the kite festival. Rotary then proposed using most of the area in front of the Heath Café for parking. We were not happy with this and wanted to limit it to not going beyond the line of the tennis courts. We did not want the most popular area of the Heath for recreation being used as a car park particularly as Rugby and the Heath Café would have a case for compensation if this area was damaged by the car parking, which could happen if weather was unfavourable in the run up to the event.
We also suggested they might be able to park some cars at the other end near the golf club and had put Rotary in touch with the golf club to explore this, but Rotary concluded that the single width drive into the golf club made this unworkable and were not sure they could marshal two car park areas. We also suggested they could try finding some off-site parking such as Tannery Drift School, the town Centre, or approaching Johnson Matthey who probably use much less car parking on a Sunday. Rotary felt that people would instead park in nearby roads, rather than parking further away, annoying local residents and encouraging families with young children to cross a busy road. Laying on minibus transfers would reduce the money raised for charity and would not be practical.
We also suggested the event could be held on the original kite festival site but in Mid-September to give time to cut the grass at least twice after bird nesting and flowering was over. A single cut may not be enough for the event, and we cannot control the weather. Rotary have not ruled this out, but they need time to confirm that their Kite Flyers, suppliers, members and other volunteers would be available later in the year.
We are happy to support recreation on the Heath including organised Events, but we also have to comply with our statutory duties including allowing people access at all times to Common Land. We also want to keep the SSSI in good condition. As the town continues to grow, and particularly since Covid when there has been more use of green spaces, we have to balance the demand for individual “air and recreation” with the demand for organised activities. This highlights the lack of alternative spaces in Royston for sport, allotments and events, despite NHDC targets as part of the local plan. Increased provision via new space we understand is now on hold until at least 2031 and the next local plan.
The Conservators are a small group of elected volunteers, who have an increasingly difficult and time-consuming balancing act between the various demands for activities on the Heath, our desire to protect the environment and biodiversity and the complex legal frameworks we have to operate in. We know we will not be able to satisfy everyone, and we may ask people to change the way they have done things in the past. We have met with Rotary in the last fortnight and both sides are agreed to keep dialogue open.
Your Sincerely
Nicholas Keep
Chair Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens