Crystal Palace Football Club are determined to get planning permission to build their £100million new stand, and yesterday staged an on-pitch stunt in a show of defiance to the local council, getting loyal fans on-side just as local elections are looming.
And expect to see Steve O’Connell, the Tory councillor with very close links to Selhurst Park, wearing a Back The Plan T-shirt soon, just as the Palace players did during their on-pitch warm-up before yesterday’s televised Premier League game against Tottenham.
The club wants its plans rubber-stamped by the council’s planning committee by April 19, just a fortnight ahead of the Town Hall elections, when O’Connell’s Conservatives will be hoping to prise control of the council from Labour.April 19 is the date that the national press has been briefed that Croydon’s planning committee will hear the application that includes the demolition of six homes.
In many ways, Palace are pushing at an open door when it comes to persuading local politicians to assist the club with its development scheme.
The Labour-run council is supportive of plans which would see the old main stand, opened 93 years ago, being rebuilt. They definitely want to have the club stay and thrive within the borough.
But when the council’s planning committee heard a pre-application from the club last month, councillors did express the view that they were being pushed too quickly.
“There was concern that the proposed date of application submission, early February 2018, was too soon and members…”, meaning elected councillors, “… were apprehensive that the application was being rushed through,” the minutes note.
There has been a sense, ever since the club first announced its scheme, that Palace wanted to push through its proposals with little regard for their neighbours or the wider interests of the community. When the plans were unveiled, it was the first that supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, who share part of the site, had heard about the project and how it would affect their store.
And when consultants hired by the club staged public consultation sessions last month, there was no mention in any of the materials available of the homes which would be sacrificed to make way for the modern stand, which will deliver hospitality boxes and an additional 8,000 seats at Selhurst Park.
Councillors felt that the club needed to co-operate more on how people uprooted from their homes would be rehoused and on other, remaining properties being put in the shade of the vast new building. They wanted traffic issues dealt with and to see the Selhurst area reap some benefits. The committee chair, Paul Scott, was concerned that there was not a refurbishment for the whole ground.
The planning committee made a number of suggestions for the club to address when it submitted its formal planning application, including:
- “dangerous overcrowding on pavements before and after games”
- “The application should include detailed information about how the development would address the loss of housing and what steps were in place to rehouse the displaced social housing tenants. There should be significant engagement with affected tenants as part of this process.”
- “There should be a commitment to improve the public realm in the vicinity of the stadium as part of the development, to create a better sense of place and journey to the stadium.”
“There’s no question that the council ‘Backs The Plan’, or however you want to put it,” a Town Hall source said. “We are supportive. But as with any major development scheme, the council also has a responsibility to examine the wider interests, including making sure fans are safe and well-looked after on their way to and from games.
“There does seem to be some expectation of preferential treatment. But there is a process to be followed.”
There is also a sense that the club may have been getting some advice from O’Connell, the Conservative London Assembly member and Kenley councillor who is always eager to make political capital from a situation.
Former mortgage salesman O’Connell is paid nearly £80,000 per year in public “allowances” by City Hall and Croydon Council. He is a trustee of the football club’s charitable foundation and a keen recipient of gifts from the club and the charity, including since 2014 more than a dozen free match tickets (sometimes in a box or with hospitality) and a couple of bespoke tailored suits. Cushty.
As well as a football “expert” for a Guildford-based small-circulation newspaper, O’Connell also likes to think of himself as a bit of a political strategist, and the football club’s gung-ho attitude to get its way over the planning application looks as if they are banking on the Labour-run council not wanting to court any hostility from Palace fans just before the local elections on May 3.
Pushing for a hearing before the local elections will make it harder for local politicians to delay the application to deal with their worries.
The club is also urging supporters to write to the council to accept the plans. They have even set up a website with a convenient link through to the council planning portal for fans to post their comments. By lunchtime today, 3,060 comments had been submitted on the stadium scheme, 3,014 in support, overwhelming in volume any objections from residents living close to the ground.
Planning applications do not get decided on the basis of how much support or opposition there is. Planning law, and Paul Scott, rules.
But the politics of applications from football clubs are subtly different, especially if the club gets its fanbase on-side.
Lewisham Council caused themselves no end of trouble when they foolishly decided to try to put through plans to develop land near Millwall’s New Den, and in Greenwich, Charlton fans created their own political party when the council failed to support proposals for the club’s return to The Valley. The fans’ independent party won more than 14,000 votes in a local election.
In the case of Selhurst Park, if the plans get delayed it seems likely that the Tories and O’Connell will try to outbid Labour on the application’s ease of approval in an attempt to win over Eagles fans at the ballot box in May.
And with (Fulham supporting) Tony Newman wearing the skipper’s armband for Labour in Croydon, there’s no guarantee that the Selhurst Park issue won’t see at least one own goal scored before the final whistle on May 3.
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