A Conundrum in the Park
We three Gorse Hill Councillors along with our Longford and Stretford colleagues descended upon Stretford High School on Monday night as a consultation on new sports facilities got underway. This was not an easy meeting.
The ongoing saga of the giant Tesco casts a mega-shadow over any proposal. As part of the Tesco scheme, the school surrendered a playing field to the council that will ultimately (if it comes to pass) be sold to Tesco to enable it to build the larger store when it’s added to the land they already own. The receipts from the land sale will be handed to Lancashire Cricket.
So under that shadow, we met to hear a proposal to improve the sports facilities available to the school. In normal circumstances this would be pushing at an open door. Labour, more than any other party puts school investment, particularly in schools serving deprived communities at the core of our ethos. It is why we are here.
The expansion of facilities includes putting a floodlit all weather pitch on Gorse Hill park which would be fenced off together with the existing park football pitch. Access would be controlled to prevent vandalism, dog fouling and over-use of the grass pitch. Additionally, the school will be building indoor sports facilities incorporating changing rooms on its own land in front of the school.
To be fair, the school is envisaging wide community access to the facilities when not being used by the pupils and control would contracted to a third party.
The problem is the park. We do not like to see parkland lost. Although there’ll be no buildings actually built on what is Gorse Hill park, there will be controlled/restricted access to some of it. One might argue that we already restrict access to bowling greens in some of our parks. Victoria Park Bowling Green in Stretford is a prime example of fencing off and securing part of a public park. So isn’t this same?
In principle it probably is the same as fencing off a bowling green. However, the two pitches on Gorse Hill park will be significantly bigger than bowling greens. So one issue is therefore, the scale. The second and major issue is that until the school surrendered its field which is now intended to enable the bigger Tesco, the school had an opportunity to develop facilities on that field. Whilst Victoria Park Bowlers will not have had an alternative location other than Victoria Park, Stretford High School did have an another option.
(leaving aside that I am still critical that such a prime position in Victoria Park is secured like a prison compound – the bowling green should have been moved to a less prominent position if it was going to have such an intimidating fence)
Strikingly, Stretford High School did not receive anything for the surrender of the Tesco field, so this is not a case of the school only being able to invest in facilities through the sale an asset. The school felt the field was not an appropriate facility for the school. The school told us about safeguarding issues, getting the pupils across a busy road and the time lost from the lesson in terms of getting over there. There were other issues in respect of Ofsted specifications and the cost of using Stretford Sports Centre rather than the indoor facilities to be built.
Our Criticism of the Process
Our position as local councillors was that too much of the negotiations had been done behind closed doors; that we’d not been consulted as to the surrender of the field to the council. We supported the school’s ambitions for better facilities, but we felt whilst we could understand the school’s preference for those facilities to be adjacent, rather than on the other side of the road and behind the sports centre, this was at the cost of enclosing a major portion of the park. The Tory Council’s desire to get the land into Tesco’s hands brought the council’s readiness to surrender the park into question. The appraisal of the suitability of the Tesco field for sports development and subsequent surrender of the land to Tesco would have benefited from greater scrutiny and transparency. It was now being presented as a fait accompli which quite frankly angered us. My colleague Dave Acton expressed this very well and powerfully.
Where do we go from here?
As I understand the field has not yet been sold to Tesco, or at least neither the council nor the Cricket Club have received the £21m, I believe any consultation should include the suitablity of the Tesco field as a location for some of the facilities. Of course this would in effect bring the £21m LCCC money and Tescos itself into the consultation, but that is what consultation are for, to present all the factors and interdependencies into the open and give people a say.
If the Council has entered into contractual obligations to Tesco and LCCC that prevent this, then we should be told, as we need to be assured that the council has not made itself liable if the whole thing goes kaput through the legal challenges against the planning permission; or indeed this consultation.
If the community feels that the facilities envisaged for the park are a welcome addition, we will want assurances as to access and pricing. We will also want the partitioning of the park to be no more than absolutely necessary.
It is not unthinkable that there will be many who welcome the facilities. Certainly there’s much in the proposals that do have the community in mind. Amongst what’s envisaged is:
- an all weather pitch with flood-lights behind the present grass-pitch, allowing access to practice and participation of a variety of sports even on dark early evenings
- access to changing facilities for the footballers and other outside sport participants via the the new indoor facilities – these would be less likely to be feasible if all weather pitch was on the Tesco field and the indoor sports were on school grounds
- Access to other sports including netball and possibly tennis courts
- rooms available for community use from within the indoor sports
- a grass pitch protected from dog fouling
- encouragement for continued participation in sports for those leaving school and the possibilty of proactively working with the community
- a greater willingness to listen to the community on access to the park including getting a pelican crossing at the Talbot Road gates
Ultimately, perhaps the most valuable pledge may be that the school and council will only view the development a success if the community are using it and in their words the place is buzzing. How we entrench this into the project will be one of the biggest challenges if the community approves.
Really we need to know your views. At this stage we’re in the pre-consultation consultation and the school, together with the council are consulting with councillors, community groups, churches and the local sports groups. Once this preliminary stage is over there’ll be a presentation at Stretford Sports Centre and local homes will receive a leaflet.
I’ve already been to two of these preliminary meetings and intend to go to more. And we’ll be communciating with residents ourselves.
It’s vital we take everyone’s views into account.