Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Underhill Soap Opera drawing to a close ?

News that the Football League have given Barnet Football Club permission to play their League matches next season at The Hive facility at Edgware in the London Borough of Harrow seem to herald the end of the longest running Political saga in Barnet Politics , the future of the Underhill football ground.

I will not bore readers with all the background but since 2001 when a Government Planning Inspector refused permission for Barnet Football Club to redevelop Copthall, what happens at Underhill has occupied the minds of Barnet Council Officers , Councillors , successive MPs and hundreds of local residents .

The support of the Labour Party for a planning application on green belt land at Underhill for a new stadium actually cost the then Labour / Liberal Party coalition control of Barnet Council in 2002 as local residents took the Conservative Party at their word when it was made clear a Conservative Administration would not allow a 10,000 stadium on Green Belt land. Anyone who has knocked on doors in roads around the football ground will know residents are eternally grateful that successive Conservative Council Leaders have kept their word.

The decision by Barnet Football Club to move seems the only sensible solution as the Chairman of the Club must have realised that no Politician of whatever Party would support a substantial redevelopment of Underhill . The Labour Party who in the early years of the decade appeared supportive of the clubs planning proposals has in recent years distanced itself from its' earlier position .Successive Council Leaders,  have endured endless meetings with the Barnet Football Club Chairman and his acolytes but on many occasions just as deals appeared close the goalposts would move , sometimes literally !

Alan Williams , the late Victor Lyon , Brian Salinger , Mike Freer , the late Lynne Hillan are among those who had the scares on their backs having dealt with the Football Club issue.

Negotiations were never helped by the habit of the late Dennis Signey OBE ,former Editor of the Hendon Times and a distinguished sports journalist and media adviser and director of Barnet Football Club leaving confidential meetings at the Town Hall and immediately ringing local journalists with a complete briefing , I suppose once a journalist always a journalist.

The sale of the freehold of the club ground by the Labour / Liberal Administration during the 2002 local election campaign purdah period ( a timeslot when no important decisions are suppossed to be taken  ) left a huge suspicion in the air over the behaviour of the outgoing Labour Administration and lead to endless Enquiries that cost the taxpayer thousands and never really proved anything except possible Council incompetence .

For someone who has little interest in Football , although I did attend Barnet v Port Vale at Underhill a couple of years ago , and once slept  with an Arsenal striker , I am not fussed if Barnet survive in the Football League or bothered where they play . However I did have some sympathy with the Chairman of the Club when he thought Barnet Council were applying double standards over Copthall by granting Saracens Rugby Club a lease and planning permission.

Saracens undertook a smooth PR and lobbying operation with Councillors and threw money at the local Community . They received a far friendlier reception from many Councillors because Rugby Union is followed on the whole by middle class Tory voting Barnet residents . Indeed the average age of a Saracens' attendee is apparently 59, hardly the age group known for rowdy behaviour. The lobbying worked as Councillors , with one or two  noble exceptions forgot about their scruples and principals about green belt development and duly voted it through .Although I think few realised they were going to get a stadium named after a German Insurance company with a rather dodgy history under Nazi Germany including one former Director General serving as Hitler's Economics Minister  . Mill Hill residents have already begun to complain to their local Councillors about the huge Controlled Parking Zone with yellow lines stretching across a vast area of Mill Hill.

Guarantees made to the Hendon MP by the Mayor of London were simply ignored . Not much unites Andrew Dismore, Matthew Offord  and I, but opposition to this  redevelopment of Copthall did.

The key factor that ensured Barnet Council eventually saw off Barnet Football Club was that successive Council Leaders and ordinary Councillors stood firm in the face of sometimes appalling intimidation . Who can forget the Coffin paraded through the streets of Chipping Barnet during the 2006 Council elections of the leaflets handed out by Football Club supporters at tube stations advising people not to vote for specific candidates on the basis of their perceived support or otherwise for the football club or the dreadful behaviour of gatecrashers at the 2006 Mayor making and buffet.

Saracens are being a little more subtle.

Last week the Club sent me an invitation to attend their match against London Welsh in March . I declined . I may be a lot of things but a hypocrite I am not . I assume that  no Councillor who has accepted such hospitality is able to vote on future planning and licensing hearings involving the Club. The "sponsoring " of all the Town Centre signs across the Borough gives the impression that somehow Saracens has the Borough "bought and paid for" . The constant positive coverage in the Hendon Times is of course unrelated to the money spent advertising in this increasingly desperate  publication . No doubt the details of the " deal" being given by Saracens as they host the Mayor's Charity dinner at the end of his year will appear in the register of members' interests in due course and is unrelated to the fact the Mayor as a Mill Hill Councillor seems to have failed listen to many Mill Hill residents who objected to the planning application .

However suddenly Barnet Political Leadership has woken up and told Saracens " enough is enough"
The Leader of the Council , Councillor Richard Cornelius told the last Conservative Group meeting that Saracens had been told in no uncertain terms that any further planning application to add 5,000 more seats ( on top of the current 10,000 ) to satisfy European Club competition rules would be given short shrift.  So how much longer before Saracens follow the Barnet Football Club route and claim the Council are uncooperative on attempts to extend their stadium and will have to consider moving elsewhere ........................

I suspect the Council has not heard the last from Saracens nor from Barnet Football Club . The Chairman has a ground to sell and quite for what development the green belt Underhill site will be sold for may ensure the Underhill soap opera still has some distance to run !


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