Agenda item

Fleetdown United Football Club - Consultation on Open Space Disposal - Notice of Intention to Lease Land held for the Purposes of Public Open Space

Summary:

 

To consider representations following a public consultation related to proposals for land at Heath Lane made by Trustees of the Fleetdown United Football Club and to determine accordingly.

 

Recommendations:

 

1. That Cabinet considers the representations made in relation to the Council’s notice of intention to dispose (through the grant of a further lease) of approximately 3.1 hectares of land at Heath Lane to Fleetdown United Football Club, and that Cabinet either:

(a)   confirms (through the grant of a further lease) the disposal of land at Heath Lane edged red and partly cross-hatched, on the plan at Appendix B to the report; or

(b)   not grant a further lease in relation to land at Heath Lane described in recommendation 1(a);

 

2. That Cabinet considers the representations, including the submission of a petition (as detailed in Appendix A to the report), made to the Council in relation to proposals by the Trustees of Fleetdown United Football Club to request landlord consent for the erection of a fence and that Cabinet either:

(c)  grants landlord consent for the erection of a fence to prevent access to the site on non-match days (subject to appropriate planning consent(s)); or

(d)  not grant landlord consent for the erection of the fence; and

 

3. That, should Cabinet be minded to approve the grant of a further lease of the Heath Lane open space land and/or the erection of a fence, authority be granted to the Director of Growth and Community, in consultation with the Head of Legal Services, to approve the heads of terms of the lease to the Trustees of the Fleetdown United Football Club.

 

Minutes:

 

The Cabinet considered a report which detailed the background to proposals for land at Heath Lane by the Trustees of Fleetdown United Football Club. The Trustees of the Fleetdown United Football Club had been awarded external funding from FA/Sport England for the upgrading of the Club’s facilities and for maintaining/improving the football pitches. However the grant of funds was conditional on the Club having an unexpired lease term of at least 25 years. The current lease was due to expire in 2037 (15 years). The Club was also seeking to enclose the main pitches and to protect its facilities by erecting a fence between the field access gate (from Heath Lane) and the fences of properties in Roseberry Gardens backing onto the pitches as shown on the plan attached at Appendix A to the report. In accordance with statutory requirements to give public notice of the intention to dispose of open space land the Council issued public notice in a local newspaper and on the Council’s web site and issued further public notices in April as a result of significant public interest in the proposed land disposal.

 

A total of 414 responses were received to the consultations, of which 323 opposed the proposal, 91 were in favour and 10 agreed with the lease but not the fence. The Council had also received a petition containing 20 signatures opposing the disposal of the land as outlined in Appendix A to the report. The main objections related to concern around the loss of public open space, lack of future access for dog walkers or availability for recreational use and concern about possible intensification of use by the football club. However the principal complaint was the Club’s proposal to fence off the larger part of the playing field which it believed to be necessary to protect the playing surface and to improve security following the proposed substantial investment in the facilities, for which planning permission would need to be obtained by the Club. The Cabinet was invited to determine whether it wished to accede to the Club’s proposals for the land by granting a further lease, or not, and if it decided to grant the lease whether it should grant landlord consent for the erection of a fence (subject to the Club obtaining the necessary planning consents).

 

The Chairman said that this matter had generated considerable feeling in the local area and that the Cabinet had a difficult decision to make. In such circumstances it was particularly important that this was driven by the evidence, was fair and was the best decision that could be made for the entire community. It was possible that this could upset some people and the Council would have to work to bring the community back together if this occurred. He commented on the fantastic work carried out by Fleetdown Football Club in terms of its youth and community work and that the Club was a valued partner. However the many people who were opposing the Club’s application were equally valued and similarly well intentioned in their opposition to the loss of public access to the existing open space. He noted the outcome of the public consultation, which had rightly been extended given the strength of feeling in the locality, and noted that the overwhelming majority of respondents opposed the Club’s plans, although there had also been significant support for the proposals. He felt that the best approach was to break the proposals down into its constituent parts.

 

The first issue was the Club’s request for an extension to its current lease, which had 15 years to run, on the grounds that it required a minimum unexpired lease of 25 years in order to secure funding for ground improvements from the Football Association, which was not an uncommon requirement by funding bodies. He explained that he and a number of Cabinet colleagues had recently visited the open space and had spoken to users of the Club and recreational users during that visit but that there had been no prior discussion about the proposals.

 

The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Finance said that the relationship between the Club and the local community had been good and that the Club carried out a lot of good work. He recognised that the Club needed investment to improve its facilities and supported the provision of an extended lease to secure this funding. The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Arts & Culture also supported the extension of the lease.

 

The Chairman clarified that although this was deemed to be a disposal of public open land this was just a technical term that was applied when the Council granted a lease to such land for a period of 7 years or longer and that the Council remained the owner and landlord where such a lease was granted. Given the views expressed by the Cabinet he concluded that Members supported the granting of an extended lease to the Club.

 

The Chairman now turned to the proposal to fence off part of the open land, which appeared to be the most emotive issue for local users. The Club had explained that it wished to do this to protect the sports pitches, to deter anti-social behaviour and occasional mis-use by dog walkers who did not pick up excrement left by their dogs on the land and on the sport pitches. Enclosing the land would also allow the Club to lay-out equipment in advance of matches without the fear of damage.

 

The Lead Member for Parks, Open Space & Heritage said that he was attending the meeting in his role as the Lead Member for this matter and also as a Councillor for West Hill where many residents used this particular open space for recreational purposes. Whilst he was sympathetic to the Club’s wish to take its development further he could not support the fencing-in of land that had been public open space for many years thereby denying public access. He pointed out that it was possible for the interests of sports clubs and recreational users to co-exist and pointed to the example of Hesketh Park where Dartford Cricket Club was based but which remained accessible to the public.

 

The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Finance explained that this was legacy land where there was a legal requirement that the land could only be used for recreational purposes. He noted that the current lease with Fleetdown Football Club did restrict the right of public access to the space, but only when the Club was playing matches or training. He also recognised that there was occasional anti-social behaviour and activities that damaged the land, such as from portable barbeques, and dog fouling and was sympathetic to the Club in this respect. However he recognised that this was also an area enjoyed by local residents and could not support fencing off the main part of the open space.

 

The Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Housing cited other examples in his area where sports clubs co-existed with public use and was concerned that building a fence would prove divisive.

 

The Chairman said that that proposed fence would have a significant impact on the character and look of the open space; it was a big fence stretching a long way. During his site visit he had observed the users and noted that whilst some people respected the pitches others either walked across them or tended to drift subconsciously onto them. He felt that there were other ways in which it might be possible to guide people to respect the integrity of the pitches, possibly by soft landscaping rather than fencing, and if existing gating arrangements were not deterring use by motorcyclists, as alleged, then these would need to be revisited. 

 

The Chairman read out an email which had been sent to Cabinet Members by Ian Gould, Fleetdown FC’s Development Officer, proposing some mitigations to the original fencing proposal, but still wishing to fence the area to restrict public access.

 

The Chairman summarised the discussion from which it was clear that Members did not support the proposed fence. He stressed however that there were other ways that the Council might be able to help the Club and that this might be a real opportunity for the Council and the Club to establish a stronger, mutually beneficial, partnership relationship which could also involve recreational users. He felt that soft landscaping could provide suitable delineation of the land and that the Council could assist with measures to deter anti-social behaviour, by looking at gating and the possibility of patrols by the Council’s enforcement contractors to address littering and dog fouling, and to provide secure storage closer to the pitches for the Club’s equipment and potential enhancement of the Club’s own CCTV system. 

 

A representative of the football club explained the challenges that the Club faced in terms of damage to its equipment and maintaining the condition of the pitches and that, if the Club progressed to higher leagues, the FA’s requirements for the condition of the ground would also increase.

 

An objector explained that recreational users and the Club had co-existed happily for many years, that there was wide support for the Club locally. People accepted that there were times when public access to some areas was restricted, when the Club was actually playing or repairing/re-seeding pitches. However there were many objections to restricting public access to such a great extent and the erection of a fence.

 

The Chairman said that it was a priority for the Council to explore ways that it could assist Fleetdown Football Club proactively to address some of its issues of concern and that this should include involvement of local people. He thanked the public for responding to the consultation and for attending the meeting.

 

          RESOLVED:

 

1. That, having considered the representations made in relation to the Council’s notice of intention to dispose (through the grant of a further lease) of approximately 3.1 hectares of land at Heath Lane to Fleetdown United Football Club, the Cabinet confirms (through the grant of a further lease) the disposal of land at Heath Lane edged red and partly cross-hatched, on the plan at Appendix B to the report;

 

2.  That, having considered the representations, including the submission of a petition (as detailed in Appendix A to the report), made to the Council in relation to proposals by the Trustees of Fleetdown United Football Club to request landlord consent for the erection of a fence, the Cabinet does not grant landlord consent for the erection of the fence; and

 

3.  That, authority be granted to the Director of Growth and Community, in consultation with the Head of Legal Services and the Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Finance, to approve the heads of terms of the lease to the Trustees of the Fleetdown United Football Club.

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