COVENTRY’S council and sporting authorities face questions over whether a co-ordinated drive to create a ‘City of Rugby’ is squeezing out the Sky Blues and elite youth football – potentially contravening a ten-year citywide Sports Strategy amid possible conflicts of interest.
The Observer’s ‘Save Our City’ campaign has conducted an investigation into how sport is governed in Coventry.
It raises major concerns over transparency and accountability, how decisions are being made and by who.
Our campaign launched last week calls to retain the Coventry City Football Club academy in Coventry and for a better stadium deal for the 133-year-old club.
A ‘Coventry Sports Strategy 2014-2024′ was democratically approved at a full Coventry City Council meeting of councillors in September 2014, following public consultation.
But we uncover today how major decisions since about sports in Coventry have been taken away from the public spotlight, and involve a tangled web of individuals and organisations.
Brought in by the council to draw up the overarching Coventry Sports Strategy 2014-2024 was a charity, the Coventry Sports Foundation (CSF), whose chief executive is Paul Breed and directors include former Olympic athlete Dave Moorcroft.
It also operates the Alan Higgs Centre where the football club has its lifeblood youth academy -creating future stars and developing young talent – within purpose-built facilities.
As we revealed from leaked emails last week, Mr Breed wrote to the football club in April this year and again this month to re-iterate that the academy’s arrangements will end next June.
Long-standing proposals for rugby newcomers Wasps – who already own the Ricoh Arena after its sale by the council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity in October 2014 – to move its training facilities into the Sky Blues’ academy home were confirmed when a planning application was submitted to the council a fortnight ago. Coventry City Council owns the freehold to the Higgs centre.
The Coventry Observer is today lodging Freedom of Information requests to Coventry City Council to question what talks took place with council officers or councillors involving other parties prior to Wasps’ planning application; and concerning all contact between the council and Wasps which initially took place as early as 2012, a recent judicial review heard.
The Coventry Observer supports the Sky Blues’ call for Coventry to be a ‘city of all sports’. Fans’ group the Sky Blue Trust has also launched a Save Our Academy campaign.
Councillors in October 2014, in agreeing in private the Ricoh’s sale to London Wasps, talked publicly about Coventry being a city of rugby, and claimed conditions of the deal included that Coventry rugby club and the Sky Blues would not be harmed.
The stadium deal was on a massively extended 250-year lease not offered to the Sky Blues who continue as mere tenants without commercial stadium revenues which go to Wasps.
It was announced the previous month that the Sky Blues were to return to the Ricoh after a year of playing ‘home’ games in Northampton after a legal dispute over Ricoh rent, revenues and ownership.
Leading councillors including the late Phil Townshend publicly stated at the time that councillors hoped the Sky Blues’ triumphant return would be followed by talks about the club potentially finally buying into the stadium built for it.
But long-standing secret talks with Wasps over Ricoh Arena ownership were strictly hidden from the public.
‘A CITY OF RUGBY’
Mr Breed publicly stated in October 2014 he had held discussions with the then ‘London Wasps’ prior to them coming to Coventry about how the High-Wycombe-based rugby club could be a part of community sports development in Coventry.
A programme called Engage! was later launched by the Coventry Sports Foundation, latest CSF accounts state.
It is commissioned to deliver rugby community programmes for Wasps. Income of £29,511 for Engage! was received up to March 31 last year and more after that date, the CSF accounts state.
The Coventry Sports Strategy, as approved by all councillors in 2014, has eight ‘Vision Aims’ including:
* 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 is raising 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.
By January 2015, a small number of councillors on a Business, Economy and Enterprise scrutiny board were briefed by the council’s executive director of place, Martin Yardley, of an ‘update’ on ‘progress’ on the Coventry Sports Strategy, specifically in relation to the ‘Vision Aims’.
The minutes state his ‘briefing note’ to councillors included the words:
“· How sport was developing in the City – Rugby was currently the primary sport in Coventry following the WASPS Rugby Team investment in the Ricoh Arena as their new home ground and also following the Rugby World Cup.”
The same small scrutiny committee in January this year – which included vociferous Wasps/Ricoh advocate and ‘Sky Blues fan’ Kevin Maton – received from Mr Yardley another briefing note ‘update’ after 16 months on ‘progress on implementing’ the Coventry Sports Strategy.
His briefing note states: “Rugby Union and Rugby League are the next sports to be formally approved by the Coventry Sports Network as ‘key sports’ for the city under the branding of Coventry being a ‘City of Rugby’.”
SO WHO IS THE COVENTRY SPORTS NETWORK?
The unelected Coventry Sports Network was set up in November 2014 to “manage” and “monitor” implementation of the Coventry Sports Strategy, according to council documents about the public consultation from 2014.
Despite its monitoring role, its members have included representatives from Coventry City Council, believed to be unelected council officer Jonathan Hunt according to one picture caption on a recent press release. He is the council’s head of sports development.
Some council documents also state the network’s representatives include the Coventry Sports Foundation, the two universities, and Coventry Sports Trust.
But, despite its apparently key decision-making powers, the shadowy Coventry Sports Network website does not state who its board members are, or its governance arrangements, or who it is accountable to. Nothing is registered with Companies House or the Charities Commission.
Even Mr Yardley’s ‘briefing note’ presentations to the committees of councillors failed to state who sits on the Coventry Sports Network making the decisions.
No such information can be found by a detailed search on the internet. We have asked the council to provide a list of its decision makers.
Coventry Sports Foundation’s position on the Coventry Sports Network means an organisation involved in delivering commissioned work for Wasps – and is proposing to remove the Sky Blues academy from the Higgs centre – has a seat on the body charged with monitoring and overseeing the fair implementation of sports development in Coventry.
‘CITY OF RUGBY’ STEERING GROUP
A ‘Coventry, a City of Rugby’ scheme was formally launched publicly in April this year.
It promoted a “unique and unprecedented” co-ordinated effort to develop rugby activities in Coventry from grassroots to the elite level – with Wasps, Coventry Rugby Football Club and rugby league’s Coventry Bears all involved.
The ‘Coventry, City of Rugby’ scheme’s website boasts it is now the Coventry Sports Strategy’s “second key sport” following tennis.
Coventry as the UK’s only ‘City of Rugby’ was presented in publicity as contrasting with Nottingham being a ‘city of football’.
Wasps stated on their website in April about the ‘Coventry, a City of Rugby’ scheme: “It is a formal collaboration between key organisations in Coventry that have an interest in rugby.
“Plans have been drawn-up by local sporting bodies, education providers and other leading figures as part of the ten-year Coventry Sports Strategy, embedding rugby as one of the city’s key sports and developing the game from grassroots to the elite, driving up participation…”
Deputy council leader Abdul khan is quoted saying: “As a City of Rugby, we aim to put Coventry at the forefront of the sport..”
It also states the ‘City of Rugby Steering Group’ is a ‘formal collaboration’ between Coventry City Council, Coventry Sports Foundation, Coventry Sports Network, Engage, the rugby authorities and city rugby clubs, the two universities, the Millerchip Family Fund and others.
BUTTS PARK ARENA AND CHRIS MILLERCHIP
In associated publicity in May this year, former Cov rugby player Chris Millerchip was reported to be a funder of the ‘Coventry, a City of Rugby’ scheme, when he praised the role in the five-year strategy of Mr Breed and the CSF.
New York resident Mr Millerchip also holds the head lease to the Butts Park Arena, which Cov rugby chairman Jon Sharp is seeking to acquire to enable him to develop proposals to expand and redevelop the stadium with a capacity of between 15,000 and 25,000, possibly involving a groundshare with the Sky Blues.
It would see both of the city’s struggling historic sporting clubs accessing more crucial commercial revenues from matchday and non-matchday commercial activities – in the hope of investing in their teams and a push towards League promotions.
The Coventry Observer revealed last month a leaked council email in January had proposed legal clauses – as a condition of any transfer of the head lease at the Butts Park Arena where the council is freeholder – which would prevent any professional football and associated training activities taking place there for more than 100 years.
Unelected council officer Nigel Clews has since claimed the email was simply a ‘fishing expedition’ to try and flush out the Butts groundshare plans, as they had been exclusively revealed by the Coventry Observer last November.
After the leak created a furore, the new council leader George Duggins told us in an interview last month that the council would not insist on such conditions, but would await any planning application for the Butts.
HIGGS CHARITY LEGAL BLOCK ON CCFC ACADEMY
It also emerged last week the Alan Edward Higgs Charity had insisted on obtaining a right, using a legal covenant, to block the football club from acquiring, or leasing beyond a short-term seven years, the academy facilities at the Higgs centre after June next year when the current lease expires.
The covenant was inserted by the Higgs charity as a lender to the Higgs centre. The covenant is included in the terms of a transfer of the centre’s long-lease in March this year to the Coventry and Warwickshire Award Trust (CAWAT).
It was transferred from the separate Alan Higgs Centre Trust – whose trustees for years had included Peter Knatchbull Hugessen, former council leader councillor John Mutton (now cabinet member for finance); and former CCFC life-president Joe Elliott.
CAWAT’s secretary is listed in accounts as Paul Breed and Dave Moorcroft as a director.
The council has finally responded with the following list of individuals on the Coventry Sports Network.
Paul Breed, Coventry Sports Foundation
David Moorcroft, CSN chair
Jonathan Hunt, Coventry City Council
David Nuttall, Coventry City Council
Tom Clift, Engage! Solihull and Warwickshire Sport
Vince Mayne, British University College Sport
TBC, Coventry University
Lisa Dodd-Mayne, University of Warwick
Tony Costello, Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire Sport
Adam Rigarlsford, Sport England
Jane Fowles/Paul Hargrave, Coventry City Council
Guy Rippon, Sky Blues in the Community