An Inspector Calls (from 2014)

This article is to be read in conjunction with “Back To Plough Lane“, published on 2 February 2018.

Written by Secret Agent for WDSA – www.wdsa.com.au – and is reproduced with both their permission.

Enjoy.

The date – Wednesday 22nd January 2014
Location – Merton Civic Offices
Chair – Robert Yuille – Government Planning Inspector

Attending – For Merton Council Planning dept – Tara Butler and three members of her team
For Hume Consulting – Paschal Taggart, Shane Taggart with Seamus McCloskey and George Brolly (their Architects)
For WWW (We Want Wimbledon) – Diane McLean, Floyd Amphlett, Robert Boswell and Jonathan Hobbs
For WPRA (Wimbledon Park Residents Association) Peter West and Iain Simpson
For The Wimbledon Society – Tony Michael and John Rowcliffe
For AFCW – Erik Samuelson
For Galliard – Mike Watson with six others from various areas of expertise within planning, stadium design, architects and the like
Volante – two people whose names I didn’t catch but who were to have a significant bearing on the discussion.
Assorted public observers – ten in total of which six were known AFCW fans.

Sat in the public gallery with a couple of fellow Dons fans (Tim Hillyer and Rob Crane) the meeting was started at 10.00 by way of the Inspector introducing himself and asking those in the posh seats to do likewise.

Diane McLean was in the front row with the WPRA people, with Paschal Taggart and his cronies in the third row. Erik was at the end of the second row.

The Inspector started by stating what the aim of the hearing was, namely to ask questions of the Council and those present to identify and satisfy himself that the proposal for the usage of the site as designated by the Council was both suitable and viable.

There were questions asked of the Greyhound lobby with regard to the site being on a flood plain and what their views were on this relevant to their plans.

The architects chose not to respond directly to the question, but instead to launch an attack on the information in the Galliard/AFCW planning submission as being erroneous and not viable.

The Council were also accused of having a bias toward the Galliard/AFCW proposal by the Greyhound lobby. This claim was refuted robustly by Tara Butler.

Galliard stated simply that their research and evidence showed that the perceived issues with the site being on a flood plain were relatively easily overcome as the site had not been flooded since 1968.

Diane McLean stated that she had been at the site recently (after heavy rain) and the carpark was flooded (“not just puddles, but a lake”). This was confirmed as there are no drains on the carpark and the water cannot permeate the tarmac, ie it was not directly related to the flood plain issue.

The Inspector went to lengths to repeat his earlier remit of not being swayed or indeed, taking into account the merits or otherwise of the specific plans for the site. This was necessary as the Greyhound lobby continued to try and put down the Galliard/AFCW plan.

Taggart then spoke at length about his passion for Greyhounds but also made it clear that he was a businessman first and looking to make money and profit from the site.

He offered figures of £10m turnover in the first year (£1.25m profit) with a rise to £12.5m within three years (£4-5m profit in that timeframe).

The cost to him for the site and the building was in the region of £60m and he had a track record of delivering success in this area in Ireland. He would build a state of the art stadium for dog racing in London’s last Greyhound stadium.

This was responded to by the Council who advised that both Romford and Crayford had greyhound stadiums and were in London boroughs (Havering and Bexley respectively).

Petulantly, Diane McLean refuted this by saying that Romford was in Essex and Crayford was in Kent. Again the Council advised that they were in London Boroughs and as such subject to London planning rules and regs. 1-0 own goal!

We heard also from the ex Chair of the Wimbledon Stadium Greyhound Owners clubs who stated that the owners of the site (Risk Capital and Galliard it seemed) had deliberately allowed the stadium to fall into disrepair and thus speed up the demise of Greyhound racing at the stadium.

He said that it was a disgrace that it had happened as it would be the death knell of racing in England if the stadium closed. He understood the need for a stadium for us as he was a regular attendee at a non-league club, Bromley Town!

Erik’s first comment was to advise that we are a Football League club, not non-league. The Inspector advised that he knew we were a FL club with a smile. 2-0 Samuelson!

The chap representing Volante then entered the discussion to advise the Inspector and those present that his clients actually owned some of the site to the east. Galliard confirmed that this was the case.

Taggart seemed surprised and allegedly later offered £3m for that part of the site (unconfirmed). To further add to our bow for the future, one of the directors of Volante had written to the Inspector to put his support for the redevelopment of the site in our corner. 3-0!

WPRA had a bit to say about the wording of the Council’s proposal but they were put back in their box by Tara and her team with support from the Inspector who agreed that the tightening up of the boundaries for usage when it came to retailers suitable for using the site would be impossible to sustain from a planning perspective.

Suggestions by the WPRA for moving the Dairy and timber yard on Gap Road to the Greyhound site and then building the new flats and perhaps a school and/or a medical centre on Gap Road alongside the railway line were politely dismissed by Tara, as the Council didn’t own the Dairy or the timber site to force them to move to the Greyhound site.

It wasn’t necessary to mention that this plan by WPRA wouldn’t have improved the intensification for sporting use of the site!

There were a couple of adjournments while letters that had been mentioned during discussions were copied and distributed to those present and time allowed to digest the information contained therein.

One of the biggest discussion point concerned the perceived support for the plan of retaining the Greyhounds on the site by Boris Johnson, the Mayor for London.

Things went to and fro between the Greyhound Lobby and the Council with both parties quoting from various dated communications from the Mayor’s office or the Mayor himself.

Once again, the Inspector had to remind everyone (but the Greyhound lobby in particular) of the reason for him being there.

Ultimately, it was agreed that the Mayor had said that “..planning should look to retain……cultural identity….”. The Greyhound lobby insisted that their sport is part of London’s cultural identity, so the Mayor was on their side.

It wasn’t agreed but by that stage I don’t think anyone really cared if they had the support of Boris!

After going through most of the five points that the Inspector needed answers to, and just before lunch was due, Taggart’s team produced a letter from one of their technical team which was addressed to the Inspector and had clearly been drafted that day, possibly as the meeting was taking place based on information being fed back during an earlier adjournment.

There was a fifteen minute adjournment set by the Inspector who was clearly not happy with this late submission.

With a further instruction to Taggart’s team that he was not here to discuss the merits of either side’s planning proposals, it was clear that Taggart was crossing the Inspector.

After the discourse, Erik made his second contribution, advising the Inspector that the time for the adjournment would need to finish five minutes later!

There was further to-ing and fro-ing between the Inspector and the Council, but all points were covered to the Inspector’s satisfaction shortly after 1.15. The various teams congregated to discuss things and then they dispersed.

I was struck by how well Tara Butler in particular dealt with both the Inspector and the Greyhound lobby. She was sharp, professional and had all the details to hand to back up her points.

Our teams were quiet, answering the questions asked and not getting involved in any argument. In short, we did what was required.

The Greyhound lobby were an embarrassment. They seemed to think they were at a planning meeting. They weren’t.  Perhaps they thought things would be like they are in Ireland? They aren’t.

Fundamentally they did themselves no favours with the Inspector (although I doubt that their behaviour will influence his thinking).

Taggart showed himself to be a bit of a bully when he stood up and insisted that the Galliard rep told him how they were going to fund a 20,000 capacity stadium.

He said that he’d been public with how he would fund a Greyhound stadium but didn’t know how we would fund ours. Ultimately, it’s none of his business, but it was another thing that didn’t please the Inspector.

All in all, it was an interesting few hours. The behaviour of the Greyhound lobby won’t have an impact on the Inspector’s recommendation, but the Council did a good job in showing why their proposals for the site being used for sporting intensification are sound.

The result we need is for the Inspector to recommend that the Council’s plans for the site are sound and viable. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t come to that conclusion. The next steps will be even more interesting and won’t be over in a little over three hours!