Kate Ashbrook: council is charging aheadHenley: straw boaters, the regatta, Boris Johnson and… er, Liam Gallagher.

It has everything quintessential to the English countryside, including its illustrious inhabitants, charming Oxfordshire riparian walks and, that essential British ingredient: a bit of aggro.

Kate Ashbrook: 'council is charging ahead'

There’s a row brewing in the Thames-side town between the organisers of its festival, a black-tie bonanza for culture vultures which has the heavy scent of corporate and clubby privilege, and the Open Spaces Society, which represents those who would rather don Gore-tex or Paramo for a stroll along public footpaths and which, coincidentally, has its headquarters in Henley.

To give you a flavour of the festival, last year you would have had to fork out £385 plus VAT – a sure sign that it’s aimed at the business account – for the privilege of sitting in the La Scala enclosure to watch Dionne Warwick belt out both her hits while sipping Laurent-Perrier champagne before your Albert Roux dinner. We’re not talking Glastonbury.

The problem is that, inconveniently for the festival, the Thames Path national trail passes right through the site, and we can’t have the corporate view blocked by the great unwashed rambling public. So each year, the local council, Wokingham Borough, acquiesces to the request for a closure of the right of way. This year, however, the festival organisers have asked to block off the path for an unprecedented 145 hours. Last year, the closure was for only 37½ hours and for the first 16 of its 25 years’ existence, the festival needed no closure at all of the path. The event lasts only five days.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society (OSS), said: “Every year the council considers a request from the festival and every year it agrees to the closure, and recommends to the Secretary of State for Transport, via the Government Office for the South East (GOSE), to do so too.  It appears never to give proper consideration to whether the proposal meets the legal requirements.

“Last year GOSE criticised the council for the way it handled the matter. GOSE asked that this year the council engage with itself, the OSS and Remenham Parish Council as early as possible when planning the 2008 festival, to try to prevent a recurrence of the problems faced last year.

“Wokingham is clearly ignoring that request and charging ahead with considering the application for closure without any discussion or consultation.

“And this year, the festival has cheekily asked for an unprecedented 145 hours closure over nine days. This is nearly four times the number of hours which it requested last year.”

Ms Ashbrook said that the OSS had only eight days to consider the matter. “That is an unreasonably tight timetable. What’s the rush?

“We have called on the executive member for highways and transport, Councillor Keith Baker, to defer the matter to allow proper consultation, and an opportunity for the OSS and other interested parties to make representations. We have suggested he convenes a meeting, as requested by GOSE, so that we can resolve this issue once and for all.

“The council also needs to be satisfied that there is a safe and convenient alternative route. The alternative provided in previous years is inferior, away from the river between high, wire-mesh fences, an unpleasant corridor with an uneven surface.  That is hardly a suitable substitute for the Thames Path national trail, a prestigious and popular route of international acclaim.

“It’s time Wokingham Council challenged the festival to demonstrate why it cannot adopt the practice of earlier years and hold its event without closing the path. We are fed up with the council caving in to the festival instead of carrying out its legal duty to defend the public’s rights to use and enjoy this important route.”

The 2008 Henley Festival is due to take place from 9 to 13 July. We don’t know if Liam will be attending.