AN independent report into the planning application on Brandon Stadium has firmly concluded that National Planning Policy Framework guidelines have NOT been met by the developers.
Consultants WYG have reported to Rugby Borough Council after a thorough examination of documents both from representatives of the developers, and from the Save Coventry Speedway & Stock Car Campaign Group, who are seeking to secure the return of both sports to the area after the forced closure of the stadium at the end of the 2016 season.
The developers submitted their planning application in January 2018, which at the time omitted a Sports Needs Assessment (SNA), which followed in September 2018. This sought to prove that the stadium was not viable, and that there was no ongoing need for a replacement, as suitable alternative provision existed elsewhere (for speedway, with Coventry operating at Leicester, and for stock cars at other venues within a 70-mile radius).
The Campaign Group submitted extensive documentation to expose numerous untruths and inaccuracies throughout the planning material, and at a Public Meeting in November 2018 the former Leader of Rugby Council Michael Stokes announced the independent review would be commissioned prior to the Planning Committee hearing.
The consultants met with all interested parties including representatives of the developers, the Campaign Group and governing bodies of both speedway and stock car racing earlier this year. Their report was issued to the developers and the Campaign Group in advance of going into the public domain on Monday September 30.
A reminder that paragraph 97 of National Planning Policy Framework states that existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless:
a) an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings or land to be surplus to requirements [NOTE: This is the section the developers are attempting to use to justify their plans]; or b) the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or c) the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the benefits of which clearly outweigh the loss of the current or former use.
Key points to emerge from the report:
• WYG stress the view of the government Planning Inspector regarding the Local Plan, in that when making a decision the Council need to “start from the basis of safeguarding provision, in line with the general policy for sport and recreation buildings.” Key criteria for decision making are evidence of “need, viability and alternative provision.”
• In the overview of Need, WYG state that the SNA “falls short in certain areas, and there are inaccuracies… which do impact on the findings and the narrative set out by the applicant.” They also point out that the motorsports bodies were not consulted as part of the SNA, which is described as “an omission, and would have painted a different picture in terms of needs and outcomes” – as the governing bodies were supportive of the role of Brandon, its importance to the sports and the impact of its loss.
• Regarding the developers’ list of existing speedway and stock car venues, WYG observed that “there are inaccuracies within the detail of the audit, which make the quantitative claims within the SNA less robust” – and that a number of facilities listed do not provide ‘like for like’ replacements as claimed, for either sport.
• Regarding the condition of the stadium at the point of closure, WYG state: “The stadium was evidently fit for purpose… Furthermore, whilst investment would have been required, there is no evidence that this was over and above the level expected of a venue of its age and type, and nothing that would have pre-empted its closure on quality grounds.” They go on to say: “In the context of motorsport stadiums Brandon could reasonably be considered to be a quality venue, with no major investment required which might threaten its operation.” They note the “special significance” and long-term history of Brandon in terms of staging major events, and state: “Brandon was unquestionably still a significant motorsport venue up to its demise, and was more than just a local track.”
• The final note on the quality of the stadium confirms that “the alternatives put forward in the SNA are not ‘fit for purpose’ and fall significantly short of providing the same qualitative experience as delivered at Brandon for motorsports.”
• WYG have questioned the developers’ selection of a 70-mile radius for suitable alternative venues, and also backed up the Campaign Group’s response of the unsuitability of stadiums within that range, stating that “the number of genuinely accessible facilities is therefore much reduced from the case set out in the SNA.” They also stress the good, central location of Brandon – and conclude: “Despite there being no agreed accessibility catchments, it is difficult to argue that reduced provision located significant distance away… is acceptable in terms of access and passing the ANOG [Assessing Needs and Opportunities Guide] accessibility test.”
• WYG deal with the re-location of Coventry Bees to Leicester, racing in the National League, in 2018, describing it as “a significant part of the applicant’s SNA case, and was put forward to demonstrate there were suitable alternative provision to justify the loss of Brandon.” However, “the reality was that the re-location was never like-for-like, the Coventry team that transferred did so to compete in the bottom division… which was a very different offering and team. It was only ever done on a short-term basis, with no long-term commitment put in place. The re-location did not work, lasting only a short time and Coventry Bees no longer race.”
• WYG also point out that “stock car racing has not successfully re-located”, and also refer to the recent unfortunate closure of Stoke – which in itself never provided a ‘like for like’ re-location.
• The conclusion of the Availability section states that “Lack of availability has had a clear impact in terms of speedway ending and stock car activity being curtailed. There is and has not been adequate availability of suitable alternative provision and re-location opportunities to allow the sports to continue.”
• In summary, WYG state: “We are not convinced that the case has been made that Coventry Stadium is surplus to requirements as argued by the applicant.”
• The developers have argued that the cost of re-instating Brandon as at 2017 was £3.73 million. WYG have noted the work of the Campaign Group, who feel the cost would be far less due to the support gained from local businesses, and the tremendous reaction from volunteers willing to give their time to return the stadium to its former glory.
• WYG note that the final aspect to be explored, as set out by the Inspector, is to consider alternative provision, ie. a replacement stadium – confirming once again that the previous re-location strategy did not work.
• The authors recognise that “there is evident widespread support for motorsports in the area, as a legacy of Coventry Stadium, and real capacity and a groundswell that could drive a replacement proposition. This is an important ingredient, which should not be under-estimated.”
• Whilst WYG state firmly that the current stadium cannot be deemed surplus, they do question whether a re-opening would be deliverable – and so they suggest that “a replacement option presents the next step, without a stalemate position being reached. This therefore needs to be explored… The history and support behind the Coventry Stadium could suggest there may be potential to deliver an alternative.”
• The section concludes with the statement that “An alternative provision strategy would require developers to accept the principle of meeting paragraph 97 b) and all parties commit to explore this route.”
• However, the developers are attempting to secure permission via paragraph 97 a) [showing the venue to be surplus to requirements] – and the clear conclusion from WYG is that: “We do not believe this test has been met sufficient for Coventry Stadium to be deemed surplus to requirements.”
Both the developers and the Campaign Group will have the opportunity to comment to the Planning Officer on the report, and Rugby Council have confirmed the application will not go to Planning Committee as previously expected in November.
Campaign Group spokesman Jeff Davies said: “We have waited for this report for ten months, since the Public Meeting last year, and we are very pleased that consultants WYG have concurred with almost all of the points made in our representations to Rugby Council.
“At no time during the last three years have we believed the fight to save Brandon was a lost cause.
“Speedway and stock car racing are great family sports, with speedway having been staged there for 90 years, and both sports are vitally important to the area.
“WYG consultants recommend that the Campaign Group are involved in any discussions to meet Paragraph 97b, should the developers agree this could be a way forward.
“We are absolutely open to be involved in any discussions with the developers and Rugby Council which are aimed at finding a solution in order to bring about the return of speedway and stock car racing to the area for future generations to enjoy.”
The full report from WYG is available to read via the Rugby Borough Council Planning Portal. Visit https://planning.agileapplications.co.uk/rugby/search-applications/ and type Coventry Stadium into the Location section. Select the second application (R18/0186), and from the Documents tab scroll down to ‘Miscellaneous Documents’ and select the Independent Review document.