A COVENTRY council planning officer wrote to Wasps’ advisers last month requesting ‘help’ on how councillors on the planning committee could be persuaded of the justification for the rugby club’s controversial plans to build a training ground at the Sky Blues’ ‘lifeblood’ youth academy’s home.
The email came after an outcry among Coventry City Football Club fans and official objections after the Wasps planning application for the Alan Higgs Centre in Allard Way was published on June 1.
The email has now been disclosed to the Coventry Observer along with other material (click on links at foot of story) concerning the application in response to our Freedom of Information request for our ‘Save Our City’ campaign.
The email, written by planning officer Kurt Russell to Robert Gilmore of Wasps’ consultants Oxalis Planning on June 6, states: “Hi Rob. I’ve been looking through the application that came in whilst I was on leave and I can’t see any information regarding the loss of the existing football and netball pitches and the relocation of these facilities either within the Allard Way site or elsewhere.
“The loss of the facilities was always going to be a sticking point, and this seems to be being realised by the early objections that we have received.
“Please can you provide some information on this, which will help us to justify the proposal to planning committee when the time comes?”
On March 2, Mr Russell had emailed Wasps’ consultants to advise the planning application includes material which ‘addresses the loss of the existing pitches and makes clear where their replacements are/will be.’
The June 6 email suggests a retrospective attempt to ‘justify’ displacing the football club from its purpose-built centre of excellence facilities in response to public objections.
Despite Mr Russell noting the absence of any such proposals in the planning application, Wasps’ chief executive David Armstrong in early June told the media the football club could use its new ‘kicking barn’ once it was built, assuming planning permission would be granted.
That prompted Coventry City Football Club to call on Wasps to make clear in writing how the proposals would result in the retention of the Sky Blues’ centre of excellence facilities which have granted the club prized ‘Category 2′ status and associated funding from the football authorites.
The Wasps’ training facilities would be built on the football club’s outside academy pitch while there are also proposals for a council-backed 50metre swimming pool where the indoor pitch is located.
Sky Blues sources say the retrospective attempt to justify the proposals in a way which sensibly accommodates the Sky Blues have continued, with what they say are false recent claims in writing that commercial discussions had taken place with the football club. This is flatly denied by the club.
Also flatly denied by the football club is Higgs centre operator Coventry Sports Foundation’s claim that the Sky Blues had effectively served notice on its long-term commitment to the centre after the lease expires next June, when the football club would have to move out.
Sky Blues managing director Chris Anderson had several times this year written to call for negotiations with a view to the club remaining at the academy, only to be rejected, including in correspondence seen by the Coventry Observer.
The material disclosed to us following our FoI request also appears to provide brief minutes of pre-application meetings between council planning officials and Wasps’ consultants.
The first was on October 2 last year, when notes/minutes state discussion points included whether the facility would be open to local people and the ‘need to emphasise what Wasps do for the local community to assist with social benefits’.
On February 23 in an apparent meeting with the council’s planning manager Tracy Miller, notes/minutes state ‘TM advised: ‘Need to consider the displacement of the football academy’.
The minutes also say several other sites were being looked at in Coventry for Wasps’ training facilities, which have now moved on a ‘temporary’ basis to Broadstreet rugby club in Binley Woods in the borough of Rugby, from a site in west London where London Wasps were from, near Wembley Stadium.
The council has refused to disclose to us the identity of the potential other sites in Coventry, on grounds of commercial confidentiality.
The documents also state a ‘VSC’ (very special circumstances) justification’ would be required to get round government planning restrictions on building in the green belt.
One email on May 31 by council development executive Richard Moon and copied into council PR boss Fran Collingham and council acting chief executive Martin Yardley – who we recently revealed had pushed the ‘Coventry – a City of Rugby’ initiative – states the need to ‘manage the PR’ when Wasps’ planning application is published.
Emails before and since February appear to show detailed communication on traffic arrangements. Documents from November appear to show early plans for a temporary as well as a permanent training facility.
Council emails in late June raise further concerns on ecological and traffic grounds.
The Observer’s ‘Save Our City’ campaign is calling on Coventry City Council and the city’s sporting institutions including CSF to do more to ensure the club retains a viable presence in Coventry, amid the club’s and fans’ concerns it is being squeezed out in favour of rugby and Wasps, following a long running dispute with the club’s owners Sisu.
In addition to their intention to move into the Sky Blues’ academy home, the then London Wasps obtained the Ricoh Arena in 2014 from the council and Higgs charity on a massively extended 250-year deal not offered to the 133-year-old football club for which the stadium was built.
It also follows revelations from a leaked council email in January which proposed blocking any prospect of the club moving to an expanded Butts Park Arena home of Coventry Rugby Football Club, a proposal which aimed to enable both traditional Coventry sporting clubs to access more vital revenues from commercial stadium activities.
Coventry City fans’ organisations – including the Supporters’ Consultative Group and Sky Blue Trust – are protesting against the potential loss of the youth academy to the city.