22nd Jul, 2019

BREAKING: Coventry City owners respond over school ‘stadium site’ - as we ask council if it wants club out of city in bid to oust Sisu

Les Reid 5th Apr, 2019 Updated: 5th Apr, 2019

Coventry City’s owners Sisu have responded to questions and council claims over the Woodlands school ‘new stadium’ site.

We have also asked today if Coventry council leaders, Ricoh owners Wasps and failed club takeover hopefuls want Coventry City to leave the city in a bid to distress the club under owners Sisu – with no prospect of Sisu dropping legal action as a PRE-CONDITION to talks.

This is among open questions we put to council leader George Duggins this morning – while club owners Sisu has this evening put its side of the argument regarding a potential stadium site at the former Woodlands Academy or elsewhere (see its full statement below).

We asked if leading councillors consider the club – and exciting young team under Mark Robins – being distresed elsewhere to be a price worth paying, or a strategy that could succeed.

Labour leader Coun Duggins has played a major role in the seven-year Ricoh dispute alongside former leader John Mutton – both were involved in collapsed talks over joint ownership in 2012 – as has council chief executive Martin Reeves. We also put our questions to opposition Conservative group leader Gary Ridley – who is backing Coun Duggins’ demands.

This week, the Coventry Observer exclusively revealed Coventry City’s agents and the council have been in slow-paced private talks over what Sisu has suggested could be a potential new stadium large site at the former Woodlands Academy school site off Broad Lane.

We put follow-up questions to both sides. More claim and counter-claim has now emerged in more statements over the site and the reason for slow ‘progress’ on this or any other site (See below).

As Ricoh freehold owners and leaders of the city, the council’s leaders’ position is that the 136-year-old football club should be shut out of the Ricoh Arena if Sisu – as a PRE-CONDITION to talks – doesn’t drop its ongoing legal action against the council’s controversial deal to sell the stadium to then London Wasps in 2014.

It comes as even the anti-Sisu fans’ group the Sky Blue Trust has repeatedly publicly called on ALL sides to talk and find a way to keep City at the Ricoh for next season and beyond.

An extraordinarily general meeting of the English Football League is fast approaching on April 25 at which the Sky Blues face expulsion if there is no Ricoh solution or alternatively a potentially disastrous groundshare outside Coventry for next season. The club says it still wants to find a Ricoh resolution.

The council’s ‘no talks unless legal action is dropped’ stance is also being adopted by Wasps, whose CEO Nick Eastwood last week told the Coventry Observer that football fans understood their position.

Sisu said in an Open Letter last month that it is prepared to talk to all sides, to negotiate a settlement and drop legal action in return for an interim “commercially acceptable” deal to stay at the Ricoh Arena for the medium term, and council assistance towards building a new stadium in the city.

Council leader George Duggins failed to turn up for crucial talks at Westminster last month hosted by sports secretary Jeremy Wright MP – aimed at all-party negotiations to keep Coventry City in Coventry.

Wasps are £55million in debt and face paying back £35million to bondholders in 2022, and potentially a £28million compensation payment to the council if Sisu’s so-far failed legal action is successful.

The Coventry Observer Save Our City campaign has for years called for pressure on ALL sides towards a negotiated fairer stadium and academy deal for Coventry City, with the club starved of commercial revenues at the Ricoh.

We have repeatedly put questions to all sides in the dispute. We have challenged Sisu over why it is continuing with court appeals despite the threat to the club. We have questioned the council (including under Freedom of Information laws) and Wasps over apparently reneging on previous public commitments that Coventry City’s “security and future” would be protected under the 2014 Ricoh sale.

Couns Duggins and Ridley have repeatedly said they want Coventry City to stay at the Ricoh – if the legal action is dropped as a pre-condition. Our questions address the extreme unlikeliness of that happening and what council leaders foresee beyond this season.

OUR QUESTIONS…

1. Many Coventry City fans and readers on social media and elsewhere have commented that they are sceptical as to whether council leaders and officers have been genuinely co-operative in assisting discussions and the pre-application process on a new stadium. This is in the context of council unwillingness to allow the football club to progress in the way it wishes under Sisu (certainly while it is taking legal action against the council) and Coun Duggins’ refusal to turn up for crucial Westminster talks aimed at keeping Coventry City in Coventry. The football club’s agents appear to be saying they have been thwarted several times in their attempts to have meetings with the council over the course of a year. Much of the public now knows there is also the evidence from a leaked council email in 2016 of council attempts to block a CCFC groundshare at Coventry rugby club’s expanded Butts Park Arena, which both clubs examined for two years. How do George and Gary respond?

2. Does the council’s decision-making Labour leadership understand – as most Coventry City fans and the public appear to – that there is no prospect of the football club’s owners dropping legal action against the council’s 2014 Ricoh sale to London Wasps as a PRE-CONDITION for talks to stay at the Ricoh Arena where the council is freeholder, as the council demands – while Sisu HAS stated it is prepared to negotiate a settlement? Are the council leaders aware of the strength of public opinion, as even expressed by the anti-Sisu Sky Blue Trust, that all sides should come together to keep Coventry City at the Ricoh Arena for next season and beyond?

3. What communication has Coun Duggins and the council had in the last two months with failed City takeover hopefuls Gary Hoffman and Joe Elliott, and with Wasps, over this intransigent strategy which is bound to contribute to harming Coventry City, outside the city?

4. Finally, I wish to repeat my question that went unanswered by George last month. I put this now to both George and Gary…

Do you personally want, as some failed campaigners seem to ‘talk up’, a phoenix club emerging at the Ricoh Arena stadium playing non-league football, with Coventry City under Sisu and Mark Robins frozen out of the city and distressed by many fans’ non-attendance at a groundshare elsewhere, as a high risk strategy for potentially ousting Sisu? If not, please state so categorically now that you do not want this even more divisive outcome. Please also categorically state that you understand, as most fans and the public clearly do, that this would be a disaster for our historic football club.

COUNCIL STATEMENT..

Our questions were a response to the following statement we received yesterday…

Coun George Duggins, Leader of Coventry City Council, and Coun Gary Ridley, Leader of the Opposition Conservative Group, Coventry City Council if that helps:

“Over the last 24 hours there has been media speculation over the possible site where SISU may want to build a new football stadium. As has been well-publicised, land was identified by SISU during the mediation that all sides agreed to enter following the Court of Appeal hearing in October last year. These talks are bound by a confidentiality clause which means that we are unable to confirm the location at this stage.

“Despite speculation to the contrary, the discussions that have taken place are nowhere near to producing a comprehensive plan to address the multitude of issues a development of this size would inevitably create.

“No stadium development was identified in the current Local Plan adopted by Coventry City Council, which means there is a clear process to navigate before any single site can be identified for its current or planned use to be changed. This process would also need to give clear reasons as to why other, potentially more suitable sites have been overlooked or ruled out. The identified site would then have to satisfy a number of factors including suitability, need, transport links and overall impact as well as other potentially unique challenges of a particular site.”

SISU STATEMENT

SISU notes the recent private briefing given by Councillor Duggins to selected media representatives.

Once again Councillor Duggins has made statements that are misleading. We set out below our corrective of what he has said:

Woodlands Site

·         The Woodlands site was originally suggested to us for CCFC’s Academy when it was being displaced from the Higgs Centre to make way for Wasps’ new training facility.  When Wasps failed to progress their plans and the Academy was able to stay, we identified Woodlands as a potential stadium site for CCFC instead.

·         The mediation discussions in March 2018 focussed on the development of a stadium at the Woodlands site as a possible solution to the Club’s home venue. Those discussions continued after the mediation. This is why it has not gone through the usual site selection methods.

·         We have repeatedly asked the Council if there are any other suitable sites for a stadium; none has been suggested.  We are not aware of any.

·         Invariably, a development of this size and nature will have issues to overcome, hence our engagement of professional property and architectural advisors with significant experience in planning, development, and building sports stadiums.

·         Our discussions with the Council since March 2018 have been focused on two key aspects:

1. in the Council’s capacity as landowner, to understand if the site was available for a long leasehold, and

2. in the Council’s capacity as planning authority, to work with the Council to create a suitable planning application.

·         The Council has to date provided no indication as to whether it is willing to enter into a long leasehold agreement with us. This is crucial; there is no point progressing a planning application if there is no agreement in place for its sale should planning be permitted.

·         To avert the Council’s evident (but inexplicable) historic animosity towards SISU and CCFC, our advisors liaised with the Council to advance discussions on agreeing a leasehold agreement for the site, and to provide us with planning expertise and advice for this specific site.

·         The property advisors and architects prepared 4 separate concept plans; 2 before the Council launched their consultation on education restructuring and 2 more recently integrating education on the site, the latter 2 having been submitted and discussed at a recent meeting.  To prepare these required lots of preparatory work with our consultants.

·         We have attempted to work with the Council in order to integrate their educational aspirations on the site.  Indeed several other stadiums have done this successfully: Saracens’ new West Stand will include space for Middlesex University; the new Bristol City stadium includes some purpose built classrooms; and Brentford Community Stadium’s plans include education space.

·         It will not however be possible for us to make any more progress with these proposals unless the Council works with us to achieve the desired outcome.  Why is the Council so keen to discredit our proposal, when a stadium development of the kind we have proposed would be economically beneficial to the area, to the community, and would give CCFC a long term and financially secure playing future in Coventry? Why can a group of high level officers and elected members manage to meet on less than a day’s notice with selected media representatives; yet it takes months for them to meet with our advisors to review the plans with the aim of developing a full planning application?  Councillor Duggins has refused to even meet with CCFC since December 2018, despite repeated requests to do so.

City of Sport 2019

Councillor Duggins rightly makes much of Coventry’s selection as European City of Sport.  He does not however mention that CCFC were specifically disinvited from the Civic Launch. Why go to such lengths to exclude the city’s famous and high profile football club?

If the Council are seriously interested in finding a long term, Coventry-based and viable home venue solution for the Club, then (as we’ve said previously) we are available to meet – anytime, anywhere  – with the Council’s officers, together with our property consultants to hammer out a deal.

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