The Long Read: Southend United’s Stadium Saga – (Nearly) Thirty Years of Hurt

by | Sep 29, 2018

“Old Ron Martin had a farm, E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm there was f**k all…”

Essex and England opening batsman and ex-captain Alastair Cook retired from test match cricket recently, after 12 years in the five-day form of the game. But Cook’s test career has been surrounded by the now 20-year ‘career’ of fellow Essex legend (cough), Southend United chairman Ron Martin and the “Fossetts Farm” stadium into which he wants to move ‘his’ club, in order to make money for, as he admitted, in 2009, “me and my family.”

In May 2006, two months after Cook joined test cricket with a half-century and a century against India, Martin “set out quite a rigid timetable” to “complete the stadium for the 2008 season.” Three months later, “plans” were “at an advanced stage now” for what the Southend Echo newspaper called a “£25m superstadium,” which Martin claimed would be the “first chance to use my property skills since coming to the club.” A decade-and-a-month later, as Cook left test cricket with a half-century and a century against India, the Echo declared Martin “confident of move to Fossett’s Farm.” Plus ca change…

The protractions of Southend’s move a mile-and-a-bit from their current Roots Hall ground, are as puzzling as the concept of ONE cricket match taking five days must be to many non-cricket fans. Southend fans must wonder why Tottenham fans are bleating about mere months of delay moving to the new White Hart Lane.

When 200% last ‘visited’ Southend, in November 2016, the project faced difficulties with external financing and potential competition from other potential developments in the Southend Borough Council (SBC) area. United were struggling in League One and making annual seven-figure losses, although the drip-feed of UK tax authority winding-up petitions was slowing. Meanwhile, that month, ‘SUFC History’ very pointedly tweeted a picture captioned “manager shows off the model of United’s proposed new stadium, that’s only 30 years ago!!”

But since that tweet, there has been tangible, if snail-paced, progress through the labyrinthine process required for “one of biggest developments the town has seen in decades” (Chloe Chapman, Southend Echo, 2/6/17) and “one of the largest applications the town has ever seen” (Jamie Forsyth, co-editor, All At Sea (AAS) fanzine, 21/2/18). And while cynicism remains, SBC are increasingly seen as a bigger stumbling block to progress than Martin’s own stumbling.

In early 2017, the council’s retiring chief executive, Rob Tinlin, declared Fossetts Farm “the closest I’ve ever seen it” because Martin had “a couple of credible development partners.” Yet even Tinlin’s optimism was caveated. Size mattered. He saw an “opportunity” because of “the scale of the retail and leisure development.” But size was also a “threat” as the development had “the potential to destabilise the town centre.”

On March 23rd, the ‘Property Week’ magazine’s Samuel Horti reported on Martin’s plans, through his “Martin Dawn” property development company, to build 160 private rented sector (PRS) homes “directly into” Fossetts Farm’s North Stand “in addition to” the “300 for-sale residential units” already announced as what Horti lavishly labelled “part of the masterplan in nearby tower blocks.” Horti also quoted “a source close to the project” describing “the move to build PRS directly into a stadium” as “ground-breaking.”

In April, SBC deputy leader John Lamb declared himself “really hopeful that this means the application is nearly ready.” The “this” was nothing so tangible as a planning application, though, merely “hoardings, with Southend United’s logo,” which, the Echo reported, “have suddenly sprung up around Fossetts Farm, sparking widespread speculation that work will soon start.”

It smelt desperate and the cynics were out in force. “The new Stadium is getting built, the moon is made of cheese and it’s raining marshmallows,” noted ‘Saxonpride.’ Though Shrimperzone was more impressed. The ‘wall’ formed by the hoardings “will be more iconic than the Berlin Wall and is less likely to have people with mullets and bad denim dancing to David Hasselhof on top of it,” suggested ‘Mad Cyril.’ The clue’s in the name, I guess…

Martin told the club’s 27th April AGM that revised development proposals would be submitted to the council the following day. With long-time partners Sainsbury’s having fled the scene, the Roots Hall site redevelopment, which would part-fund the Farm, was to be entirely residential. “There is no supermarket,” Martin confirmed, “and that takes a lot of money out of the equation.”

He added: “There’s a 16-week period where third parties can make representations on the application. Assuming the local authorities come to a decision in the autumn we will be ready to start construction immediately afterwards.” And he declared it would all be over by (next) Christmas: “The first phase will get us into the stadium in December next year.” Cynics with elephantine memories may have recalled eerily similar Martin declarations down the years.

On May 17th, the Echo ‘s Christine Sexton reported “battle lines…over controversial plans to transform the town centre” which put the Farm “in doubt.” Martin was “objecting to a major development of Seaway car park, near Southend seafront…a major part” of SBC’s “Southend Central Area Action Plan” (SCAAP), while “in final discussions” with “planners” about the Farm.

One Echo commenter noted darkly that among “the only people who seem to object to the Seaway plans” was “the crook that is Ron Martin,” a comment which was somehow still on the Echo’s website this week. A ‘Shrimperzone.com’ forum contributor less potentially libelously concurred: “It seems that the only people who want the Seaway scheme to proceed” were scheme developers “Turnstone Estates and some delusional members of our Council.” And another Shrimperzoner could “see nothing whatsoever in the article” suggesting that the Farm was “in jeopardy.”

Martin and the club formally appealed against the Roots Hall development’s omission from the SCAAP. “The application for Fossetts is in, finally,” they ‘confirmed.’ And that “will provide the trigger by which the council will begin talks” about Roots Hall. “So that should be reflected in the SCAAP.” The ex-hopeful John Lamb said that while this omission would “be reviewed by the planning inspector,” Martin “should get on and build the stadium,” despite Roots Hall’s role in funding the Farm, adding that Martin “had planning permission before” and not “delivered.”

However, on June 2nd, Martin’s main financial backer, property “development and investment” firm British Land (BL), announced that “discussions” with the club were “currently on hold…as it has not been possible to reach a satisfactory agreement,” although “the parties remain on good terms and discussions on the retail element of the scheme may be progressed in the future if a satisfactory planning consent is granted.”

Martin hoped that “when we have a line of sight through the planning process, hopefully around the end of September, we will be better placed to continue those discussions.” But cynics gonna cynic. One called Martin a “fantasist” and that “BL were starting to twig.” While Lamb, understating considerably, considered BL’s actions “a bit of a blow” and couldn’t see how Martin would get funding “without someone beside him.”

Nevertheless, The application was formally registered on June 9th, after what AAS called “six weeks of wrangling over an apparent missing form and disagreements about the planning fee.” This news got one fan asking: “Can I get excited?” While another was “disgusted by these plans” because “between sections 5.10 and 5.11 there’s a CGI of a match in progress. The linesman has given us offside. It clearly wasn’t.”

For AAS, the headline news was that the club had “set out” how a safe-standing “trial area could be implemented, if the club wished and if standing were made legal, in the rear rows above the vomitory in the home fans’ west stand” (the application should probably have referenced a ‘vomitorium,’ an entrance passage to a stand…but the image is in your head now, so it’s too late…sorry).

The “bad” news, though, was Fossetts Farm’s two-phased construction, starting as a three-sided stadium, plus a new training ground for which permission had already been granted by Rochford Council, where it was situated. The main stand was part of phase two. ‘Worse,’ “unlike previous applications, there is no specific mention of a supporters pub or bar.” Nonetheless, with the nearest pub just 15 minutes away, AAS was largely positive about the development.

With the plans public (despite the Echo reporting that they wouldn’t be “for several days due to their size and scope”), Martin fashioned another “exclusive” Echo interview to twist the known narrative about BL in a Trumpian manner, declaring that HIS postponement of the BL talks LAST OCTOBER (my emphases) had not affected plans (there had been rumours of BL’s withdrawal at that time). “On track…in no way faltered…quite the opposite,” Christine Sexton insisted.

“We will create value via the planning application enabling us to bridge against the asset under traditional debt funding to ensure a smooth transition,” Martin psycho-babbled furiously, omitting any “traditional debt funding” details. And he concluded: “We will build the first phase of the stadium move, then sell Roots Hall to discharge the position. The balance of funding for stage two will be aided by the retail element and the further enabling development under a carefully structured programme and cost planning.”

A week later, Martin told the Echo that SBC had “commenced their consultation process with a target determination date of September 7th.” Thus, “the first available committee date where the club’s application may be considered is September 13th.” The club “and its consultants” would help SBC avoid “slippage.”

On November 17th. the Echo headlined (yet) an(other) “exclusive” Martin interview “Ron’s dream now closer to reality.” But it wasn’t. “Over the next few weeks, we hope, the club’s planning application will be presented to (SBC’s) planning committee,” he said, admitting two months’ “slippage” in the seven months since the AGM. Sainsbury’s were still getting blame, Martin suggesting that because of their (2015) departure, “we have had to financially remodel the entire development.” British Land’s way-subsequent ‘departure’ didn’t feature.

Interviewee Sexton suggested that the club’s “financial picture is looking rosier.” But it isn’t. They lost £1.42m in 2015/16 and £2.1m in 2016/17, with the accounts adding that struggling football club staple, a “material uncertainty” casting “significant doubt” on their “ability to continue as a going concern.”

Martin proclaimed the Farm “a shining beacon to the town’s future and a catalyst for more investment and growth of the local economy.” Even now, though, it is unclear how far that beacon has to shine. Progress has again been snail-paced, with SBC calling for every report in the book and, some cynics suspect, some that aren’t in any book. The club’s 2018 New Year wishes to supporters included a plea to take their support “up a notch by sending your positive comments” on the stadium plans “to the council’s online application portal.” The club couldn’t “stress enough how important every one of your comments are.” And we soon discovered why.

On January 31st, the Echo strengthened certain cynics’ suspicions when they declared the Seaway development “the winner” in the “IMAX cinema race” as “Seaway developers Turnstone Estates appear to have won the race to be the first of two planned leisure schemes to sign up a major cinema operator,” Fossetts Farm being the other “planned leisure scheme.”

And, on 21st February, the Echo announced, via headline: “Stadium decision is delayed until June.” Scrutiny of the plans was delayed, as SBC committees could not sit during the two months prior to May’s local elections. And SBC were waiting for the results of “an updated ecology and highways report,” while an “impact assessment” on Southend’s High Street and unspecified “Historic England” interest threatened further delay.

Martin jargoned that the club had “already accelerated the construction design in preparation for tender to ensure plans remain on programme.” But SBC claimed they had “yet to receive some key documents.” An Echo commenter re-introduced the theory that SBC might be “deliberately holding up the application to allow their own Seaway development to catch up,” which SBC swiftly denied. While Jamie Forsyth found the delays “unsurprising…given the size of the application.”

In March, Martin revealed that archaeologists would be inspecting the Farm and the jokes almost wrote themselves. Echo commenter Lee Chapel suggested that they’d found “the original announcements of plans for building a stadium there. The runestone, carbon-dated back to 123 BC, has just been translated and contains the sentence ‘finished next year’.” Opinion split between those who saw “yet another stumbling block put in place by SBC” and others who remembered that the Farm was “only a good spit in a strong wind away from the Royal Saxon tomb find in Prittlewell.”

In May, Martin plugged a gap between stadium delay announcements by re-focusing on the Roots Hall development. Just in time for a club AGM which had £2.1m annual losses to ponder, he said: “Subject to a further pre-application meeting with the council we envisage being in a position to submit a detailed planning application for Roots Hall around the end of June.”

In June, there were further delays, with SBC requesting “additional pedestrian and traffic surveys.” Martin said these would “be completed in June” and gamely insisted that “there is no hold-up,” despite SBC confirming that they “unfortunately” had no “estimate of when” the application would be “ready to be determined.” One cynic’s “as-yet unborn grandchildren are looking forward to stage two of the planning application.” While ‘1nails,’ clearly named after the (mis-spelt) contents of his brain, claimed that “if it was a Mosque, the work would be starting on Monday.”

July’s news, though, was so good that the Echo could report on “club bosses rejoicing.” Hilton Hotels had penned a deal which, Martin said, “will, subject to receipt of planning approval, welcome a new, 107-bedroom hotel,” first mooted in June 2017, at the “new state-of-the-art stadium.” This would help “underpin the club’s future” and lean SBC into “considering the application before much longer.”

Echo commenter “Southend-tom” saw a painful-sounding “orcastrated attempt by some unsavoury characters to,” erm, not sure, as his hopes that “what I’ve written will turn out to be utter nonsense” were self-fulfilling. But another commenter felt “it wouldn’t make any sense for Martin to go through the motions, only to cancel the stadium project.”

Messages still mix. The article beneath the Echo’s latest “confident of move” headline noted that “no formal planning application has yet been submitted” for Roots Hall and added, presumably while the sub-editors were at lunch, that the Farm proposal was “still being pawed over” by council planners.

However, the publication of multiple stadium-planning documents since June 2017 has brought some cynics round to the idea that while old Ron Martin’s farm continues to have f**k all on it (E-I-E-I-O) and progress continues to be outpaced by strolling snails, the pace was connected more to the project’s scope than Martin’s failings.

Hardly high hopes as the Southend stadium saga nears its third decade, the first “multi-million-pound stadium” announcement having celebrated its 29th birthday this month. But hopes, nonetheless.

This piece will be discussed further on next week’s 200% podcast, which is released into the wild every Wednesday. You can download the 200% podcast by right-clicking and saving here, whilst the 200% podcast’s RSS feed is  here and you can subscribe through Itunes here. And if you’re wondering about whether you can do anything to prevent us from wasting away and ultimately starving to death, we now have a podcast shop at which you can buy our crap.