Bristol City Football Club have suffered another blow in their hopes for a new 30,000-seat stadium at Ashton Vale – the future of the site is now expected to be settled in court, which could take weeks if not months to resolve.
The Evening Post can exclusively reveal that an application for a judicial review over Bristol City Council’s “split site” town green decision is expected to be made in the next few days.
In June councillors decided to register the southern section of the site as a town green – but not the former landfill tip in the north of the site where the new £92-million stadium would be built.
This latest twist in the long-running saga means the prospect of a start on the new £92 million stadium will be delayed yet again.
And if the review is successful, then it would prevent the stadium being built at all.
The club has been poised to start work for weeks on a replacement for Ashton Gate but has been prevented from doing so because of a 90-day deadline to submit an application for court proceedings.
This deadline would have expired in two weeks’ time on September 14 but the council was informed on Friday that a court application is imminent.
A judicial review can only examine the process by which the decision was made – not the decision itself. A judge will now have to decide at a court hearing whether to give permission for a review to go ahead.
If he does not, then the legal proceedings could end within a matter of a few weeks. But if he does, then the issue could drag on for months.
The proceedings mean that it is the council which made the town green decision which is being taken to court – not the club or the landowners that includes majority shareholder Steve Lansdown.
Club chairman Colin Sexstone said: “We are obviously very disappointed it has come to this.
“The decision which was made by the council was a very sensible one and I am sure they will vigorously defend it.”
Council spokesman Peter Holt said: “The process by which the decision was made took place over many months and a great deal of time and effort was made in order to reach a decision which addressed everyone’s concerns.
“We are very confident that due legal process was adhered to at every stage and we will robustly defend our decision.”
Deputy council leader Simon Cook told the Post he was unable to comment in detail as the application may result in a hearing.
The application for a judicial review will be lodged with the courts by the same firm of lawyers in Cambridge which represented the Ashton Vale residents who originally applied for the 42-acre site to be registered as a town green.
But the Evening Post understands it is not the same residents who have been named on the review application.
In June, the city council’s Public Rights of Way committee decided on the “split-site” option for the future of the site.
Councillors agreed by six votes to two that the southern section of the site should be registered as a town green but not the former landfill tip in the north of the site where the new stadium would be built.
One of the contentious points was whether to take into account the additional information that had been submitted by the club against the land being given town green status. The club presented the council with a vanload of new documents last autumn after an independent inspector recommended that the whole site should be registered as a town green.
The council’s political leaders collectively asked both sides to hold mediation talks in the hope a compromise could be found but they ended in March without success.
The failure of the talks meant the onus was once again back with the council to make a decision over registering the site which led to councillors discussing the issue at a Public Rights of Way committee meeting nearly 11 weeks ago.
At that meeting, Will Godfrey, the council’s strategic director, said it was right for him to consider the additional evidence because it was important to reach a fair decision and this could only be done by examining all the information that was available.
He said on the balance of probabilities, the northern area of the site did not pass the test for being registered as a town green because during the past 20 years it had been used as a land tip or was in the process of remediation.
He said the southern part of the 42-acre site did pass the test and therefore should be registered.
In order to achieve town green status, it must be shown that a patch of land has been used continuously during the past 20 years for recreational purposes by people who live in the area.
The judicial review is the last hurdle for the club to overcome before work can start on the new stadium.
Planning permission has already been given by Bristol City and North Somerset councils for the stadium to be built. Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles and his Labour predecessor John
Denham have already indicated they have no wish to hold their own inquiry into the stadium – a power they can exercise on major projects.
Consent has also been given for Sainsbury’s to build a new superstore on the existing Ashton Gate site which the club always insisted was needed in order to raise some of the funding for the new stadium.
He said: “We’re disappointed as we felt the council made a reasonable decision.”
Supporters’ Trust chairman Stuart Rogers said: “I think the word I’d use to describe this latest turn of events would be ‘frustration’. It seems to me that some people are determined to stop the stadium at all costs and that their concerns are not about green spaces at all.
“They seem to have left it late to put this appeal in, when, if they were really serious about it, they could have lodged it a lot earlier.
“I suspect that the motives behind it are to try and string the whole process out for as long as possible.
“All it does really is bring further needless costs and wasted resources for something that it is inevitably going to happen. The right decision was made in June, when over 20 acres of the site were awarded town green status. The people working hard behind the scenes to get the project off the ground must be very frustrated. It is a setback, but I’m still optimistic that the stadium will be built.”
Lifelong City supporter Matthew Withers, 41, from Staple Hill, added: “It is very disappointing. It is another setback for all the people that have worked so hard on the issue.
“It just seems that to delay the project yet again for a handful of people is a typical reflection of how things are done in this country, unfortunately.
“I’ve lived in Bristol my whole life and everybody knows that the proposed site is not used for anything. I fear that continuing delays could put the whole stadium project in jeopardy.
“How long will it be before Steve Lansdown turns around and decides he’s had enough of it?
“If that happens it would be bad for the city as a whole because this stadium project is a great opportunity to regenerate that area of South Bristol.”