RUGBY club Wasps’ plans to move their training centre into Coventry City Football Club’s ‘lifeblood’ youth academy home have received the formal backing of planning officers – who will recommend councillors grant planning permission next week.
The controversial proposals will go before a public meeting open to all of the council’s planning committee next Thursday, starting at 2pm at Coventry council house, Earl Street, city centre.
Council planning officers’ recommendation that councillors approve the scheme is a major boost for Wasps hopes of building players’ training facilities at the Alan Higgs Centre in Allard Way.
It was purpose-built as an academy for Coventry City Football Club, and is operated by the Coventry Sports Foundation (CSF).
It comes after the council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity in 2014 sold the Ricoh Arena stadium built for the Sky Blues to Premiership rugby club, the then London Wasps, on a massively extended 250-year deal not offered to the football club, following a legal dispute with the club’s owners.
The Coventry Observer’s ‘Save Our City’ campaign’ has called on the council, CSF and others to ensure the 133-year-old football club retains in Coventry its current elite ‘category 2’ youth academy facilities – which receive additional funding from the football authorities.
The academy had been a lifeblood in offering elite training to promising young Coventry schoolchildren, and developing the city’s stars of the future such as James Maddison and Callum Wilson.
Two fans organisations, the Coventry City Supporters’ Consultative Group and the Sky Blue Trust have also called for the academy to be retained, while the club’s managing director Chris Anderson has said it appears the club is being squeezed out of the city which bears its name.
The planning committee agenda documents which will go before next Thursday’s committee of 11 councillors have been published on the council’s website (see link below).
The documents, written by the council’s planning manager, Kurt Russell, state: “Planning committee are recommended to resolve that they are minded to grant planning permission, subject to conditions, and the Secretary of State not wishing to intervene.”
The government might intervene on the grounds the centre is in the Green Belt, and either call a public inquiry, or have local government secretary Greg Clark ultimately decide whether or not planning permission should be granted.
Wasps have to demonstrate their application meets the “Very Special Circumstances” test for why government Green Belt protections should be set aside.
Wasps this month temporarily moved their training facilities to Broadstreet rugby club in Binley Woods, from London.
Councillors on the planning committee are Labour’s Parvez Akhtar, Richard Brown (chair), John McNicholas, Rachel Lancaster, Catherine Miks, Kieran Mulhall (deputy chair), Pat Seaman and Hazel Sweet; Conservatives Roger Bailey and Gary Crookes, and independent Glenn Williams.
As we revealed last week, council planning officer Mr Russell – in emails disclosed to us following our Freedom of Information request – wrote last month to Wasps following CCFC fans’ objections to state they had failed in their planning application to outline proposals to retain the football facilities on or off-site. He added it was always going to be the ‘sticking point’, and called on them to do so, to ‘help’ planning officers ‘jusfify’ the application to the planning committee.
Wasps have since responded to him in writing to state the football club may be able to use their new ‘kicking barn’ on site – which would be built in addition to a main training centre building – at certain times; and possibly outdoor pitches, both grass and semi-artificial 3G.
The football club last week re-iterated its call for Coventry Sports Foundation to state in writing if it belatedly had genuine proposals which might see the club retain its elite Category 2 academy at the centre after its lease expires in June next year.
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.
The detailed planning documents, written by head of planning Mr Russell, contain no such information on how a category 2 football academy could be retained on site as well as the Wasps new training centre, which could be in addition to a new council-backed 50metre swimming pool.
Mr Russell’s document states objections received from the public concerning the displacement of the football club’s academy raise points which are ‘non material planning considerations, which cannot be given due consideration in the planning process’.
Councils have discretion in deciding in their planning deliberations what constitutes a ‘material planning consideration’ which can include a wide range of factors including economic impact and the displacement of people, businesses or amenities. Ultimately, courts can decide.
One such complaint reproduced in his document reads: “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 written submission to councillors goes on to state: “The main issues in determining this application are principle of development, design, Green Belt, impact upon neighbouring amenity, highway considerations, ecology and other issues.”
He goes on to state he agrees with Wasps’ claim that the “Very Special Circumstances” exist which should allow for the development on the Green Belt, pointing to job creation and economic growth from Wasps’ move into Coventry, and the creation of sports facilities.
Mr Russell’s document adds the council’s draft Coventry Local Plan 2016 seeks to remove the site from the Green Belt, although this currently has ‘limited weight’.
He also argues in the document that the Wasps’ move into the Ricoh Arena had secured the stadium and job-creating Ricoh project’s future.
WHAT THE PLANNING COMMITTEE AGENDA DOCUMENT SAYS ABOUT DISPLACING CCFC ACADEMY
Mr Russell’s agenda document to go before councillors on the planning committee next Thursday adds: “Many letters have been received from members of the public with regards to the ongoing situation between Coventry City Football Club, Wasps, SISU and the City Council. Whilst this situation is a cause of concern to many residents, is not a planning matter and can have no bearing on the determination of this planning application.
“With regards to the relocation of the Coventry City FC (CCFC) Academy provision, the applicant has provided some clarification. CCFC currently have a User Agreement in relation to the use of the grass pitches, which expires on 30 June 2017. In the interim, before the agreement expires, CCFC have agreed to move their match pitch to one of the other pitches on-site and Wasps are contributing to the cost of the pitch move. CCFC will continue using the site until the end of June 2017 when the agreement expires.
“After the expiry of the various agreements on the 30th June 2017, the Academy need to decide where they will be located. If the application is approved and the construction of the proposed kicking barn is complete, Wasps have offered the football club the use of it for up to 3 hours a day, 5 days a week starting at either 5pm or 6pm, which will enable them to continue to train indoors should they wish to do so. Therefore, they can use the kicking barn regardless of whether their outdoor training facility is based at the Alan Higgs Centre or not. Wasps have offered that to them on a normal commercial basis.
“After their agreement in relation to the Grass Pitches expires at the end of June 2017, the CCFC academy may still be able to use other outdoor pitch space, but the availability of such pitch space is something they would need to discuss and arrange directly with Coventry Sports Foundation. It should be noted that whether or not this application is approved the current arrangement could terminate when the contract expires and as such the matter is not strictly a planning matter.”
The full planning committee agenda documents can be viewed on Coventry City Council’s website using this link..
The Coventry Observer’s ‘Save Our City’ campaign has in recent weeks reproduced statements in written emails this year where Mr Anderson repeatedly called on CSF for talks to retain CCFC’s academy after June next year, only to receive responses from CSF’s Paul Breed that it was pressing ahead with alternative plans for the Higgs centre, and the club would have to leave as planned next June.
The FoI emails disclosed to us show Wasps’ consultants had been in discussion with council planning officers since at least October last year.
CSF blames statements during the legal dispute between Coventry City’s owners Sisu, the council and Higgs charity that the club was looking for academy facilities elsewhere.
Mr Anderson says there is no evidence the club ever served notice on the Higgs centre, and wants to stay there.
Last week, he said the club was disappointed it had not received from CSF a detailed written proposal for how a Category 2 football academy could be retained under the Wasps’ proposal, while CSF said Mr Anderson had failed to attend a meeting this month to discuss the issue.
Coventry City Football Club has lodged a formal objection, stating it has not even been formally consulted on the proposals.
It also disputes Wasps’ assertions concerning commercial negotiations.
The football club has notified Sport England and the F.A (Football Association).
To see the full formal objection, click here..