Southend United: Fossetts Farm & Other F Words
“So, how’s Fossetts Farm coming along?” I asked my fellow Non-League Paper freelancer last season, when he outed himself as a Southend United fan. I expected to hear that their move from their old Roots Hall ground to the Farm was somehow progressing. I got one of those noises spelt with a combination of “Ps”, “Fs” and “Ts” or by putting “snort” in brackets. “Fossetts Farm” isn’t “coming along.” Even its discrete Wikipedia entry hasn’t been “modified” since June 2015, with no factual references beyond 2008 and a darkly-comic reference to a “final stadium plan” in 2007. Plenty has happened since but none of it progressing chairman Ron Martin’s saga-length vanity, for-personal-profit project to move Southend to a 21,000-seater stadium.
With their recent pasts, near-future ambitions and centre-stage chairmen with considerable personal stakes in stadium developments, Southend and Plymouth Argyle have parallels, which run to the on-going failures of those stadium developments. When I last visited, Southend were alternating between HMRC-driven winding-up petitions and ”optimistic” stadium development forecasts. “How many more times are we going to hear about winding-up orders (sic) one week then work is going to start on the new stadium the next?” asked one exasperated contributor to the local Southend Echo newspaper’s on-line comments section, in 2013. HMRC seemed to issue petitions even if Southend were only hours late paying taxes. There were two more from HMRC in 2015, although they, like the others, were settled well in advance. When Martin blamed HMRC’s “over-zealous behaviour,” you could believe him. But when he “revealed” in February 2014 that “building work on a new 22,000-seater…stadium is expected to start in May with a developer appointed within two weeks,” you couldn’t believe a word.
The club have long touted a move away from the 12,300-capacity Roots Hall. Fossetts Farm was first mooted shortly after property-development firm Martin Dawn (chairman and CEO: Ron Martin) bought Southend in November 1998. And a “£100m development,” including the seemingly-obligatory hotels and retail outlets (another Argyle echo) and the stadium, was granted planning permission by Southend Borough Council in 2007, with Martin aiming to complete the move for the 2008/09 season. The global economic downturn which developed from 2008’s “credit crunch” provided a handy, if probably genuine, excuse to miss two more target completion dates. “Scaled-back” plans for a stadium built in instalments were submitted in 2011.
“Supermarket giants” Sainsbury’s replaced Bank of Scotland as Martin’s main financial backers. And in 2010, they were revealed as “main financial backers” of United’s tardy tax payments, coughing up…eeek…£2.5m. The proposal was accepted and in July 2012, Martin “revealed” it would be finished in 2013. Not…a…prayer. An August 2013 Echo story, Blues Stadium recreated in cake, about a fan’s Roots Hall-shaped 60th-birthday cake, was the only report of a Southend “stadium-build” that year. Delays almost seemed built into the process. United haggled over a £6m “sweetener” to the Council as compensation for the effect the development’s retail side might have on Southend’s High Street. Blaming the recession, the club offered £2.25m and in April 2013, the council accepted £3.5m. And Sainsbury’s prevaricated too, despite no longer paying so much club tax. They were supposedly part-funding Fossetts Farm developments out of profits from the superstore they were to build at Roots Hall. This required the purchase of land once occupied by vocational training centre Prospects College.
In 2010, I wrote: “Martin announced in January that a deal was done. College CEO Neil Bates said Sainsbury’s recently put that deal on hold for about the 94th time. Sainsbury’s gave no reason and Bates went public with his disaffection…for about the 94th time.” In 2014, the option to buy the land lapsed for the seventh time in seven years. An increasingly irritated Bates “made it very clear…that since they haven’t renewed their interest, we will make alternative arrangements.” The Council were equally irritated. In March 2012, they had agreed powers to force land sales required for the superstore. However, in November 2014, council CEO Rob Tinlin said: “Given the time which has elapsed…it is likely the council should re-endorse that position.” Council leader Ron Woodley was blunter: “(Sainsbury’s) have had seven years. Enough is enough.”
In December, Bates announced a sale elsewhere, after Sainsbury’s declined “a further opportunity…to acquire our site before entering a contract with the current purchasers.” Rumours that the buyers were supermarket chain Lidl were confirmed by…er…supermarket chain Aldi. And while the deal fell through, Bates was rightly unrepentant, angrily threatening legal action after council cabinet member Graham Longley suggested he could be “remembered as the man who killed Southend United.” Supporters continued to earmark Martin for that role. Echo headlines on November 5th AND 17th read: New doubts over Southend United’s stadium plan. But in a transparent counter-spin, the Echo soon revealed that Martin had “(splashed) out £2m to buy London Soccerdome for the Shrimpers.”
The story “revealed” that Martin had only “spent £500,000” on a rebuild of the former London-based David Beckham soccer academy, although this still appeared creditable. The “dome”, the Echo gushed, “could improve the club’s training facility rating from category three to category two, for which Martin plans to apply at the end of the season.” It “would cost about £2m to erect.” The Echo had been as gushing in February 2014 when Martin was “confident builders will be on (Fossetts Farm) before the summer.” He also claimed it couldn’t “be a money-driven thing because I wouldn’t do it,” which rather contradicted his late-2009 admission that the development’s “beneficial owners” were “me and my family.” The Echo also “revealed” Martin had “remortgaged his mansion to bail (the club) out” in 2010, “part of about £13.5m of his own or borrowed money he has ploughed into the club to keep it afloat since he took over.”
Fans remained cynical: “Slightly early in the year for Ron’s “building to begin soon” notice, it usually coincides with the early-bird season ticket renewals announcement,” noted one. And in a “timescale of delays” published that December, the Echo reported, deadpan, Martin’s claim: “Work on the stadium will begin in May. It doesn’t.” A new spring brought another “’building to begin soon’ notice.” In February 2015, CEO Steve Kavanagh reported “a forthcoming comprehensive planning application, as requested by the council…including the club’s revised plans for the West Stand at Fossetts Farm.” The Echo reported a two-phase stadium-build. “The first will include three stands fitting 14,000 fans. The second will feature a western stand (with) 8,000 seats.” For newly-required balance, they added: “Despite (Martin) telling (us) in July 2013 that a planning application for the western stand was three or four months away, nothing materialised.”
And Echo headlines soon started referencing the “fabled new stadium.” Plans now covered “relocation, hotel, offices, retail, cinema, residential, training ground, soccerdome and player accommodation” and “parking and landscaping.” The cinema was a headline-grabbing addition (“something good to watch when Southend are playing,” joked one “fan”). But the area did not lack cinemas. “Ron has some backers who maybe understand there’s an opportunity for three cinemas,” noted Woodley, before dabbling in cynicism: “It’s taken us eight years to get to this point, and it may be another eight years before anything starts happening.”
The “backers” caused potentially genuine optimism. Martin told United’s April 2015 AGM: “I can’t tell you who is partnering us until June, but stadium plans are proceeding and have more pace than they did during any time under the Sainsbury’s banner.” And…gasp…only three months later than promised, Martin revealed (no need for inverted commas here) “advanced talks with property company British Land” who would pay for…the new stadium” and “breathe fresh air into the project.” British Land had considerable property-development experience, (outbidding Argyle majority-owner James Brent for some Plymouth projects). And these plans reflected this experience…more houses but only 21,000 stadium seats.
The team, meanwhile, won a lucrative Wembley promotion play-off final victory in May (a “£1m payday,” the Echo suggested). This offset March news of yet another court appearance defending yet another winding-up petition, as London lawyers Dechert LLP sought costs incurred in 2010 (“ironically,” Kavanagh suggested, “defending an HMRC winding-up petition”). United had enough confidence in the new stadium plans to put them on public display in October, when Martin claimed selling Roots Hall was now of secondary significance: “Whatever Sainsbury’s deliberations, the move…will proceed under arrangements with British Land.” Sale proceeds would part-fund “phase two of the stadium but the move will take place (under) the current plans we are advancing.” These were to advance to “an amended planning application…in December” and Martin hoped to “press on…as soon as Southend Council has considered the proposals.” And it wasn’t, quite, just Martin saying this. Mary Power of club “planning agent” Powerhaus Consultancy was impressed enough to suggest that “if everything goes well, we could be on-site by the end of 2016. Build-time, if everything goes well, is between 18 months and two years.”
Yet despite this seemingly evidence-based optimism, ”everything” did not “go well.” Although the British Land funding deal was signed last January, the planning application was still merely “expected in the coming months.” In May, the Southend News Network declared “Construction…will begin immediately. However, the original plans have had to be scaled back once again for financial reasons” to “a more intimate pitch-only design” offering “a unique experience for Southend fans and travelling supporters to stand in one long line around the pitch.” The resemblance between this spoof and some “proper” Martin announcements over the years was unsettling.
The Prospects College land was sold to property developers Weston Homes in July. Martin insisted “negotiations…were conducted with the club’s knowledge (and) it remains the intention that the site will form an integral part of the comprehensive development of Roots Hall, as has always been proposed, under the now-advanced relocation plans.” How “now-advanced” the plans were was unclear, though. In August, “All at Sea” fanzine co-editor Jamie Forsyth noted: “Fans have been told the Prospects site is no longer of strategic importance…to redevelop Roots Hall. However, it is almost a year since the exhibition of the new plans and still no full planning application has been submitted.”
There have also been more proposed developments, all-too-near Fossetts Farm. All systems are go for £50m leisure park…despite rival complex being built just two miles away, the Echo reported on August 17th. Turnstone Estates’ seafront development including restaurants, bars and…yes…cinema was “set to be in competition with Fossetts Farm.” And with Turnstone’s plans “nearing completion…the two major developments could go head-to-head for the go-ahead from Southend Council.” Meanwhile, a month-and-a-day later, the Echo covered another “mega development,” 400 homes on former Southend Hospital land “next to Fossetts Farm,” although plans were “an early stage development brief.”
Since September, Martin’s media silence has fed rumours that British Land, with apologies to Bob Dylan, were “not going to work on Fossetts Farm no more,” although a Shrimpers fan claimed their “regional development director…confirmed directly to me” that they “have not even discussed pulling out.” Nevertheless, 2015’s brief optimism has long-dissipated. Fans remain bereft of stadium information. The team are four points above League One’s drop zone. And United’s latest accounts, to July 2015, showed an unwelcome consistency currently beyond the team. The afore-mentioned “£1m payday” will show in the next accounts. But Southend have made annual £1-2m losses over recent years and their total debt is £14.3m. Some fans may want to remain bereft of such dismal information.
Of that debt, £9.7m is owed to Martin Dawn (prop: Ron Martin). Nonetheless, Martin may share fans’ anxieties. Fossetts Farm remains a personal project, driven by vanity and a desire to make a family fortune, but also a desire to leave United in a good place. And after a decade-and-a-half, Martin may feel, with apologies to William Shakespeare, so far steeped in Fossetts Farm that “to return were as tedious as go on.” However, after that decade-and-a-half, you could hardly blame Southend fans such as my Non-League Paper colleague, for finding “Fossetts Farm” rather more than just “tedious.”
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