Fossetts Farm: The impossible dream

THE optimistic tone of the Echo in announcing that the ‘stadium dream is (finally) going to become reality’ may not be shared by most Southend United supporters. We have all been here before. There always seems to be a spanner in the works. Whether it be the financial crash and the subsequent the decline of retail, discord with local pizza stores or rival schemes muddying the waters. How ironic then, that in the middle of a global pandemic, there seems to have been a breakthrough that clears the path to Blues’ future at Fossetts Farm.

The deal signed by the council, the football club, and Citizen Housing (whose director is Ron Martin’s son, Jack) appears to finally give everybody what they want. Southend Council will be able to meet a big chunk of the borough’s housing requirement and, for an initial outlay, has an opportunity to make a lot of money from renting out the 1,300 homes that will be built on both sites. The headache of justifying leisure developments at both the seafront and at Fossetts Farm is swerved, as is the conflict with High Street retailers fearing a loss of business to the site. Citizen get to enhance their reputation by managing two huge sites, and no doubt will enjoy their own cut of the finances. The football club finally gets its stadium and short-term financial security in the shape of a loan from the Government who, let’s not forget, are bang up for any kind of new housing to be built within 90 minutes of London.

Perhaps the most urgent issue is that Blues current precarious financial position, which was grim before Covid-19 took away all our revenue for the foreseeable future, but would appear to be much rosier thanks to the deal unlocking a loan from Homes England. The deal with the council is something tangible that Ron can borrow against, and the recent measures from the Government for businesses affected by the pandemic may indeed prove extremely useful to the club in their bid to see off the threat from HMRC in court later this month.

One of the downsides is Ron has to go back to the drawing board with the plans, and he’ll need to get these drawn up quickly – if we have learned anything from the world post-financial crash, it’s that things change very fast – but there was clearly an impasse with the previous planning application, which has been sitting gathering dust in the Civic Centre since 2017. But sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards, which any student of effective central midfield play will know.

There is also an opportunity for the club to bring its supporters on board and listen to what they want from their club’s new home. Safe standing is a popular recent development in football, with several clubs trialling rail seating at their home grounds, including League One Shrewsbury. It would be fantastic if the club could incorporate this option in a section of the new stadium.

The replacement of restaurants with housing in the area around the stadium means the club has to make sure its offer within the ground has to be extremely competitive. Could there be opportunities here to bring local breweries etc on board to try and ensure they keep some of the pre and post-match trade? Concourses are not the most salubrious or welcoming boozing environments, so hopefully some thought will go into this. This could finally be the chance to get things right with a new stadium. It’s up to Ron and the club to ensure that, despite the capacity being reduced to 14,000, we get a stadium we and our kids can be proud of, and don’t end up like a breeze-block, soulless out-of-town hovel like at our dear neighbours, Col Ewe.

The big question is, will we actually see these plans come to fruition? Given that all the sticking points seem to have now been eliminated, a decent robust planning application on Fossetts should be passed by councillors. The site has planning precedent for a football stadium with housing on site, so there is unlikely to be the type of Government interference that scuppered the 2008 plans. There are issues around traffic on that side of town, but plans to alleviate this were included in the most recent application, so this shouldn’t be a key issue. Given the retail and leisure element has been removed, the only traffic movements will be from housing and from the football club twice a month.

The conflict of interest with Seaway is no longer an issue and the need for a subsidy for the High Street to appease worried retailers is also avoided. A deal is in place with a housing association, and the council has signed a deal to take on a lease for that housing. The Roots Hall planning application for 500 homes has already been submitted, although it may be the council want both applications decided at the same committee meeting, so a decision on this is likely to be delayed.

It is unclear whether the main stand will still incorporate a hotel, presumably with the removal of the leisure element, well, let’s just say you don’t see too many hotels in the middle of housing estates. But of course, this was designed in for a funding stream and was another potential complication, and if the hotel element is now no longer, it will clear the pathway still further.

There is of course the issue that part of the plans, the training pitches, must be passed by Rochford Council, who aren’t part of this grand deal. This seems the most likely sticking point, but the revised plans may provide an answer to this conundrum.

The coming months will see a planning application for the Fossetts Farm scheme submitted and hopefully this will be ushered quickly through the system with minimal resistance. It’s likely that fans will once again be called upon to write letters of support for the plans, because you can be sure that despite the new arrangement removing the primary causes of most of the grumbles, the NIMBYs will be out in force again. But Ron has certainly got himself into a good position, and this time, the odds look to be in his favour.

Jamie Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX