ALL parties in the Ricoh Arena dispute have been urged by the government’s sports secretary to find an urgent resolution to keep Coventry City in the city after crucial talks today – but counci leaders failed to show up.
The digital, culture, media and sport secretary this afternoon issued a brief statement, after meeting leading figures from stadium owners Wasps, the Sky Blues and its owners Sisu.
But it emerged this evening that only Ricoh freehold owner Coventry City Council failed to send its top people.
It’s decision-making political leaders including leader George Duggins were noticeable by their absence, sending only its solicitor Julie Newman instead.
Top representatives from the English Football League (EFL), Premiership Rugby and Coventry MPs were also present at the meeting, as was West Midlands mayor Andy Street.
The statement reads: “This morning’s meeting was a good opportunity to have a full and frank discussion and hear from all parties.
“Coventry City’s survival is our pre-eminent concern and priority. We would like the club to continue playing in Coventry.
“I’ve asked the parties to go away and work together urgently to resolve the issue before next season.”
It is understood the process is confidential.
The Conservative Kenilworth and Southam MP’s intervention follows Labour Coventry South MP Jim Cunningham’s call for ministerial mediation over the dispute in a Westminster Hall debate he called in January.
The office of one MP told us today’s talks were welcomed as an “exploratory first step”, with all sides “getting round a table and hearing each others’ positions”.
Ricoh Arena owners Wasps have for months controversially refused to extend the Sky Blues’ tenancy at the ground built for it – for after current tenancy arrangements expire at the end of this season.
Wasps have repeatedly insisted Sisu must first drop all legal action,which includes a Supreme Court appeal concerning the council’s 2014 deal, in which Wasps are named as an interested party.
The English Football League is set to host an Extraordinary General Meeting on April 25 in which Coventry City could be expelled from the league – if the club cannot find a temporary home.
The club insists it wants to stay at the Ricoh Arena and has called for talks with Wasps and the council – but says it is being forced to consider groundshare arrangements with as yet unspecified other clubs.
As we revealed yesterday, Sisu in an Open Letter said it would drop legal action in return for a “commercially acceptable” medium-term deal to play at the Ricoh and council support for the club to build a new stadium in the city. Sisu says that would give the club access to crucial stadium revenues which overwhelmingly go to Wasps at the Ricoh.
The council this afternoon issued a statement in response to the Open Letter denying suggestions that its neutrality in considering any planning applications – as required in law – was questionable . It repeated its call for Sisu to drop the litigation and “enter meaningful talks” with Wasps about a tenancy agreement.
In May 2016, the Coventry Observer exclusively revealed evidence from a council leaked email that proved it had sought to block Coventry City from playing at an hugely expanded Butts Park Arena – home of Coventry rugby club – when the two traditional city sporting institutions were exploring a groundshare.
Today’s council’s statement reads:
Joint statement from Cllr George Duggins, Leader of Coventry City Council, and Cllr Gary Ridley, Leader of the Opposition Conservative Party, Coventry City Council, responding to the SISU open letter:
“It is regrettable that the current owners of our great football club continue to trot out the same arguments about the conduct of others while completely failing to take responsibility for the position that the club finds itself in under their stewardship. They continue to paint themselves as victims where, in reality, the current situation is a direct consequence of the actions taken by the owners in recent years.
“The arguments about the unlawful actions of others detailed in their letter have been tested numerous times now in the courts and have failed every time. It is the continuation of this litigation which is alienating them from the partners in the city who they should be working with to secure a successful and sustainable future for Coventry City Football Club.
“Coventry City Council has been consistent in its desire to see a successful football club secure a long term future in the city whether that be at the Ricoh Arena or in a new stadium and deny we have acted against their interests at any time. We have also been consistent in stressing that any application for an alternative development will be dealt with completely impartially and in accordance with our statutory duties.
“We firmly refute the baseless allegation that our impartiality as a planning authority is questionable. Any decision we take can be appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and if they ever feel procedurally disadvantaged they can of course take us to the Local Government Ombudsman.
“SISU have been talking about developing a new stadium for almost six years now but we have seen no evidence of any real progress or intent. If they are now serious about building a new home for the football club in the city, let them show they mean business by dropping the litigation and entering meaningful talks with Wasps about a tenancy agreement which will ensure that the club can fulfil the requirements of the English Football League and allow time for SISU to bring forward and deliver a stadium proposal which is viable both logistically and financially.
“Let them show they are serious about their commitment to Coventry City Football Club by taking this first step to secure its immediate future and to help get the club back to its rightful place in the upper echelons of league football.”
CCFC states the following on its website this evening..
Coventry City Football Club attended today’s meeting in Westminster, and welcomed the opportunity for the parties involved in the current impasse to come together to discuss the future of the Football Club in the City.
At the start of the meeting today, it was agreed that no party would publicly comment on what was discussed in the meeting.
As stated previously, we maintain that face-to-face talks between key figures in all parties would be the only way to find a solution.
We would like to thank those who took the time to attend the meeting today, including:
Jeremy Wright (Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Mims Davies (Minister for Sport), their ministerial colleagues and local MPs.
Julie Newman, Coventry City Council
Nick Eastwood, Wasps
Andy Street, West Midlands Mayor
Shaun Harvey and John Nagle, EFL
Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby
Joy Seppala, SISU
Laura Deering, SISU
Tim Fisher, Chairman, and Dave Boddy, Chief Executive, attended on behalf of the Football Club.
We hope that an agreement can be found that will provide the best solution to all parties, that being Coventry City playing home games at the Ricoh Arena next season.