The recent change of Prime Minister may or may not make an enormous difference to the lives of ordinary people but, for the supporters of Brighton & Hove Albion FC, it could prove to be life changing. In the subsequent cabinet reshuffle, Ruth Kelly was moved from her position in the Home Office and replaced by Hazel Blears, just a fortnight before Kelly was due to make a final decision over Albion’s disputed attempts to build a new stadium at Falmer, on the outskirts of the town. The decision that Blears makes will be a critical one for Sussex’s only Football League club. They have invested everything in Falmer and in a massive amount of debt. If they can’t secure the stadium, their future looks bleak.
Falmer is one of the longest-running protests in English football, and Brighton’s supporters have become amongst the most politicised in the Football League as a result. It’s now ten years since the club left The Goldstone Ground, sold down the river by Bill Archer and David Bellotti – profiteers who seemed to see nothing wrong with asset-stripping the town’s football club for their own personal gain. After two years playing sixty miles away at Gillingham, they moved back to the town in 1999 to the wholly unsatisfactory Withdean Stadium. Location-wise, Withdean is ideal – barely a mile and a half from the town centre and on a main route out of the town, but the club’s hopes of developing the site there were thwarted by a sustained campaign by Nimby residents near the stadium.
Falmer was identified by the club as a potential site to be developed some years ago, but the truculence of neighbouring Lewes Council, on whose land part of the site will be located. Because part of the site sits in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the matter was referred to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who approved the stadium in October 2005, only for Lewes Council to launch a legal challenge. Prescott, seemingly wanting to wash his hands of the affair, passed the matter to Ruth Kelly, who announced that a final decision would be made by July the 9th. It is not anticipated that the recent cabinet reshuffle will delay the decision by a significant period of time.
The importance of the decision going in Brighton’s favour cannot be understated. Withdean is an appalling stadium (possibly the worst in the entire League), and season ticket sales have been low for as long as the club have been there. They have accumulated massive debts, and each season is a struggle to stay out of administration. It is unthinkable that they can stay there for much longer and remain financially viable. You may well wonder why Albion are so keen on a site so far out from the town centre, but the club’s supporters are used to travelling (The Goldstone Ground itself was in Aldrington, on the other side of Hove), and is ideally situated for transport links, being next to a railway station which the club would urge people to use to get to the stadium.
As I mentioned earlier, Brighton & Hove Albion are the only Football League club in the two counties of Sussex. The town itself has a population of over 250,000 people and is continuing to expand every year. Other sites have been looked at, as far away as Shoreham-By-Sea (seven miles away), but Falmer has a wider appeal to the town. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all nice bars and posh shops in Brighton. The areas adjacent to the new stadium, Rottingdean and Moulescoomb, suffer from high unemployment and the economic benefit to that part of the town would be massive. The vast majority of people in Brighton & Hove, the council, the football club and the supporters are behind the plan, and one would hope that Ms Blears will make the right decision. Politically, Labour will be skating on thin ice if the government don’t push it through. Support for them has been on the wane around here of late, and the talk is that the Green Party are very confident of winning the central Brighton Pavilion and Kemptown seats from Labour. Not pushing it through could cost them very dearly in what could be a very close general election in a couple of years time.
The rumours currently doing the rounds are that Blears is a better person to be making the decision for the club than Kelly. Making the wrong decision could prove to be expensive for the city, and disastrous and the club. The decision may yet be delayed still further. One would hope that they will see sense and give one of the biggest towns in the south of England a sports facility that it deserves.