County Ground Redevelopment: Some Realism Needed
Back in January 2008 when Fitton & Co. ‘saved’ STFC, the objectives of the new board were published, including an ambition to redevelop the County Ground, home of Swindon Town FC since 1896.
This week we have had Andrew Fitton reveal more of the potential redevelopment of the County Ground, including an estimate of the likely cost at £20 million and an indication of a Reebok Stadium style of sweeping roof. Nothing else has been confirmed, that means no planned capacity, supporter facilities or even how the board aim to fund this £20 million stadium development.
Today Fitton said; “This is not a prediction, but if we really got going quickly we could get a planning application in within a couple of months, and if we did that then technically we could start work in May – although that is not the objective. I don’t think that is likely because it is a very condensed timetable, but that is the speed in which we are prepared to work if they (Swindon Borough Council) are prepared to work with us.”
As someone working in the development industry, whilst I admire the board and their consultant Frank Whittle Partnership for their ambition to deliver this project swiftly, I feel a dose of realism needs to be given to the supporters; that putting pressure on SBC to ‘play-ball’ to allow work to start by May is misleading.
Firstly, STFC do not own the land, Swindon Borough Council are the freehold owners and hold the key to the redevelopment but they themselves must ensure ‘best value’ for the wider residents of the town, many of whom don’t support the football team. Do the board expect SBC to transfer the land to STFC for free? The SBC leasehold agreement with STFC will undoubtably include many legal restrictions and landlord permissions. These all need to be resolved before any work can start after a significant amount of time and of course money. It is evident from what Fitton says the club has yet to approach SBC to discuss this scheme, so I seriously doubt his suggested timescales are realistic.
Secondly, there is the small matter of the many private covenants on the land dating back to its original sale by the Goddard Estate to the Swindon Corporation / Borough Council which restrict (as I understand) non recreational / sporting uses on this land. Has this been factored into their plans and has negotiations commenced to release the land from these restrictions to maximise non-matchday income / fund the development?
Thirdly, I doubt a planning application could be realistically submitted by the end of this year. Such a redevelopment proposal raises many significant planning and local issues, which I can only strongly advise the club to properly consider from the outset. Then there is also the matter of pre-planning application community involvement which is enshrined into the planning process, particularly important as there is a large residential community surrounding the club who will undoubtedly have much to say. A hastily put together application without full involvement from all interested parties, local community, Councillors, technical consultees etc. will undoubtedly fail and will be of no benefit to the club or town.
Also, whilst technically a planning application could be submitted by the end of this year and could be determined within 13 week timescale (i.e. by April), this type of complex proposal will undoubtedly require a Legal Agreement. Again this all takes time and even if SBC worked with STFC a May start date on-site is not realistic nor feasible.
I understand why the club would aspire towards a May start date for the redevelopment to coincide with the end of the league campaign, however I wish the board would not unrealistically raise expectations with the fans, only for the fans to be disappointed (again) this May when work doesn’t start.