You don’t expect to hear good news from the government these days, but the Home Office passed some on to my home town this morning when they gave planning permission for Brighton & Hove Albion to build a new stadium at Falmer. This saga has been dragging on for years, one hopes that it will finally reach some sort of resolution now. Albion are cautiously optimistic that they they can start building at the end of next season, with a view to moving in by 2010.
It has been a long, drawn out and frustrating road for Albion. They were evicted from the Goldstone Ground in 1997, and spent two terrible years groundsharing at Gillingham before returning to the Withdean Stadium on the northern outskirts of the town. From the outset, it looked like the long term future of the club was dependent on moving out from the Withdean as soon as possible. Once the excitement of being back in Brighton had worn off, though, it became apparent that it was a hopelessly inadequate venue. From the outset, a small group of campaigners petitioned local residents against the club being there in the first place. It cost £3.5m to bring the Withdean up to scratch. To this day, they aren’t even allowed to play any music there before home matches. The council, mindful of the feelings of the residents, offered the University of Sussex site at Falmer, and the club were happy to go along with it.
To understand why Falmer is the only option for Brighton & Hove Albion requires a degree of understanding of the peculiarities of the town itself. Brighton is a very popular place to live, and housing prices have risen accordingly. The cost of living, though, has outstripped wage increases and there are pockets of deprivation in the town that are very much at odds with the world’s perception of it. Land, in Brighton, is at a premium – even The Goldstone Ground, Brighton’s spiritual home, is in Aldrington, on the other side of Hove, about four miles from the centre of Brighton – and any land available in the area will be scooped up by property developers. The application process for Falmer went through two planning applications before being referred to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and was approved by John Prescott in 2005. However, neighbouring Lewes Borough Council objected on the basis that a proportion of the land was in their district, along with Falmer Parish Council who, basically, didn’t want a football stadium near them.
So… another two years (and many thousands of pounds) later, the decision had been referred back to government minister Ruth Kelly. The decision was due on July the 9th, only for it to be postponed again because of the change of Prime Minister. Finally, the decision was rubber-stamped this morning. There is a route for the councils and groups concerned to appeal again, but with each approval the chances of a successful appeal have receded further and further. How much more money are Lewes Council going to throw into this black hole? If I was a resident of Lewes, I would be asking why, when the previous application was rejected on a technicality, they wasted my money on what was almost certainly going to be a fruitless appeal.
There was no alternative site. The site that was identified will have an enormously beneficial effect on the local community. Some protesters even managed, somewhat insultingly, to imply that the people of the Woodingdean – would who benefit most from the employment opportunities – were too stupid to benefit from the jobs that would be created there (they didn’t word it like that, of course, though they did say that they would be “ill-qualified”, which ranks as the same in my book). The decision that the Brighton & Hove Albion FC wanted, that Brighton & Hove Council wanted, that the people of Brighton & Hove wanted, has been granted. And about bloody time too, if I might say.