On the rare evening of October 8th the future and fate of the town’s football club was under discussion. Roy Izzard, the football club secretary, gave an introduction talking about the history of the difficulties – his account on their website is here. He included mention of the recently ended dispute over the lease, costing Hitchin Town FC Ltd and Richard Daniels’ company (New Road Developments Ltd) tens of thousands of pounds. There is now a 25 year lease but with a break clause which can be invoked in the first 5 years if a supermarket development is permitted (but not, at this stage for housing).
We expected a one sided view from Hitchin Town FC (Ltd), but some of the Cow Commoners turned up (in sporting terms they are the opposition). Everybody was surprised by the announcement that three of the Cow Commoners trustees were present because they had issued a statement a few hours before saying they would not attend – Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust press release 7th October. A number of questions were then asked of the Cow Commoners.
Andy Melvin gave his views, followed by a rousing rallying call from two supporters of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club who shared their experience and imparted their advice for HTFC. In a superb and passionate speech, from someone who said he was not used to talking in public, the town’s football ground was described as like a palace or stately home and should be listed! He also described the warm atmosphere at the club, despite coming to support the visiting team, and saw himself as a ‘football tourist’, who enjoyed his visits to the rest of the town too.
Keith Hoskins briefly took the floor to restate Hitchin Initiative’s position, that they would oppose any commercial development on Top Field. He expressed concern at the potential destructive impact of an Aldi on the town centre, which is to be expected if Richard Daniels manages to get a supermarket plan agreed (we cannot believe that Tesco is interested, there is too much being reported about them reducing their plans for big stores – one sample here).
Points to note. The relationship between Hitchin Town FC and HCCT seems to be poor. Soon after Andy Melvin became involved in the club, having provided a cash boost, he drew up plans for the future. The details of what happened next are not revealed, but legal action between the two parties went on from 1993 until 2003. It has been said that £100k was spent by HCCT but they lost the legal action. They have spent the years since paying off that debt from monies received on rent from the football club. £100k therefore not spent for the benefit of the community. Someone sometime made a bad decision!
Hitchin Cow Commoners’ Trust was created in 1880. They became a registered charity in August 2014.
They are a “trust”, but, unfortunately, from the reception that they received, they do not seem to be trusted. This seems to stem from the fact that they are self selected and have no mandate to consult the people of Hitchin, for whom they hold the site, in trust for the inhabitants of Hitchin.
From the Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust Scheme , drawn up with the Charity Commission.
(1) The object of the charity is for the benefit of the community through the provision of facilities for the charitable use for cricket, football or other sports or for other general charitable purposes for the benefit of the inhabitants of the town of Hitchin.
We are told that the way they operate is legally correct, but is it morally right? And how do they engage with the sporting public and their spectators? They will undoubtedly say that they have talked to sports clubs, but did they do so before announcing the deal they had signed with Richard Daniels in 2012?
The Trust own Top Field and cannot sell it; we are told that legally they can swap it, but is the current proposal for the “benefit of the inhabitants of the town of Hitchin”, as required by the Trust’s governing Scheme?
It was good that HCC Trustees turned up and tried to explain their situation, but that should have happened before they signed up with Richard Daniels. They say that the people of Hitchin can decide on the fate of Top Field when the plans are presented to the NHDC planning committee, which will decide. But that committee must decide applications on planning criteria, not just on the wishes of local inhabitants. If permission is refused, the developer, Richard Daniels, can go to appeal. Such a challenge is very expensive for the Council. It is also expensive for those opposed to the development if they participate with legal representation. On that basis, with a mind to the need for independent reports (ie. not those submitted by the developer which are likely to be biased in favour of the development) and for legal help, there was an appeal for starting a ‘fighting fund’, with a target of £150k to pay for such professional expenses.
£100k from previous court action + £150k potentially for the fighting fund = £250k, which could have been spent on improving sporting facilities, not arguing about it!
The possibility of registering the site as an ‘Asset of Community Value’ was mentioned. This can confirm an obligation on the seller to give 6 months notice before selling it so that the community can prepare its own bid for the site http://mycommunityrights.org.uk/community-right-to-bid/
Whether this can be used for a site which might be swapped, rather than sold, is uncertain.
However, in terms of recent legislation to strengthen communities and protect their assets, the following from the National Planning Policy Framework may be relevant:-
74. Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless:
● the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location;
The question then goes back to the judgement of HCCT that the St Ippolyts site provides more for the sports-inclined inhabitants of Hitchin. Moving a popular football club to outside the town, where it might wither and die, does not sound like it is better in terms of its location.
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. It may not be as smart as a newbuild facility, but that could improve at Top Field, if everybody stops spending available money on lawyers. Club supporters are more likely to walk to Top Field and so avoid more traffic and pollution in town (that is if the club survived if moved out of town).
Someone suggested that the battle to stay on Top Field is the football club’s biggest game. Hitchin football club started in 1865, the 150th anniversary is next year. Now how could that be celebrated? We believe that there is enormous support for the continuation of the football club on this site, and many want to support it! Follow Hitchin Town FC’s campaign news here.
An afterthought for the Cow Commoners – Could they change the way they function? They could opt for an enlarged (non-voting) membership who could act as an expert panel for them – perhaps 2 nominees from a number of cricket, football and other sports clubs. The following is from the Charity Commissions website
17. Informal or associate (non-voting) membership
(1) The charity trustees may create associate or other classes of non-voting membership, and may determine the rights and obligations of any such members (including payment of membership fees), and the conditions for admission to, and termination of membership of any such class of members.
Such non-voting members could attend their meetings, be available for advice, and from their contact with a range of interested sporty people be able to reassure the wider public about the activities of the Trust. That should increase the openness that the inhabitants of the town of Hitchin are entitled to expect, and perhaps increase the trust.
And for something slightly different – from a non-Hitchin blogger, extolling the delights of Top Field, and the necessity of retaining the football club there – just click on this link