PLANS to move Coventry City Football Club to a redeveloped home of Coventry rugby club at the Butts have been announced.
We exclusively revealed in November that the Coventry site identified by the Sky Blues for a stadium with potentially over 20,000 capacity was the Butts Park Arena home of Cov rugby.
But it is believed the plans would also need the support and approval of Coventry City Council, the freehold owner of the Butts Park Arena site, for which Cov rugby club chairman Jon Sharp is seeking to acquire a head lease.
We can exclusively reveal today – in an email seen by us – that the council wrote to Cov rugby club in January seeking to block the proposal with a legal clause – a restrictive covenant – to prevent professional football being played there – so the council could “protect its position”.
It is not known whether the council’s position over a new sporting venture in the city centre – which aims to ensure the survival of two of the city’s great sporting institutions – will soften under new leader George Duggins.
Coventry council has long said the Ricoh Arena project in the north of Coventry is important to the city’s economy.
But it has also since 2014 been developing a so-called ‘City Centre First’ strategy in which a rejuvenated city centre would drive the city’s future economy.
Mr Sharp told the rugby club’s fans about the until now confidential latest redevelopment proposals at a fans’ forum meeting last night, and spoke with the Coventry Observer today.
As we first revealed in November, proposals are being examined for the two threatened traditional city clubs to redevelop the Butts, and groundshare under a ‘Coventry Sporting’ Joint Venture designed to ensure their future survival and success.
The football club, a mere tenant at the Ricoh Arena and deprived on commercial revenue from the stadium, would benefit from both matchday revenues beyond current ticket revenues at a redeveloped Butts, and from non-matchday revenues. So too would Cov rugby club.
Cov rugby believes it could also benefit from greater access to financing for the stadium’s redevelopment under the joint venture.
Many Coventry City fans have insisted any new stadium should be inside the city’s borders, not in Warwickshire.
The football club and its owners Sisu have consistently said it vitally needs commercial revenue from a stadium to be viable and invest in Tony Mowbray’s team – rather than continuing to rent at the Ricoh Arena.
Revenues from commercial activities including events and conferences at the Ricoh Arena go instead to its owners, rugby club Wasps.
The Sky Blues’ Ricoh home – which had partly depended on the club’s money – was sold by former owners the council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity in October 2014 to the indebted former London rugby club on a secret 250-year deal not offered to the football club.
Wasps, with reported debts of £35million, stated on its website at the time it needed the Ricoh move and stadium revenue streams to prevent it going bust.
Mr Sharp confirmed in December on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire following our exclusive that the Sky Blues had examined the Butts relocation, but said there were no “current plans”.
The redevelopment plans would first require the imminent transfer to him of the Butts’ site’s 125-year head lease. The rugby club currently holds a sub-lease.
He said in December he was closing in on the deal with Chris Millerchip, a former Cov rugby player now living in New York, who currently holds the wider Butts Park Arena site’s lease from Coventry City Council.
That transaction is still expected to be completed imminently.
Mr Sharp told the Coventry Observer today the first stage was to complete a feasibility study for the redevelopment and groundshare, and that architects were currently engaged. The second stage would be to examine financing.
He told us today one possibility was for two new stands to be built in the first instance, with a potential initial capacity of 15,000. The ground currently has one stand and a 4,000 capacity.
He added it was also possible that the ground could be expanded by increments depending on growth and demand, notably were Coventry City Football Club to win promotions.
He said one concern was that the football club’s desire for a 25,000 stadium may be considered too large for Coventry rugby club present crowds, but said nothing was ruled out.
The plan is also to join the two club’s academies in a scheme for the whole community. Academy facilities would be based off-site, said Mr Sharp.
Coventry United Football Club could also be involved in the groundshare, he added.
He told fans last night any final decision would rest with the rugby club’s board.
We revealed in November the Sky Blues considered the current 4,000-capacity Butts stadium could be redeveloped to initially 12,000 to 15,000, then upwards to over 20,000.
Such gates would be above average attendances at the former Highfield Road stadium even in the club’s Premiership years.
Mr Sharp revealed in December there was potential for development on a larger area of land than the current Butts stadium footprint. Some have questioned whether transport and parking arrangements would be adequate.
Coventry City Council would have to grant planning consent in the first instance, but the government could intervene in any final planning decision.
The Coventry Observer also exclusively revealed in December that Coventry City had agreed to extend the current Ricoh rent agreement for a further two years beyond the season just ended – while it considered its future options while Ricoh talks continued.
No offers have emerged for the football club to share ownership or revenues at the Ricoh with its Wasps owners. It is despite CCFC executive Chris Anderson saying earlier this year that such a deal had not been ruled out, apparently contradicting the view of the club’s owners Sisu.
The restrictive covenant previously sought by the council would prevent any professional football being played at the stadium for the entire period of the lease.
The proposed restrictive covenant also explicitly stated that a professional football club’s training activities could not take place there either.
It is not clear whether, despite the threat to do so, the council would have the power to insist on such a restrictive covenant.
No such conditions were placed by the council on the Ricoh’s sale to Wasps. The deal also saw the collapsing of a ‘buy back’ option for the Sky Blues to purchase the charity’s shares in Ricoh operating company Arena Coventry Limited.
It follows an ongoing long running and acrimonious legal dispute between the council and the Sky Blues’ owners over Ricoh Arena ownership, revenue and rent.
Appeal judges last week ruled a council £14million taxpayer bailout of the Ricoh in January 2013 was not unlawful. Further action including a second Judicial Review by the club, over the Wasps deal, could follow.
A Coventry City Football Club statement today reads: “Coventry City Football Club can confirm that talks have taken place with Coventry rugby club. We are committed to competing at the highest possible level and for the club to progress it is essential that matchday and non-matchday potential can be realised.”
Incoming council leader George Duggins said: “As far as I’m concerned I’ve made it very clear publicly that the Judicial Reviews have to be withdrawn. In terms of the relationship, we’ll see how we go from there.
“Anybody can make a planning application. That would be a decision for the planning committee to take.”