After one hundred and four years, the end now seems to be nigh for Underhill, the home of Barnet Football Club. An official statement on the clubs website this afternoon confirmed that “The stark reality is that as a consequence of unresolved ground differences with the council, Barnet FC face the prospect of a reduced footprint next season and an end to their 100 plus years residence of their spiritual home”, bringing to an end any reasonable doubt over the fact that wherever the club does end up playing in either its short or long term future, it won’t be at the place that it has called home since 1907. Yet the club’s statement on the matter is perhaps as curious for what it doesn’t include as for what it does, because when it comes to specific details on the subject of where the club actually will be playing next season, Barnet Football Club remains a little coy, and this is with a year before they would have to move into somewhere else.
We covered the latest instalment in Barnet Football Club’s fractious relationship with its local council at the beginning of last month, but the timing of the resurfacing of this issue and the question of if or why the council is behaving with such hostility towards the club means that it is a question that should probably be addressed again today. The club’s statement today – which can be seen in full here – is wholly unsatisfactory if for one reason only. While it states quite clearly where it will not be playing next season, it doesn’t state where the club will be playing next season. There seems to be grounds to believe that the club’s owner, Tony Kleanthous, long ago decided that he wished to move the club to The Hive, the club’s forty-four acre training ground, which is seven miles away from Underhill at The Prince Edward Playing Fields (PEPF) in Canons Park, near Harrow, which has come to be known as The Hive. Perhaps the first question that we should ask, therefore, should be that of whether he is now trying to engineer a move away from Underhill to move to The Hive.
Some of the answers to questions surrounding the club’s dispute with the local council can be found in a statement issued later this afternoon by the Barnet FC Supporters Trust. The full statement can be seen here, but it does lay several claims made by the club over the last few months bare. The issue of access to Priory Grove – the road behind the terrace which runs one side of the ground – is boiled down to a matter of principle. “For a nominal fee of £10 per year, the council are prepared to issue the club a vehicular license for Priory Grove” is, according to the BFCST, the council policy on access to the road, but the club’s viewpoint is that, they are unhappy with the license being offered on account of “the principle and the precedent that this sets”, even though the club has been using Priory Grove since the previous licence expired in 2006, with no sanction.
On the subject of the lease for the land immediately adjacent to the ground, South Underhill - which is due to expire on Christmas Eve next year – the issue of the reason for the dispute starts to become a little clearer as well. With the lease due to expire and the club seeking a ninety-five year extension to it, the council requested an independent valuation of this land, which the club disputed. The club then commissioned its own valuation of it, which also turned out to be unacceptable to the club. With this matter now considered disputed, they were offered a fifteen year lease on the land (in line with the maximum that a court would be able to award), which was also rejected by the club because of the lack of long-term security that a lease of that length would offer it.
It has been established that the two independent valuations on the land were broadly similar, but the club claims not to have been offered a ninety-five year lease, only the fifteen year one, and is also unhappy that it is being asked to pay a market rate for the land when Saracens RFC, who are at the point of starting development of the Copthall site (which was one long-coveted by Barnet FC and had permission to redevelop itself some years ago which was subsequently revoked – not, we should add, by the council, but by a Government Planning Inspector), are being offered that for a peppercorn rent. The council counters this by stating that Saracens are being offered this rate because they have assurances in place from the rugby club regarding community use, and that were The Barnet Club Limited (the lease-holders on behalf of the football club) to offer similar assurances, then a peppercorn rent may be able to be agreed for the football ground site.
If this is sounding confusing, then waters are muddied still further by the involvement of Wealdstone Football Club with regard to The Hive training facility. Wealdstone sold their Lower Mead ground in 1991. When the PBPF was first handed over to the London Borough of Harrow by the National Playing Fields Association in 2003 after a long derelict period, Wealdstone were permitted to build a new ground there, but their building partners collapsed, meaning that the land was put back out to tender. Barnet FC won this bid, but the planning permission granted explicitly stated that the ground was not for professional use and that the only team allowed to use the main stadium was Wealdstone FC. This, it is understood, was no great issue for Barnet FC at the time because they were not planning to use the stadium themselves. It is now claimed that the clause relating to Wealdstone having a right to play at the site has been removed, but there is nothing in the public domain to back this up, at the time of writing.
In the meantime, Wealdstone found a home of their own at Grosvenor Vale, the former home of Ruislip Manor FC, in 2008, although this was only on a ten year lease, of which three have already passed. Having spent a considerable amount of money on the site some years ago, however, they feel entitled to compensation should changes to the covenant have been made to allow Barnet FC to simply move in and finish off the redevelopment job that they started. It would be improper to comment on the rights or wrongs of the situation regarding Wealdstone and the PEPF, but what is clear is that the club could, if it has the will to do so, muddy the waters with regards to a move there still further for Barnet. This document (from 2006) confirms that “There would be additional covenants restricting the use and operation of the site and explicitly prohibiting Barnet FC League side from relocating to the PEPF site or holding matches there”, but perhaps the question now is that of whether that covenant was put in place and, if so, whether it was removed and, if it was and it was – deep breath – how this came to pass without anyone from Wealdstone FC finding out about it, because they certainly don’t seem to have done.
Even if there are no logistical hurdles to Barnet FC moving to The Hive, the small matter of bricks and mortar remains and it is difficult to see how the ground could be ready in time for the club to seamlessly move in there from their current home. They lease at Underhill expires in one year’s time, and there seems to be a good chance that the club will have to ground-share for some period of time, but where? Two of the nearest grounds, at Enfield Town and Boreham Wood, are not to Football League standard, and the same goes for St Albans City’s Clarence Park, a little further out in Hertfordshire. Watford’s Vicarage Road would probably be prohibitively expensive and Stevenage is probably too far away. The only ground that the club could likely use on a temporary basis that would be anything like practical would be Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road, but Leyton is still fourteen miles from Barnet. How many people, realistically, are going to make that journey for any period of time at all, and how might that loss of revenue, coupled with the cost of renting the ground, would surely be crippling.
There are other – many other – matters that we could look at with regard to this strangely complex story, but one thing above all others stands out from this mass of accusation, counter-accusation, rumour and intrigue, and that is that recent events surrounding Barnet’s intention to leave Underhill when its current lease expires has thus far raised considerably more questions than it has answered. In a statement on his personal blog this evening, the Wealdstone chairman Howard Krais iterated that, “We have never given up our right to have a stadium built on site and although there have not been any recent conversations with Barnet, given previous planning regulations we would have expected to have been advised if things had changed”, which would seem to indicate that, even though Tony Kleanthous was interviewed on the radio this evening stating that he has planning permission to build a Football League ground at the site, Wealdstone aren’t going to give up on it yet. We will return to this story as it unfolds and as more information becomes available. At this stage, though, the only thing that we can say with so much of a degree of certainty is that at this precise moment, the supporters of Barnet Football Club do not know where there club will be based in the medium-to-long term, and that is not a healthy position for a football club, any football club, to be in.
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