A vision, a replacement and a tight corner in Newbury – Faraday Road Football Ground and the London Road Industrial Estate in Newbury (September 2022)

Anyone wishing to write a history of the debates and disagreements concerning the London Road Industrial Estate and the closely related matter of the football grounds (one closed, one not yet built) will have no shortage of material to draw on. Even if written (unlikely, I admit) it will be some time before it appears. Most histories of things tend to be started after the issue being covered has reached some kind of conclusion. This saga can in no sense be described as “concluded”. Indeed, in many ways and despite all the time and money that has been spent on it, it hasn’t really got started at all.

This article looks my view of the situation as it was in late September 2022. Much may change in the future. These will be added to this post, and/or put in another post which will be linked to from this and/or added to our Newbury Area Weekly News column which is updated every Thursday.

I am vividly aware that some people may disagree with what I have said. Indeed, this is one of those issues where it would be utterly impossible to write something which everyone was happy with. If anyone wishes to add a comment, please do so using the box at the foot of this post. Once approved, these will be visible to all subsequent readers. You can also email brian@pennypost.org.uk.

Right: here goes…

A vision

Back in 2014, WBC’s principal ambition – vision, even – was to transform the London Road Industrial Estate into a commercial and residential neighbourhood. The keystone of this was the football ground at Faraday Road (which it owned) which would be re-developed as housing, the proceeds helping fund the rest of the project. All that was needed was to find a new home for the football club (which leased the site) elsewhere in Newbury to comply with Sport England’s statutory requirements, choose a development partner, get permissions and start digging. Newbury was, after all, a thriving town on the crossroads of southern England. A vision was in place. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, pretty much everything. What followed was, and is, a muddle of massive and frankly embarrassing proportions which continues to this day. It has involved several legal cases, several planning applications, contradictory public statements, an eviction, an arson attack, the formation of a pressure group, countless letters, meetings and emails and a lingering sense of confrontation and recrimination.

A replacement

One central theme runs through this. Before re-developing Faraday Road, WBC was required to provide (as Sport England (SE) reminded WBC in October 2014) “an equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location.” If it could not provide this, then the re-development of Faraday Road – the whole point of the exercise – would probably be unlawful.

It is impossible to believe that WBC was not aware of its obligations. As well as Sport England, Newbury FC, the Newbury Community Football Group (NCFG), the FA and the Football Foundation and others had been reminding WBC of this since at least early 2014. All the more perplexing, therefore, that in April 2016 the then CEO of West Berkshire Nick Carter, when asked what  the Council was going to do to address the problem, replied that “we are not going to do anything.”

A closure

This insouciance and light-touch approach was still in evidence when WBC made a major error in June 2018. Without taking legal advice and without having thought through the consequences, it closed the Faraday Road ground. It seems that was mainly as a kind of courtship ritual with its then development partner, St Modwen; a public means of proving that that the council was serious about freeing up the site and thus a worthy mate. All this assumed that the agreement with the developer could be proceeded with (as a later legal case proved, it couldn’t). As well as setting the Council on the downward path it has since followed, this decision gifted the NCFG a perfect raison d’être and casus belli. Both of these it has accepted.

A replacement (partial or otherwise)

Even more perplexing is that, despite knowing that it needed to find a replacement, no steps appeared to have been taken to do this until Howard Woollaston took over the portfolio in 2020. Some of the criticisms levelled against this as a stand-alone venue has been unfair – the capital costs, for instance, will be paid for by a low-cost loan from the PWLB – although it does anticipate a high level of subsidy and seems to benefit the Rugby Club more than the local football community. However, at least Councillor Woollaston has done something. The sports hub at Monks Lane may be a great success, and I hope it is. This does not, however, affect the question of whether it’s a replacement for Faraday Road.

By many opinions, it isn’t. An email from Sport England as recently as March 2022 confirmed that “nowhere in the planning application was it stated that this was a replacement for Faraday Road and on that basis it would not have been appropriate for Sport England to consider it such as a replacement.” The pitch is smaller, fewer spectators can be accommodated and the ground will not be run by the football club (which will be the junior partner). The plans were scaled down from two stands to one. The debate as to what “step” (the standard of ground and associated facilities) Monks Lane is or could be, Faraday Road was or either could aspire to be has been both unedifying and inconclusive. It has been officially described a “partial replacement” which could be translated as meaning “not a replacement.”

It this is not a replacement, it follows that the re-development of the Faraday Road ground risks being unlawful if a replacement pitch hasn’t been found. As the last eight years has failed to reveal a possible site that’s of the right size, in the right place and available to use, must be assumed that no such site exists. The only suitable replacement for Faraday Road is thus Faraday Road itself; just as the only future for the wider London Road Industrial Estate is – as the latest vision states – as an industrial estate. This sense of having a taken a long, bruising and expensive journey only to arrive back at the same place is clearly not an easy one for WBC to accept.

It may be that the idea of a “partial replacement” (a phrase which has been officially employed) could be used to suggest that extra mitigation might be sufficient to get WBC over the line. The stipulation is, however, quite clear: “an equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location.” This doesn’t go on to say “or any other number of lower-grade facilities instead as mitigation.” However, WBC seems to be gambling on this being an accepted sub-text; or on Sport England lacking the necessary Luis Suarez-like bite to enforce its own rules.

A judicial review

The matter has become significant now because of a judicial review against the planning approval for Monks Lane launched by Alan Pearce, who lives in the LRIE and has long been critical of WBC’s handling of the matter of the LRIE’s development.

On 16 September, he was granted leave by the High Court to appeal on three grounds, all concerning the way the application was presented and what it represented itself to be. Even if WBC wins the judicial review that doesn’t solve the underlying problem, that Monks lane is not a replacement facility.

Another vision

It’s also worth considering what WBC is fighting for here. The new vision for the LRIE is, as mentioned before, as a commercial/industrial area (with or without a re-developed Faraday Road). That’s what it is already, of course; but WBC appears to want to attract what might be called a better class of customer (my words, not theirs). High-tech firms, for example, in sectors such as IT and life sciences, staffed by lean, keen entrepreneurs who can bring that part of the town exciting job opportunities and reputational enhancement rather than, as at present, businesses like car showrooms, tyre fitters and boxing gyms. That’s fine as an aspiration but these new-age tenants can’t be magicked up out of the grass. There’s also little to attract them to the LRIE as it’s currently organised.

Would a large self-storage depot fit this new paradigm? Probably not: like the car showrooms for which the new vision has no time, these take up a lot of space, employ hardly any people and involve physical rather than digital products. It’s therefore unfortunate that, in the former Newbury Weekly News print works on the southern part of the site, a self-storage unit will soon be opening. The new vision, conceived only a few months ago, seems already to be in danger of being compromised by circumstances beyond its control.

A tight corner

WBC has painted itself into a tight corner from which there seems no easy escape. The LRIE looks almost exactly as it did ten or fifteen years ago. No planning application for Faraday Road has been submitted. In legal and development terms, the situation remains largely as it was in 2014. WBC has made enemies of those it could have worked with. Local sport has been impoverished, Newbury FC being now an itinerant team playing its matches in Henwick and Lambourn. A lot of money has been spent and, apart from an access road that the developers (whoever they eventually prove to be) should have built, there’s nothing much to show for it. Many feel that the surface-water problems, which would become worse were more development to take place, have not been addressed. Legal actions continue. Unless the area is seriously spruced up, which can’t happen in one go, or quickly, the LRIE is highly unlikely to attract a sufficiency of the kind of businesses that the latest vision seems to demand.

Lose, lose, lose, in short. The matter started badly and, despite some efforts to get things moving, it’s very hard to see how it has improved since.

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