Councils of despair

Everyone likes a good moan about their local council. Especially Jim Gwinnell and Rob Rushton, who suspect theirs of neglecting one half of their respective cities

There has long been a feeling among Bristol Rovers fans that Bristol city council might just as well be named Bristol City council. Their suspicions of a pro-City bias on the Labour-run council have been heightened by the most recent moves in the seemingly endless saga over the future homes of the city’s two League clubs. Bristol City want a new 40,000-seater stadium to replace Ashton Gate, while Rovers are desperate for an adequate home of their own.

Both should be achievable, but Rovers fans have looked on in bemusement as the council has received warmly City’s proposal to develop a 225-acre site at Hengrove which was previously denied to Rovers. The council has said that “it is possible to fit a 40,000-seater stadium on the site”, yet when Rovers vice- chairman Geoff Dunford made an enquiry for the same site only six months ago, he was turned down flat.

The only concession the council have so far made is to suggest that City might consider sharing their shiny new stadium with Rovers. But even they cannot have been surprised when Rovers declined. All of which is galling enough for Rovers, who have spent the years since leaving Eastville in 1986 trying to find a new site in the city. Yet if I were a City fan I would not be too confident of moving home just yet either. 

Understanding City’s situation is quite simple. They have always felt they are a big team (they have even been in the old First Division) and therefore deserve more than their recent position as uninspired First and Second Division inhabitants would suggest. Yet whereas others with similar aspirations have their Jack Walkers and Sir John Halls, Bristol is a bit short on the old multi-millionaires wanting to put something back into the city. What City do have is Scott Davidson, an ambitious chairman who seems willing to try for the promised land of Premier League plc.

Having seen the club promoted to the First last season he seems to be on the road to fulfilling those dreams. Central to this project is a new stadium, the sort that every aspiring Premier Leaguer should have. After City’s first visit to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in September, a mightily impressed Davidson pro-claimed that this was what he wanted for City. A month later and the plans for a new stadium were revealed and a site for development proposed. 

Redevelopment of Ashton Gate is also being considered, but at a minimum cost of £25 million it is obvious that a new ground (perhaps achievable for around £20 million) is more practical, especially since Ashton Gate lies close to a city centre constantly in gridlock. Hengrove seems to offer the ideal solution.

If only it were so easy. Rovers have been trying for well over 12 years to build a new stadium, only for every proposed plan and site to be turned down or blocked by the council for one reason or another. Numerous sites in and around Bristol have been considered, plans submitted and representations made to the council. Not a single one has been accepted. Promises of partnership or of active help in finding a site from the council have proved worthless. 

Indeed it was only in 1996, and without any obvious assistance from the council, that Rovers finally moved back into the city from their exile in Bath, sharing the Memorial Ground with Bristol Rugby Club. The difficulties over the summer at Bristol RFC and some nifty contractual negotiations allowed us to buy the ground and actually own where we play for the first time in half a century. Nevertheless, the Memorial Ground has a capacity of only just over 9,000 and Rovers retain the desire for a purpose-built stadium, even if not on the scale of City’s proposals.

Rovers supporters even went to the lengths of forming their own political party for the 1994 council elections. Calling themselves the Bristol Party they campaigned on behalf of Rovers, but also for better facilities for the people of Bristol as a whole. They failed to win any seats but a point was made. Hence Rovers fans’ anger when City announced their plans. 

Yet if I were Scott Davidson I wouldn’t be counting my plastic seats before they are firmly bolted into the new stands. For in truth the council’s record is not so much one of bias against Rovers as a failure to develop leisure facilities of any kind. It is remarkable that a city the size of Bristol still has no decent concert venue, exhibition hall, transport system or sports complex. (The council say they can’t even afford millennium celebrations without raising taxes; haven’t they ever heard of sponsorship or local business partnerships?) Yet at the same time shopping complexes and housing estates spring up all over the place at the expense of playing fields and other greenfield sites.

So it might be worthwhile, just this once, for City and Rovers to put aside their differences and act together. If Rovers can be seen to be constructive in supporting City’s proposals then City could surely return the favour and back Rovers’ bid for a new stadium. What neither wants is to contemplate a merger, or even groundsharing, logical though that may seem to outsiders. Apart from their fierce rivalry, the clubs also have drastically different aspirations. City are talking about hosting World Cup matches in 2006. Rovers, on the other hand, would be happy with hosting the Auto Windscreens Shield if it meant being in  their own 20,000 seater stadium. All we ask is that we be treated fairly.

What that means for Rovers is to have their legitimate ambitions recognised. We have never been a big club, but nor are we no-hopers – uniquely, we have only ever played in the middle two divisions. Crowds have averaged around 6,000 recently, but that is not to say we can’t expand our support, especially given the impetus of a new stadium within easy reach of our traditional fan base. 

If the council are going to argue that City deserve a nice new ground simply because they are a “bigger” club with an entrepreneurial chairman and more chance of bringing big crowds to Bristol, then we may as well give up on our local government. The only thing that has been preventing Rovers from challenging City’s position is the council itself.

Readers of Port Vale fanzines will know that the real power base in Potteries football lies not at Vale Park, nor the Britannia Stadium, but in the chamber of Stoke-on-Trent city council, which is showing little inclination to treat the city’s two clubs as equals.

Stoke-on-Trent is the smallest city in England to boast two league clubs. Port Vale, based in Burslem in the north of the city, have been overshadowed by their neighbours for most of their 122 years of existence. Until about ten years ago, Vale fans could only dream of parity with City. Now Vale have started another season in the First Division, having spent seven of the last nine at this level. Stoke City are in the Second, after a traumatic season which ended in relegation after the inauguration of a new stadium, built on the proceeds of a deal with a local building society, the sale of Mike Sheron to QPR, a generous grant from the Football Trust and a massive handout from the  city council.

City and Vale were promised equal treatment from the council in upgrading their grounds under the conditions imposed by the Taylor Report. City opted to sell up and move to a new stadium on a greenfield site. The council put up a reported £3 million to help build the Britannia Stadium, then reneged on its promise to Port Vale who were given nothing more than planning permission towards the task of upgrading Vale Park. How can a cash-strapped local authority justify giving one team £3 million of council tax payers’ money, then withdraw the promise of equal treatment for the other team? The council’s answer is simple: because only one of them is a “community stadium”.

A community stadium, obviously enough, is a facility that the whole community can use, but, as recorded in WSC No 137, the only non-football related event so far held at the Britannia that could not also have taken place at Vale Park is an adults-only, three-day festival of erotica. City say that you can book their facilities for conferences and cabarets, but you can do the same at Vale Park.

The council said Vale would have received equal treatment if the club had agreed to share the new ground with City, but this wasn’t the original promise. Port Vale didn’t need to move to conform with the requirements of the Taylor Report, and the redevelopment of three sides of Vale Park is already complete. Our attendances are low enough as it is; moving away from our traditional fan base into the heartland of our greatest rivals would be an accountant’s nightmare. A distance of six or seven miles is two buses and an hour’s travelling for most Vale fans. Even for those with their own transport, the matchday parking at the Britannia is a 20-minute walk from the stadium and even Stoke fans are beginning to wonder why planning permission was given for a stadium with such inadequate access.

The Football Trust, from whom Vale hoped to get a grant to build the new Lorne Street stand, have spent most of the past three years pleading poverty on the grounds that no one is doing the pools any more. Now they have finally come up with the cash, as have local sponsors, and the last part of the redevelopment of Vale Park is under way. Even so, the plans have been downgraded and the work has to go ahead in stages to keep costs down to a manageable level.

Vale’s financial stability relies on John Rudge buying good young players, bringing them on for a few seasons then selling them. The Bosman Ruling is likely to reduce the amount of money Vale can generate in this manner. Attendances don’t pay the wages, which means that Vale need to diversify to raise income. For 15 years there was a popular market in the club car park, but that was forced to close by a council injunction on the grounds that it was a threat to the council-run market in Burslem Market Square. In December 1997, Vale chairman Bill Bell applied to the council to lift the injunction. Council officials indicated that the market would never be allowed to reopen. Vale are even banned from holding a car boot sale. Since the closure of the market Vale have lost £150,000 a year in revenue, and Bell is reported to be considering taking the case to the European Court on grounds of restraint of trade.

The club also used to have a shop in Burslem, but were prevented by the council from selling anything other than Vale’s own brand merchandise because it was alleged to be taking away trade from other shops in the town. Hamil Road supporters’ shop, two minutes’ walk from Vale Park, was a one-room lock-up with no sanitation, trading only on match days. Even though it was open for no more than 60 hours a year, the council insisted it was a full-time profit-making business, and therefore liable to the full business rate of £400. The council refused to consider rebating the rates, which it could legally have done by up to 80 per cent. The shop closed last year – yet another empty commercial site in Burslem.

If the council’s relationship with Port Vale continues in similarly frosty vein, the club itself risks going the same way and the ultimate prospect of a one-team, red and white city can only get nearer.

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month