Hunslet RLFC are working with social investment firm Advantage 42 on ambitious plans which would see £10-12 million invested at the John Charles Centre for Sport (JCCS) to refurbish facilities and support community sport in South Leeds.
The club is in talks with Leeds City Council, which if successful, would see them take a long lease on South Leeds Stadium, the five-a-side pitches and practice pitches at JCCS.
South Leeds Stadium currently struggles to attract footfall, in part due to a need to upgrade the facilities. This proposal would see Hunslet working with business consultancy firm Advantage 42 and Social Investment company Community Einstein to bring significant investment to do just that. As an example, they want to improve the hospitality offer with ideas including a Sports Bar and a Brasserie to increase the footfall.
Community Einstein is funded by a group of southern based high-net-worth individuals (HINWIs) who are looking to invest in community-based, sustainable social investment. In other words, they are looking for positive social outcomes as well as a financial return on their investment.
Control of the stadium and its pitch are seen as vital to the club as the RFL ‘reimagine’ the sport over the coming years and there will be a need for the current facilities to be modernised to enable the Club to achieve its potential. The pitch dates from 1995 and is in need of drainage works and relaying as a modern grass weave pitch for professional sport.
Hunslet are engaging with a range of community partners to ensure that the investment brings benefits for the local community as well as the Club and the Council.
The five-a-side courts and the full-size Astroturf (1G) pitch are also in need of urgent refurbishment and the plan envisages turning the grass practice pitch adjacent to Park Halt station into a cricket pitch to increase the range of sports available on site.
The club are, in effect, looking to go back to their roots in (re)forming the overarching sports body of The Hunslet Rugby, Athletics, Football, Cricket & Community Club (Hunslet RAFFCC). Including both codes of Rugby and with a desire for all sports to have male, female and disabled teams.
Additionally, up to £500k would be invested in the Hunslet Rugby Foundation over a 3 year period to significantly grow its community work. The Foundation already works with local schools and community clubs, this funding would allow it to grow its offer to include homework clubs and holiday camps, offering free hot meals, a community service centre to support other local community organisations and an activity space. The Foundation will also control the 40% of activities that will be subsidised or free for community use, including pitch hire.
Political support has been cautious so far with Hilary Benn MP (Labour, Leeds Central) telling South Leeds Life:
“South Leeds Stadium and associated facilities are really important for our community, and I support new investment in the infrastructure and in the Hunslet RLFC.
“I don’t think a community asset transfer is the right way to proceed, but if the Council is considering a long lease then we would all like to see what guaranteed investment that would bring and what safeguards would be put in place to ensure that these facilities continue to be available in the long-term for the community and, of course, for the Hunslet RLFC.
“I look forward to seeing proposals in due course.”
Cllr Andrew Scopes (Labour, Beeston & Holbeck) said:
“I welcome any investment in South Leeds, and in principle support a long-term lease to an organisation that can improve what is offered to our residents. However, we need to ensure any deal works for everyone, especially those fantastic teams in the area that use the facilities and don’t charge their members (or charge very minimally) such as South Leeds Lakers Juniors or Beeston Juniors. They must not get priced out of future plans.”
Whilst Cllr Ed Carlisle (Green, Hunslet & Riverside) commented:
“Our communities here in south Leeds need attention and investment, and sports can play such an important role in that. Thanks to the hard work of all the partners involved, these proposals seem very promising, and could offer our area a major boost. It’s right and proper that the Council are really scrutinising the scheme, but I trust we can iron out any issues and concerns together – and make this work, and see it have a big positive local impact for us all.”
Hunslet are keen to progress the discussions with Leeds City Council and are concerned that the investors may start to look for alternative schemes in other cities if progress is not made soon.
Hunslet’s Director of Strategy & Planning, Neil Hampshire, said:
“This is a fantastic opportunity for the local community. Bringing £10m of social investment into the South Leeds Community from a southern based social investment group is exactly what the government’s “levelling up” agenda is all about. It will also benefit the Council in terms of allowing them to reduce running costs at the site and use any planned upgrade funds for John Chalres elsewhere across the city.
“I understand there are always risks and concerns in such proposals, but we are eager to move to full negotiations as soon as possible in order to iron those out to the satisfaction of both parties. The bottom line is that if we move forward on this then we really feel that it’s a win-win for the Council. If we succeed they will have a thriving community sports hub, at no cost to themselves. If we fail, and I don’t think we will, given the significant amount of work that’s gone into putting the business model together by Advantage 42, they will get their asset back in a vastly better state having had millions spent on upgrading it.
“It’s only recently that the Council political leader, James Lewis, was in the local press pointing out that Leeds United retaining their premiership status would be beneficial in bringing further investment into the City. Well, what we are doing here is exactly that, and I would expect us to receive the same level of political support. I would urge the local community to rally behind us. It really is an opportunity that we can’t afford to let slip”
A spokesperson for Leeds City Council said:
“Whilst the council is not actively looking for any disinvestment opportunities for our operational leisure facilities, we have received an unsolicited approach from Hunslet RLFC and their commercial partner which would involve a change in arrangements for the stadium and some other (but not all) elements of the facilities at the John Charles Centre for Sport (JCCS).
“Given Hunslet’s long standing use of the stadium, we will review any proposals they have, but would stress that we are not seeking to change the current arrangement. The council is committed to engaging with all stakeholders and partners connected with JCSC and their use of the stadium.
“The council continues to invest in the facilities at the centre and has recently invested £250,000 into the refurbishment of the JCCS’s gym, which opened this month.”
Photo: Hunslet Board members Neil Hampshire and Kim Groves in front of the Geoff Gunney Stand at South Leeds Stadium