COVENTRY council’s planning committee took less than half an hour to decide today it was ‘minded to approve’ Wasps’ application to build a training centre at Coventry City’s purpose-build ‘lifeblood’ youth academy home – subject to the government and Sport England not wishing to intervene.
But not before the concerns of sports’ governing body over the potential impact on the Sky Blues’ academy – which has prized category 2 status and £650,000 annual funding – forced an eleventh hour change of position from planning officers.
The council’s planning officers recommended councillors voted that they were “minded to grant planning permission, subject to conditions, the (government’s) Secretary of State not wishing to intervene” and the “resolution of the Sport England concerns regarding the future use of the site.”
The recommendation, now approved by councillors, added that if Sport England’s concerns cannot be resolved, the matter will go back to the planning committee for further consideration.
It is a recognition that Sport England’s concerns – shared by our Save Our City campaign, CCFC and fans’ groups are hugely significant.
Such concerns could be included in government deliberations over whether it will take the decision out of the council’s hands and ultimately decide whether planning permission should be granted.
That is already a possibility because the academy site is in the green belt, so Wasps would have to show there are the ‘Very Special Circumstances’ required for government Green Belt protections to be overturned.
The Coventry Observer’s ‘Save Our City’ campaign had formally written this week to all councillors on the planning committee to urge a decision be postponed until Sport England had received all the information it has requested about the likely impact on the football club’s academy at the Alan Higgs Centre in Allard Way, where the Sky Blues’ lease is due to expire next June.
Fans’ group the Sky Blue Trust had also called on the planning committee to reject the planning application today, at least to allow the potential exploration of how the football club’s academy might be retained on site. Another fans group the Consultative Suporters’ Group formally registered its grave concerns about the future for future generations of footballing youngsters,
Our campaign has also called on councillors to challenge the advice they received from council planning officer Kurt Russell that the potential loss of the football club’s academy was not a ‘material planning consideration’ – and should not therefore influence the planning committee’s decision.
We have outline that in emails Mr Russell himself wrote to Wasps’ planning consultants last month – disclosed to this newspaper following our Freedom of Information request – he had called on the rugby club to belatedly state how the football facilities could be retained either on or off-site, following formal objections from Coventry City fans.
The email disclosures also show he wrote in March to request the information, and that in council notes from an earlier meeting, the council’s head of planning Tracy Miller had appeared to tell Wasps’ consultants that the displacement of CCFC’s academy was always going to be a key issue.
We have pointed out that government and other guidance states ‘material planning considerations’ can include wide concerns including the economic, social and sporting impacts, and wide matters that are ‘in the public interest’. Councils can decide what they consider to be planning matters, but ultimately the courts decide.
We have also highlighted the apparent contradictions in the council officer’s advice which emphasised the economic and sporting benefits of Wasps in the city, but dismissed as ‘non material’ (in planning terms) the economic and sporting impact of the 133-year-old football club and its academy.
Yet Labour councillor Rachel Lancaster repeated the assertion at today’s planning committee that the academy’s potential displacement was not a planning matter but a commercial matter between the club and the centre’s operators, Coventry Sports Foundation.
She and other councillors including Conservative Gary Crookes and Labour’s Pat Seaman urged all sides to ‘get round the table’ to assess whether both clubs could be accommodated on site.
Coventry City’s managing director Chris Anderson said in a letter to Mr Russell on Friday, published on the club’s website, that it would be “willing to discuss the significant concerns we have with the applicants, but we suggest this would require the involvement of Sport England, Coventry Sports Foundation, and the City Council.”
It adds: “We are also willing to work with all parties toward an agreement that will ensure the club’s future at the Higgs Centre and an agreement that meets all parties’ needs.
“As such, we trust you will wish to facilitate such a meeting before coming to any conclusion on the submitted application.”
But the club also maintains its position that it wants CSF to place in writing what facilities will be available to the football club at what times if Wasps training centre is built, so it can measure that against a wide range of pitch and educational facilities required for Category 2 status.
Wasps responded to Mr Russell in writing by stating the club might be able to use its ‘kicking barn’ and outdoor facilities at certain times.