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Bishop’s Stortford Town Council withdraws support for £20m Wodson Park-style community sports park on edge of town

Bishop’s Stortford Town Council has kicked out plans for a £20m community sports park to rival Wodson Park at Ware.

Members of its finance and policy committee made it clear they were not fans of the scheme to build wide-ranging facilities alongside a new stadium for Bishop’s Stortford Football Club.

A key beneficiary of the 45-acre blueprint for Green Belt land north of the A120 bypass, next to the new Avanti Grange secondary school’s playing fields, would be Bishop’s Stortford Community Football Club (BSCFC).

Bishop's Stortford Community Sports Park plans
Bishop's Stortford Community Sports Park plans

It is the largest youth football set-up in the country, with over 1,000 members and 80 teams, but struggles with a shortage of pitches. Its chairman James Webb told the Indie he was shocked by the decision.

The team behind the development, I Love Sport, was due to have a crunch meeting with Uttlesford and East Herts district council planning officers last Wednesday (November 15).

They hoped the town council would agree to submit a planning application to both councils for the project to have the best chance of success after encouraging signs.

Bishop's Stortford Community Football Club under-13 girls Blitz
Bishop's Stortford Community Football Club under-13 girls Blitz

But last Monday evening (November 13), town councillors rejected a last-ditch attempt from I Love Sport representative Ian Twinley to win their backing. They showed the red card instead and removed £2.5m ring-fenced funding.

The scheme’s community facilities include two floodlit 11-a-side 3G football pitches, three grass seven-a-side pitches, one domed 3G seven-a-side pitch, a rugby pitch, five indoor cricket lanes, a pump track and BMX-skateboard park and an athletics field, complete with a 400m, eight-lane running track, plus a pavilion.

Mr Twinley told the committee that David Lloyd Leisure was keen to develop a new facility close to the site, too.

I Love Sport wanted the town council to contribute £1m towards the £4m cost of the site from Wickham Hall farmer David Harvey and a further £1.5m to enable the project and develop facilities for the community. The town council would have retained ownership of the community land.

Bishop's Stortford Community Football Club under-eight Rovers
Bishop's Stortford Community Football Club under-eight Rovers

In return, Bishop’s Stortford FC was ready to invest £7.175m for a new stadium and 3G pitch, financed from the sale of its current home, the RDA Stadium on the Woodside industrial estate off Dunmow Road.

With £6.925m from I Love Sport and £1.925m from BSCFC, the town council was told: “Without this investment and the project management, [it] is unlikely that the much-needed new community football pitches will come to fruition or the other community facilities that have been identified.

“To support the development of a facility of this scale and a more guaranteed future for football and other sports will be a tremendous achievement.”

Cllr Miriam Swainston, leader of Bishop's Stortford Town Council
Cllr Miriam Swainston, leader of Bishop's Stortford Town Council

In response, Cllr Miriam Swainston, the Liberal Democrat leader of Bishop’s Stortford Town Council, said that it was time to “knock it on the head”.

She said it was better to release the funds, reserved by the previous Conservative administration, for other projects.

With the backing of the Labour group, she said: “This will protect Bishop’s Stortford from further traffic crossing the town, were Bishop’s Stortford FC to move, and from all the additional building and roadworks that the development would cause.

“Furthermore, it will protect the Green Belt and preserve the openness and rural nature of the area north of the bypass, which so many value. Sports pitches can reasonably be accommodated there, but we don’t believe a stadium or sports centre could.”

Cllr Swainston said I Love Sport had failed to convince councillors the project would provide best value and the public did not support the scheme.

She said: “The finance and policy committee felt the financial risks of the project were not acceptable.

“Of the representations we received from residents, several times more opposed the project than supported it.

“Overall, we consider there is insufficient evidence of benefits to the town community while there are obvious risks from this major development.”

Cllr Swainston said that East Herts Council would complete a new assessment of sports facilities in 2024 and that would inform the town council’s spending plans.

James Webb, chairman and a trustee of BSCFC, told the Indie that he was shocked by the town council’s decision to withdraw its support.

For a decade the club has been working on a project to find a site it can call home for its 1,000-plus members. It has had support for this from both East Herts and Uttlesford district councils as well as from the Football Association and Sport England, who recognised the under-provision of football pitches and general sports facilities in the Bishop’s Stortford area, with the project being listed in the East Herts LFFP (Local Football Facility Plans) in the Bishop’s Stortford North Housing Growth Area.

Mr Webb said: “Further positive backing was obtained from Bishop’s Stortford Town Council (BSTC), who, in September 2020, agreed to undertake a feasibility study into a new multi-sport complex. Following receipt of the helpful report, substantial funding was earmarked by BSTC for the proposed sports hub. BSCFC were greatly encouraged and reached out to other sports clubs in the town so that the project could encompass the other sporting needs.

If the finance and policy committee’s decision not to support BSCFC and the other sports clubs was ratified by the full town council at its meeting on December 9, it would “simply enhance the already hugely difficult challenges BSCFC have in providing football for all at its limited sporting facilities for Bishop’s Stortford and its ever-burgeoning population”.

Mr Webb said: “We await confirmation of BSTC’s decision and, if ratified, will then seek clarification of same, given the positive commitment and support previously made by BSTC for this much-needed community sporting facility project.

“In the meantime, BSCFC will continue to work with the other sports clubs, schools and interested parties to secure much-needed sporting facilities for the growing population of the town.”

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