Hitchin Town's historic Top Field stadium is under threat as the trust who look after the site want to sell it to a supermarket, explains John Carter
On October 8 a packed meeting at Hitchin Town FC heard the club’s managing director, Andy Melvin, reveal that their ground, which is due to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, was to be replaced by a supermarket. He explained how the executive had been presented with a non-negotiable offer by their landlords, Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust. They were required to sign a 25-year lease containing a five-year break clause, invokable should a store be permitted on the site. In compensation the club would move to an as yet unbuilt stadium outside town, to face an indeterminate future.
Making a rare public appearance, three nervous trustees attempted to justify their actions to the raucous audience. They claim the trust is penniless, with incurred expenses of “over £100,000” in previous failed legal actions involving the club, and/or Melvin personally. District councillor Judi Billing claims the Cow Commoners “have for many years wasted money in pointless litigation”. The details are murky but, as community watchdog Hitchin Forum put it: “Someone, sometime made a bad decision!” Now the Cow Commoners would like the people of Hitchin, and their football club, to pay for it. The terms of the trust won’t allow them to sell Top Field, but they contend it can be swapped. Enter property developer Richard Daniels, whose clients include Tesco and who also owns development rights to several acres of green belt near the village of St Ippolyts.
Superficially Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust evokes the type of whimsical institution beloved by viewers of Midsomer Murders. The original Cow Commoners were permitted to run livestock, once a year, along land adjacent to Top Field. In 1880 they established the trust to maintain the site as “a place of recreation for the people of Hitchin”. The only cow the current trustees are likely to be familiar with, however, is the portion that stares up at them from a plate. The trust may be broke but its members don’t lack power or influence; one, for example, is a district councillor. They consist of eight, mainly self-selected, professional individuals who meet in private and answer to no one but themselves.
Hitchin Forum makes the point that “Top Field could be developed for other sports if the lease is long enough, thus offering the possibility of grants aid from a variety of sources... if everybody stops spending available money on lawyers”. It’s common knowledge that past relationships between trust and club have been difficult, nevertheless this announcement shocked the community. At no point did the Cow Commoners consult either the football club or local residents, including those with properties close to the ground. They haven’t spoken to local merchants, many of whom must love the idea of another supermarket in town. Nor have they asked the parishioners of St Ippolyts how they feel about a sports complex on their doorstep. Secretiveness makes it difficult to determine whether the trustees are naive, arrogant, desperate or just incompetent. But in the end it doesn’t matter. The important thing to remember is what’s at stake.
Well over 200 people attended the public meeting, many of whom were clearly not football supporters, evidence that Hitchin residents are aware of Top Field’s intrinsic value. Lovers of the sport know it was home to the first Hitchin team in 1865. It is older than the current club, older than the Cow Commoners Trust, older perhaps than the codified game itself. Others see it as a bulwark against the increasing homogeneity and commodification of their town, or a prime example of the need for democracy and transparency in local development. Whatever the individual reasons, if the term “community asset” means anything at all then it must surely apply to this quaint, dilapidated old stadium on Fishponds Road. It is, in every sense that matters, irreplaceable.
In coming weeks the club will be organising activities and actions protesting the Cow Commoners’ plan. The first of these will occur at Top Field on November 29, when the Southern Premier League match against Frome Town will be free admission. Instead people will be invited to contribute to the “Save HTFC” fighting fund. These donations will be needed as there’s every likelihood that this dispute will go to court at a future date.
From WSC 334 December 2014