9th Dec, 2016

OPINION: SAVE OUR CITY: Flaws in council support for Wasps move into CCFC academy

Les Reid 30th Jul, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

OPINION by Les Reid

IT comes as no real surprise to the many interested observers that Coventry City Council planning officers are recommending councillors on Thursday’s planning committee say ‘Yes’ to erstwhile London rugby club Wasps’ application to move into the 133-year-old Coventry City Football Club’s ‘lifeblood’ youth academy.

Wasps claim they examined ’17 sites’ but settled on the location of the Sky Blues’ purpose-built academy at the Alan Higgs Centre. Council emails – disclosed to this newspaper follow our Freedom of Information request – show secret negotiations began with planning officers last October, with the Sky Blues’ lease set to expire next June.

It is the same local authority and another Higgs charity that sold the Sky Blues’ Ricoh Arena stadium to London Wasps two years ago on a massively extended 250-year lease not offered to the football club on which the stadium always relied.

‘Wait’, say the few vociferous no doubt vested interests, usual suspects and few Coventry City fans whose campaign priority appears to be to ensure Coventry City’s owners Sisu are blamed, rather than representing the majority of sensible fans who, judging from many objections received by the council and elsewhere, just want the club to retain an elite category 2 youth academy in the city whoever the club’s owners are in future – thus continuing to develop promising young city talent and foster links between the historic local club and next generations.

‘Planners can only consider planning matters’, they say, and the displacement of Coventry’s youth academy facilities if Wasps build a training centre at the Higgs centre is supposedly not a ‘material planning consideration’.

So argues the council’s head of planning Kurt Russell in his agenda document (see council website) to councillors recommending councillors approve the scheme, subject to the government not wishing to step in on Green Belt grounds.

It is not difficult to spot an inherent contradiction in Mr Russell’s paper which goes under the guise of ‘quasi judicial’ planning objectivity.

He does not apply the same arguments to Wasps. In fact, his arguments about the economic and other benefits Wasps bring to the city are presented as central planning considerations for councillors. He even goes as far to present them as a reason why government Green Belt protections should be overturned on the grounds of these ‘Very Special Circumstances’.

He presents to councillors a picture of Wasps’ proposed new training centre facilities cementing their presence in the city and strengthening the ‘economic growth’ since Wasps came to the Ricoh.

Yet the displacement of Coventry City Football Club youth academy for which the centre was built is dismissed in one simple sentence. It is a ‘non material planning consideration’, states Mr Russell’s paper.

He makes no attempt to address the wider impact on the highly valuable business, sporting and cultural asset of Coventry City Football Club being further distressed and potentially lost. As appears to be the case, the council and others insist it must rent a stadium and be deprived of commercial stadium revenues, while no alternative provision for an elite Category 2 academy is presented.

If the displacement of CCFC’s vital youth academy – which receives Category 2 status and £650,000 annually from the footballing authorities –  is genuinely not a ‘material planning consideration’, why did Mr Russell last month, in those FoI emails released to this newspaper, call on Wasps’ consultants Oxalis Planning to fill the gaping holes in its planning application and finally address what alternative provision could be provided for the football academy facilities, either on or off site? Following public objections, Mr Russell stated just last month it was always going to be the ‘sticking point’, as he called on Wasps to ‘help’ us ‘justify’ the application to planning committee.

… Er, er… they may be able to use our new ‘kicking barn’ and an outside pitch when Wasps aren’t using it, came the retrospective and spectacularly unconvincing reply.

No wonder the football club’s managing director Chris Anderson insists that if Wasps – or more appropriately the centre’s operators the Coventry Sports Foundation (whose business has always been propped up by council support and funding) has a genuine retrospective proposal for CCFC’s academy, it should state it in writing as a basis for any discussion.

So let’s examine independently the definition of a ‘material planning consideration’ – given it is the crucial criteria on which councillors next Thursday will decide whether to approve or reject Wasps’ application.

On any reading of government guidance and other professional website summaries, almost anything can come under its umbrella. Ultimately, a material planning consideration can include anything that is relevant ‘in the public interest’.

Councils themselves have the discretion to decide, so in this sense Mr Russell and the council appear not to be breaking the rules and I do not suggest they are. But his guidance to councillors certainly appears to be at his discretion and subjective. Ultimately it is the courts who decide what is a ‘material planning consideration’, based on legal precedents.

What is clear on any independent reading – including from Mr Russell’s own contradictory assertions – is that the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts on the community from a proposal can absolutely constitute material planning considerations.

Most of us who have had painful experience of reporting often tedious planning matters recognise that planning decisions are taken in relation to local and national planning policies, as Mr Russell’s document states.

But he fails to consider, for example, the council’s own policy document, the Coventry Sporting Strategy (2014-2024).

As this newspaper’s investigation pointed out this month, its so called ‘vision aims’ include…

* To identify and support talented athletes to reach their sporting potential.

* To provide a wide range of high quality and exciting sporting opportunities and experiences.

The Coventry Observer raised questions with the council and CSF over whether squeezing the football club’s academy out of the Higgs Centre – in favour of a Wasps training facility and a new council-backed 50 metre swimming pool – would contravene those aims.

The crucial over-riding Local Plan in its current form also places the Higgs Centre in the Green Belt, despite councillors’ attempts to remove it in the forthcoming Local Plan. It appears the vitality of Coventry City’s youth academy was among the ‘very special circumstances’ on which planning permission was originally granted for the Higgs centre in the Green Belt more than a decade ago.

It would appear on examination of social media and website comments that no-one seriously believes the Higgs centre has the capacity for the Sky Blues to retain an elite category 2 academy, Wasps training centre AND the proposed council-backed swimming pool. Attempts by some individuals on social media around the fans’ group the Sky Blue Trust disastrously unravelled when they tried to make out such dual capacity for Wasps AND a category 2 academy was certain. Headlines followed which tried to pin the blame on the club’s owners for not attending a meeting. ‘It’s all the football club owners’ fault’, scream the few noisy ‘Sisu Out at all costs’ bitter campaigners. Their thoughts for the future of the club seem secondary, and disregard recent history of disastrously failed attempts to oust Sisu through a council-sponsored administration process. They have no stated end-game – Sisu having nothing to sell and no shining knight bidder for the distressed CCFC is appearing on the horizon.

The club insists to meet Category 2 status it would require ‘unrestricted access’ to three grass pitches at weekends, and 2 to 2.5 grass pitches on weekdays; an outdoor 3g pitch 5 nights a week; an indoor pitch 5 nights a week; and all current office, classroom and dressing room space.

If this is possible, let CSF state it in writing. We too have asked them to do so. They have failed. Could it possibly be because they don’t have one?

Those of us long in the tooth enough to have reported on politics and lots on planning matters are not so naive as to believe that the realpolitik of local authorities has never played any part in the so-called ‘quasi-judicial’ planning process.

Among those public objections dismissed by planning officers as ‘non-material’ are the following comments…

“This is a plan to eradicate, destroy and cripple Coventry City Football Club by a non-Coventry originating entity, it shows spite and a lack of loyalty and the loss of young talent will be a great loss to Coventry to the benefit of neighbouring cities.”

Another reads: “Coventry City Council are trying to promote health and fitness and as football is a far larger participants sport than rugby approving this application will damage that.”

Another states: “There is a hidden agenda to rid the city of its football team, there should be a full public enquiry into the council’s dealings with regard to the football club and the move from Highfield Road.”

Mr Russell’s cleverly worded document is right to state such accusations of a hidden agenda are not material planning considerations. He is also right to say that a long three-pronged legal dispute between the club’s owners, council and Higgs charity – during which the club had publicly mooted moving a long-term academy elsewhere – are not material planning considerations. (N.B There is no evidence the club served notice on the Higgs centre after June next year. We have reported emails which categorically show the club for months sought talks with CSF about a long-term future at the academy, only to be rejected without full explanation).

However, for the reasons stated above including his own contradictions regarding the business, cultural and sporting impact of Wasps’ proposal, it is incumbent on the 11 councillors at Thursday’s public hearing of the planning committee to question Mr Russell’s assertions of what constitutes a ‘material planning consideration’, and much more. Many will be observing.

Regardless of whether planning permission is granted at this local stage, it is also incumbent on the council and the city’s sports providers – who as we revealed sit together as shadowy decision-makers on how the Coventry Sporting Strategy is applied – to finally address the importance of Coventry City retaining a youth academy in the city.