Saving Top Field

To my dad, rugby was his religion – the rugby ground, his church. Dad was a committed believer, and as his daughter, my childhood Saturdays were spent watching him play. The “church” was Webb Ellis Road, where Rugby Lions had played for decades. William Webb Ellis was the lad who, in 1823 had, “with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game”.

Of course the game of rugby had been started in the town of Rugby – at Rugby School. Consequently, Rugby was – and remains – a place of pilgrimage for rugby players from all over the world. When I was a child, it was quite normal to hear that the Romanian or the Swedish or the Chilean international squad were in town for a visit.

Both Webb Ellis Road and Rugby Lions have been under threat over the years. In fact the club almost folded in 2012. How do you find the words to articulate why they should continue? The club is so much more than the sum of its players, its coaches, its directors, its owners – and even its fans. It is part of the fabric of the town – every bit as much as Rugby School whose imposing presence dominates the place.

And so it was with these thoughts that I attended a meeting at Hitchin Town FC a few weeks back. The meeting was about the future of the “Top Field” ground – a good 200 people were in attendance. The issue related to the fact that the ground is owned by a trust – the Cow Commoners – who, (perversely) had been set up to prevent development on the “Cow Commons”. The trustees are self-appointed, having originally been established by local influential families. They are neither accountable nor democratic.

Due to ongoing legal battles with Hitchin Town FC, neither the Cow Commoners nor the club have any money to improve the ground. Moreover, because the Cow Commoners only lease the ground on short leases, the club can’t apply for grants either. This time they offered a lease with a break clause allowing for the sale to a developer to build a supermarket. In return, the developer would build a brand new stadium out in the Greenbelt.

You might think that this is very generous of the developer. Who wouldn’t say “no” to a brand new stadium? But this misses the point. Neither the football club nor the players nor the fans nor the local community have had any buy-in to the process. The Cow Commoners have put forward this proposal – without any consultation with its key stakeholders. They say that the proposal can always be rejected by North Hertfordshire District Council, but it will cost the football club £150,000 in legal fees to fight the plans.

The trouble is, Hitchin Town isn’t alone. Nearby Baldock, Buntingford and Arlesey have all found their grounds in the hands of developers.

How do you find the words to articulate that Hitchin Town’s current football ground is an essential part of the fabric of the town? How do you put on paper that a football club is so much more than a commercial venture, so much more precious than a supermarket? Our identity as local people is tied up in our sports teams. Part of us dies when our places of pilgrimage are taken from us.

And that should be recognised in law. Sports grounds should be protected by statute from third parties selling them to developers. There should be a “presumption in favour of protecting community facilities”. That way, Hitchin Town FC can continue to play on its beloved Top Field – and it can spend £150,000 on something far more constructive than further litigation with its landlords.

Rachel Burgin is PPC for Hitchin & Harpenden and serves on the NEC of the Labour Finance & Industry Group. This article will be published in the November edition of the LFIG Newsletter.