Birchwood High School halts talks with Bishop's Stortford FC over ground share at Pearse House playing fields
Birchwood High School has announced it is no longer considering hiring out part of its playing fields to Bishop's Stortford Football Club – news that was greeted with relief by campaigning residents.
The Parsonage Lane secondary last June unveiled plans to build a multi-million-pound, state-of-the-art sports and leisure complex on its detached field in the grounds of the Pearse House development off Dunmow Road.
The Indie reported that the school was "in advanced talks" with the Isthmian League Premier Division club over relocating from their nearby R&D Advisors UK Stadium on the Woodside industrial estate, news that sparked a furious response and campaign by residential neighbours.
A petition against the scheme was launched by resident Alastair Cook with the aim to "protect and preserve our local residential community and wildlife from unnecessary development and wilful environmental vandalism".
Householders in nearby streets erected placards in their front gardens showing the red card to the scheme, insisting "Blues belong at Woodside".
The school launched a consultation exercise and held a public exhibition last July. Birchwood deputy principal and project lead Charles Gilbank accepted that "legitimate concerns" had been raised, adding: "But we're confident that, with thought and careful planning, we can work with local people to bring about a successful project that will provide a huge cross-section of the Bishop's Stortford population with the ability to access community sports facilities of the highest order, with an added massive benefit to the students at our school."
Parsonage Residents Association (PRA) launched its own survey. Local resident and retired solicitor Rob Walker criticised the school's consultation as not being wide ranging enough.
In May this year, in response to a letter published in the Indie by Rob Walker accusing the school of hiding the truth from residents, Mr Gilbank insisted there was no formal agreement with the football club and "no preferred option and no agreement".
The plan was for a state-of-the-art facility featuring a floodlit artificial football pitch with spectator stands, a mountain bike/cyclo-cross track, a low-lit, traffic-free running path and a pavilion that will house a multi-purpose gym, changing facilities and space designed for social and arts pursuits along with fitness classes such as yoga, Pilates and spinning.
Besides the link-up with the football club, British Cycling and British Triathlon were reported to be looking to get involved.
But Mr Gilbank announced in the school's July newsletter that following the consultation process the timescale for governors to "evaluate the options" had been extended and trustees "had taken the decision to accelerate consideration of developing facilities for hire to Bishop’s Stortford FC for use as their home ground".
The statement continued: "It has been decided that such a collaboration will not be one of the potential options included in the next stage of our evaluation.
"The plans in last summer’s consultation were not dependent on a collaboration with Bishop’s Stortford FC and the school remains committed to ensuring the best use of the site for Birchwood students now and in the future."
While welcoming the news, Mr Walker said: "The need for vigilance remains until such time as the remaining options are revealed."
Cllr Chris Wilson, one of three Liberal Democrat councillors for Stortford's All Saints ward on East Herts Council, was delighted with the news and said: “While I truly hope that the football club flourishes – and if they need to find a new home I wish them every success – the site was simply unsuitable for such a purpose.
"A football club, even one that at present is in a relatively lowly position in the football pyramid, should not be sited so closely to existing residential properties.
"Anyone who, as I did, attended the play-off match at the end of last season could see that besides the noise and nuisance a large crowd would cause residents, the volume of traffic both by foot and car would cause a huge amount of chaos, congestion and even pollution right outside people’s homes.
"I am therefore very pleased Birchwood has seen sense and put a hold on these plans, and I am glad that all of us who campaigned against this part of the school’s project have been heard."
Cllr Wilson added: "It is vital that Birchwood uses its facilities to full capacity and potential for the good of its students and I wish the school all the best in that pursuit. I am sure they will now arrive at a decision to use the field in a way that will not overly disrupt local residents and that it will act, as it so often does, as good neighbours.”
On Monday, Bishop's Stortford FC dismissed claims by campaigners that the school should not have been involved with the club as it was "financially unstable".
Manager and principal shareholder Steve Smith told the Indie that while the news was disappointing, the club had other options it was looking at with regard to finding a new home.
He added: "From a club perspective we are in a far better position [financially] than we were when we took over five years ago. We are in good shape and better than we have ever been."