Bristol City chairman says 'I won't give up on £92m stadium dream'
BRISTOL City FC chairman Steve Lansdown has today pledged not to give up his hopes of a new £92 million stadium at Ashton Vale.
His comments follow a victory by residents in Ashton Vale who have been fighting for the 42-acre site to be designated as a town green.
The stadium plans have once again been thrown into turmoil after an independent inspector recommended that the whole site – including a former landfill tip – should be given town green status.
If approved and registered by the city council, it would effectively rule out any development on the site for ever.
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Speaking exclusively to the Evening Post, Mr Lansdown said: "The message is that we will do everything we can to get the stadium.
"I would not be human if I didn't feel at times that I should give up.
"But one of the points to bear in mind is that I have invested a lot of money in this site and I want to retain the value of the land.
"I bought the land in good faith but if it loses its value because town green status is granted, then it is tantamount to theft."
He said the future of the stadium was now in the council's hands because they had to make a decision whether to grant town green status.
"If they say yes or no, then at least we will know exactly where we stand."
Mr Lansdown said he had maligned the council in the past but he praised the work and energy they had put into supporting the stadium project.
He said: "I have long felt that the city both deserves and wants a stadium that can attract major events and be the centre of the local community. It would also be a major catalyst to the regeneration of South Bristol.
"That's always been my vision for this project, a vision which is now in jeopardy but not one which I am prepared to give up on."
He is urging fans to write or email their MP or local councillor and let them know their views because it will help them decide the future of the stadium.
The inspector's recommendation means that the club's dreams of a new 30,000-seat home are hanging by a thread but not totally shattered beyond hope.
It is now the responsibility of the city council to decide whether to approve the recommendation and register the site as a town green.
The Liberal Democrat-run council is committed to supporting a new stadium and is now looking at ways of unpicking a route through a legal minefield to keep the stadium hopes alive.
The inspector's findings have clearly stunned senior council staff and club executives, however.
Deputy council leader Simon Cook said: "I am shocked and disappointed at the independent inspector's conclusion.
"Although I respect the fact that she has found that there is a case for awarding a village green, designating the whole 42 acres in question seems utterly unreasonable."
Mr Cook said awarding town green status to the whole site put at serious risk not just the stadium, but a possible arena, redevelopment of the current ground at Ashton Gate and the city's hopes of becoming a host city for the World Cup if the tournament comes to England in 2018.
Mr Cook said: "This amounts to around £150 million worth of investment, promising at least 1,000 extra full and part-time jobs and thousands of construction jobs.
"It also means we risk losing the economic impact of hosting the World Cup, amounting to possibly £150 million."
If lost, then it would be devastating to the regeneration of south Bristol and highly damaging to the image of the city, he said.
Mr Cook emphasised that the club and the council had a shared vision for a stadium at Ashton Vale.
He said: "We are determined to chart a positive way forward so that the interests of some local people in continuing to have an open space on which to walk their dog are balanced with the wider economic benefits.
"The law behind this application is a complete nonsense, but I am utterly determined to find a way through it."
Club chief executive Colin Sexstone said: "We always knew that prizes on the scale of a new regional stadium and a World Cup were never going to fall into our lap – the most ambitious and visionary projects never do – but we remain utterly determined to get there.
"Bristol City Council assures us that it is doing everything in its power to find a way forward on this, and until it makes its decision, it's business as usual for us.
"The council wants to see a new regional stadium on this site as much as we do, and we have every confidence that we can achieve that goal together."
A statement was issued on behalf of the residents who brought the town green application. They did not want to be individually named because they claim some of them have already received threats and suffered property damage, such as slashed tyres.
The statement said: "The applicants are not green campaigners or politicians or paid advisors. They are just ordinary people who live in Ashton Vale."
They say that from the outset, their aim was to protect the land for future generations to enjoy.
They added that the inspector's findings were a testament to what could be achieved by ordinary people when they had the support of people willing to help them.
The statement said: "The town green application had very little to do with football or the stadium, it was always about protecting this precious green space. The land means so much to so many people and we felt that we had to try and protect it.
"Had development gone ahead, we would have been entirely surrounded by industry, with no green spaces in between for us to play, walk dogs or enjoy the wildlife. Local residents have been protecting these fields and fighting development of this site for more than 40 years.
"If we have achieved town green status, then we hope once and for all we can be free of the anxiety and stress we have endured for the last two years and look forward to our children and our grandchildren continuing to enjoy the land without the threat of development.
"At the outset of this case, we took much encouragement and received much support from others in Bristol who had successfully brought town green cases. We now offer our encouragement and support to the many across this city whose green spaces are currently threatened by development."
The Ashton Vale Heritage Group and the Town Green applicants said they wanted to thank the 188 local residents who gave evidence, enabling them to show 60 years of use, often going back through three or four generations of the same family.
The independent inspector, Miss Ross Crail, held a two-week public hearing in May where she took evidence from residents who live near the site as well as hearing witnesses for the landowners who want to build a new stadium there for Bristol City FC.
She says in her report that she based her finding on the oral evidence of 22 residents who appeared to her to be honest and "did not give the impression of exaggerating their personal use".
None of the people who gave evidence at the public hearing were under oath at the time.
Miss Crail said: "I am satisfied that there was use of the Application Land for lawful sports and pastimes by a significant number of Ashton Vale inhabitants as of right throughout a period of at least 20 years preceding the applications and that such use was continuing at the time of the applications."
Her recommendation is that the whole of the 42 acres qualifies for registration as a town or village green.
She goes on to say that it is now up to the council to decide whether to follow her recommendation.
But perhaps the most telling point she makes is that when the council makes its decision, it cannot take into account the desirability of using the land for other purposes.
A period of 21 days now elapses when either the residents or the landowners can make comments on the inspector's report and if there is any significant evidence which has not been taken into account, then the inspector could be asked to review the case.
If this does not occur, then the council's lawyers will put a report before the seven councillors who make up the Public Rights of Way and Greens committee.
There are four Lib Dem councillors, two Labour and one Tory but there is no party whip which means they do not vote along party lines.
They could be asked to overthrow the inspector's findings and vote against town green status.
Such a move is not unprecedented but extremely rare and almost certain to lead to the residents taking court action.
Another option would be for councillors to offer some parcels of land for town green status but leave alone those areas which are needed for the new stadium.
A further option would be for the committee to defer a decision and ask the full council, with its 70 members, to decide on the issue.
No doubt the councillors on the committee would much prefer this but it would set a legal precedent and open up the chances of court action once more.
The law on town and village greens dates back to 1189 and is extremely complex and it is possible that Ashton Vale could become a test case on which future applications throughout the country are decided.
Whatever decision is taken, the hopes of a new stadium will eventually lie in the hands of the lawyers and the outcome of court action that will take an estimated six months to resolve.
Plans for the new stadium were previously thrown into disarray when councillors turned down planning permission for Sainsbury's to build a new superstore at the current ground.
The Evening Post revealed yesterday that Sainsbury's have now drawn up revised plans to meet the concerns of councillors who turned down consent.