Basingstoke Town: The Scumbag vs The Community
This year should be one of celebration for Basingstoke Town Football Club. It is, after all, their 125th anniversary. The club played in the Hampshire League for 70 years before joining the Southern League in 1971, and in more recent years they were founder and long-term members of the National League South, before a rot set in on the pitch which has seen the club drop to Division One South of the Southern League. And it says something that this collapse on the pitch hasn’t even been the most serious crisis the club has faced over the course of the last five years.
In May 2016, with the club having just been relegated from the National League South in bottom place, Basingstoke Town chairman Rafi Razzak wrote to all shareholders of the club, informing them that it was “unviable”, that his “support will not continue beyond the short term”, and that their shares had “no value”. He subsequently offered to re-purchase their shares, explaining it was to ensure that they were not left “out of pocket”. Documents revealed, however, that just 48 days after this letter was sent, Razzak’s firm Basron purchased the freehold for The Camrose for £2.4m plus VAT from the Camrose estate. He’s believed to have put £2m into the club over the course of his time at the club.
The Camrose had been Basingstoke Town’s home since 1945. It was built on land gifted to the town by William Ewart Berry, the 1st Viscount Camrose and was known as Winchester Road until it was later named for Camrose, but this counted for nothing as far as Razzak was concerned and in 2019 he evicted the Basingstoke Town from its home of 74 years, shortly after it was relegated for the second time in four years. The club was forced into a groundshare twenty miles from home at Winchester City, which was costing more money than it could afford, and it looked for the all world as though that would be that, and that the club would slide from view. After all, what good is a football club called Basingstoke Town if it has to play its home matches in Winchester?
That hasn’t, however, quite been the end of this story. Until forced apart by the events of the last fourteen months, a community came together in protest at the proposed demolition of the ground, and a combination of the perseverance of that community, the support of the local council, and the diligent work of a local newspaper have come together to offer the club what might be considered to be something of a lifeline.
An action of symbolic importance came in February last year, when the pitch at The Camrose was torn up. Pictures of this flashed around the world, but it was the diligence of the local newspaper, the Gazette, that started to tilt the scales a little back towards the club. For some time, supporters had been pinning their hopes on somehow being able to find a copy of a covenant which stated the Camrose stadium, the historic home of Basingstoke Town Football Club, could be used for football or sport until 2053. This had proved as elusive as we might expect a 75 year old document to be, but barely two weeks after the pitch was dug up , the local paper was pleased to be able to confirm its existence.
The good news continued to follow. 2,500 people signed a petition organised by the local paper to keep the club at its historic home. To ease current pains a little, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council provided a £152,000 in funding towards redevelopment of the Hampshire FA’s centre at Winklebury, on the nort-eastern side of Basingtoke, including the installation of a new stand and turnstiles, a new public address system, additional fencing and a boardroom. It wouldn’t be to The Camrose for now (and may yet never be), but at least Basingtoke Town could return to their home town. Meanwhile, some of the Camrose’s fixtures and fittings had even turned up for sale on Ebay, though Razzak denied that these items turning up for sale had anything to do with him.
In September, meanwhile, two planning applications brought by Basron were rejected by the council. Raffik had applied to turn the stadium and its adjacent car park into a 70-bed care home and 85 flats, but the proposals were thrown out after councillors unanimously agreed that they were in contravention of local planning policy. Razzak launched an appeal against this at the very last minute, on the 21st March, but it will likely take months before this case is heard.
None of this means that Razzak is in a particularly strong position over this, though. In January, an application to get The Camrose listed as as Asset of Community Value was approved by the local council. Razzak predictably appealed this, but last week but last week the appeal was rejected, with the council’s head of law and governance, Fiona Thomsen, saying in her decision that “community use remains a realistic possibility”, “given there is an active campaign group and planning permission has not yet been secured for the redevelopment of the site”, with Razzak’s review that, “it is argued that it is not realistic to consider that the stadium will further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community” buttered precisely no parsnips whatsoever.
And the ACV proved critical, with Ms Thomsen saying that her “main consideration” was that planning permission had not been granted, saying the owner is “not in a position to prevent further community use in the next five years”. Razzak has now appealed this decision too, and the matter will pass to a tribunal, but his continuing truculence shouldn’t be allowed to mask the fact that a position that seemed more or less completely hopeless less than two years ago could still yet be recovered. There has even been talk that the council should make a Compulsory Purchase Order against The Camrose, but in order to successfully do so, the local authority would have to demonstrate that is acquisition was necessary and there was a “compelling case in the public interest.” Whether that were the case or not would likely end up on the desk of a givernment minister.
The Hampshire FA headquarters cannot be a permanent solution for the club. The upgrades carried out last year have converted it into a Grade D stadium, but it would cost a considerable amount of money to get a the ground up to the level required were the club to get back towards the position they were in before Razzak poisoned their club. The Camrose remains the best option for the club, if it is to build a sports hub that benefits its community, as has been promised. Basingstoke Town are community-owned now, and few who have seen the benefits of community initiatives carried out by other non-league clubs would argue that such a development would be significantly to the benefit of the people at the town.
The ACV offers some degree of protection but it isn’t a panacea, and neither is Basingstoke’s temporary home with the Hampshire FA. The Camrose is depreciating in value with every bolt that rusts and every wooden beam that rots, even if Razzak only sees it as a plot of land. The fact of the matter is that none of Rafi Razzak’s appeals so far have been successful, and there has been little evidence to signify that they will be in the future, though the possibility of one of them being accepted always remains, no matter how slight it may feel. But the momentum is with the football club, with the council, with the local paper and those who have campaigned for the club, for now. It is to be hoped that this continues, until Basingstoke Town are back at home.