As we previously reported, Neil Hampshire, Director at Hunslet RLFC, has been working over the past year with fellow Director Kim Groves and companies Advantage 42 and Community Einstein to bring significant investment into South Leeds.
The process has been more arduous than any of them ever imagined. Hampshire said:
“Last July we approached the Council to discuss the potential to bring in £23m of investment into South Leeds Stadium and the local community. I have to say that I fully expected the Council to invite us in for negotiations immediately, but over a period of the next 12 months we were largely kept at arm’s length and restricted to less than a handful of meetings for around half an hour each.
“The Council were pretty negative towards the proposal from the start and their delays actually led to a significant amount of the initial funding being used in a separate project with another Council. Nonetheless, we were asked by the Council to engage with the local Community sports groups and encouraged to put a new proposal together to cover the main stadium, the 5–a–side pitches, the (now condemned) 1G full size pitch and our current training area.
“The proposal was for a long-term peppercorn lease in exchange for between £10m – £12m of initial investment including £2.7m of social investment for the local community which would have been deployed by the Hunslet Foundation to support numerous local initiatives and projects, as well as provide services such as homework clubs and tens of thousands of hot meals to those in need.
“The social investment, which was to be followed by an overage facility, would also have ensured the immediate and long-term futures of over half a dozen local partner organisations be they sport, culture, community support or care orientated.
“This proposition was built in collaboration with local stakeholders to better our community, which has been neglected for too long in favour of more lucrative and attractive propositions elsewhere in the city.
“We followed up our proposal with two further video calls and a letter answering every single one of the 20 questions they raised. Despite that, the Council concluded that they did not invite interest in the site and therefore will not be taking the matter further. I think that this is a sad decision for South Leeds and would strongly urge the Council to reconsider their position. There is no embarrassment in doing a u – turn on a decision, after all, the government does it all the time!”
Hampshire has written to Martin Farrington, Director of City Development, copying in Tom Riordan, Chief Executive and Cllr James Lewis, Political leader at the Council, in response to the decision and has shared that letter with South Leeds Life.
In the letter, which you can read in full below, Hampshire asks a series of pertinent questions including:
How and where the decision to reject Hunslet’s approach was taken, as they had been told the final say would lie with the Council’s Executive Board?
What plans the Council has to improve South Leeds Stadium, how these will be funded and how the £2.7m of community investment will be replaced?
He also raises the issue of 1999, the year Hunslet were denied promotion to Super League because South Leeds Stadium was not completed as promised as a 10,000 seater stadium. He points out that no progress has been made on that issue in 23 years and may once again cause Hunslet problems as the RFL reshapes the game’s structures.
Hampshire also explained that, through local community contacts, strong rumours are emerging that Leeds City Council are in negotiations with Leeds United who want to move their academy set up to be based at John Charles Centre for Sport.
“I’m hoping this is somewhat of an ‘urban myth’ based on the fact that the LUFC academy do use the site for training and games currently on occasion. But I will be seeking clarification from the Council, and in particular, if it is true, looking to find out why we weren’t consulted and how the arrangement may impact Hunslet going forward. Alarmingly, even if the centre does get a revamp for an LUFC academy, the council have not and will not replace the direct social investment element, which is a tragedy.”
Hampshire also added “Am I doing the right thing in going public with this? Time will tell, but I’m not looking to ‘go to war’ with the council, I don’t think that would do either of us any favours. This is purely about us getting to the right outcome for the people of South Leeds and we can only do that if people are aware of the facts.
“We all recognise that these are hard times for public bodies and I’m struggling to see how turning down significant investment into the City can be the right option? Surely it would allow the Council to utilise funds earmarked for the site across the wider City and help to alleviate cost pressures? It looks a “win – win” all round to me. I urge the Council to get back round the table with us to thrash out concerns and agree a way forward. We don’t want to see a situation where South Leeds is once again being let down by the Council and those who we expect to support us.”
Letter to Martin Farrington, Director of City Development, Leeds City Council
Thanks for your email of Friday 19 August.
Unfortunately, your email does not answer a range of issues I raised in my last letter especially around us addressing every single question you asked. We were advised that any final decision would be made by the Executive Council. As a courtesy to us could you please advise:
- When the Executive Council met to discuss the matter?
- Which members of the Executive Council sat on the panel?
- What were the specific reasons that the proposal was not taken forward?
The reasoning behind the decision would be appreciated.
Alternatively, if a meeting did not take place, then please explain why?
To clarify, when we approached the Council last July, there was £23m worth of investment on the table for South Leeds. Over the course of the next 12 months, the Council asked us to speak to various different Council officials, and then afforded us a number of, very short, meetings whilst continually denying us the opportunity to make a full presentation followed by an open Q&A session with all key stakeholders. This resulted in us trying to engage whilst being kept at arm’s length which strained relationships further. Eventually, over the course of those discussions, we were asked for several iterations of the proposal, all of which have now been turned down as, in your own words:
“… it is also the case that the Council has not sought to change the management and/or ownership of the Stadium and this remains our position”
I would have expected a more comprehensive and considered response to the proposal along financial lines, addressing the improvements to the site, social investment in the local community and employment opportunities it would bring. The statement offers no real understanding of why you remain reluctant to move forward other than the fact it was not your idea as you didn’t invite interest. So that we are all on the same page here, can you please confirm exactly why the Council is unwilling to consider any further, an investment proposal to deliver £10m – £12m of improvements to the John Charles Centre for Sport and provide £2.7m of social investment into the local community?
From our viewpoint, the Council’s decision has been taken largely on the advice of one official who was openly opposed to the proposal before he had even listened to it and the investors have been treated appallingly. Effectively, you are taking the view of one officer against the many thousands of people in South Leeds. It would have been of far more worth to have held a series of open consultation meetings across the local community with yourselves and us, to explain the proposals and then let the people decide.
Also, as you are well aware, we were trying to manage expectations by not engaging with the local community until we had reached a “Heads of Terms” stage but, at the Council’s insistence, we reached out earlier. I know that you have offered to meet Ward Councillors individually to talk through your decision, and I think it only appropriate that the same offer should be made to our supporters and the local community. The Council has to take responsibility for managing the expectations of the local community given your drive for us to engage with them. I’d also point out that the issues you raised to Kim Groves and I and, as a consequence, shared with the Councillors, have been addressed, in some detail, in our previous letter to you. We would expect the Council to acknowledge that going forward in any meetings or correspondence on the subject.
Additionally, I would appreciate confirmation of how you intend to underwrite the Council’s decision to refuse that investment? To that end I would be interested to see your own plans both in terms of investing in the facility, and in providing £2.7m of social investment into the South Leeds community and confirmation of timescales. I think it would be worthwhile you openly sharing that information across the local community, via local social media outlets, and holding open consultation meetings.
Please also confirm how any investment would be funded. If that’s:
- By grants, please let us know who is providing the grants, when they were applied for and for what purpose?
- By investment, please let us know the amount of investment being sourced, who is providing it, when and where that investment was invited, and for what purpose?
- By loan, please let us know who any loan would be taken out with, the terms of the loan, and a full explanation as to why you think that putting the City into further debt is a more attractive option to the Council than receiving external investment? In this instance, it would also be helpful to understand how incurring additional debt impacts the Councils need to introduce voluntary or involuntary redundancy schemes, and / or make service reductions across the city, due to it increasing further the burden on educed overall Council funding.
I raise these questions both as a resident of South Leeds as well as a Club official.
In terms of working with the Club going forward, I welcome your comments to work with us
“…..we do very much want to work with Hunslet RLFC on further opportunities that are beneficial to the Club, the Council and wider community, but that would be based on the principle of the Council’s continued ownership and management of the facilities. On that basis we will continue to develop the future investment proposals that we have been working on and we will be happy to engage with you on them as a valued partner.”
Since the supporters took over ownership of the Club in 2012, the working relationship has been difficult at times with decisions made by the Council often impacting our ability for business growth. That has to change to allow the Club to reach its potential and hopefully this is the start of that process. Part of that process also has to be in recognising and acknowledging the problems of the past. As an example, you may not be aware, but it was made quite clear to me, by both council and political officials, that I “must not mention 1999”. We are now some 23 years on but the impacts of the Councils unwillingness to support the Club at that time, through its failure to deliver on its promises after we moved away from Elland Road at their request, have cost us millions of pounds. It would, of course, also have brought more investment and employment opportunities to South Leeds as the Club would have moved to a full-time operation.
To briefly recap, promotion to Super League was denied in 1999 because the Council had not completed the stadium. We needed to assure a stadium capacity of 10,000. In fact, 23 years on that the stadium is still not completed. That is both a damning indictment of the Council’s failure to invest in the stadium over that period and wholly at odds with their stance in rejecting investment here. It is also hugely disrespectful to the Club. I do not think that approach would have been taken with any other professional Club across the City. In fact, it would be interesting to see what financial support, peppercorn rent deals, asset transfers, loans etc., you have provided to other professional sports clubs in the City since 1995. If you could share that information that would help us to understand what support, we could expect. In 1999, we had £2m of investment lined up from an IT company and would, of course, have received £1.4m for being in Super League just for one year. That was all lost because the stadium wasn’t completed, and we couldn’t take our rightful place in Super League. Add in the increased crowds, hospitality, bar income, merchandise sales and potential Super League membership beyond one year and the amount is impossible to quantify, but it clearly runs into the millions. Why do I raise 1999 again? Because, as you will be aware, the sport is currently undergoing a re-structure review, being driven by IMG as the RFL’s new strategic partner. Whilst their initial report is not due to be presented to Clubs until 28 September, we have already been advised that there will be a requirement for things such as minimum ground capacities to be met, and we do not want a repeat of the mistakes made in 1999 which would bring us right back to square one. It would be incredibly embarrassing to see a ground capacity of 10,000 set when we are still no further forward than we were in 1999, due to a lack of investment and support from the Council. In fact, the failure to increase the capacity has limited the number of events that could look to be brought there. The upcoming and previous RL World cups on home soil spring immediately to mind. Hosting some of those fixtures would have been a coup for South Leeds
I’d absolutely welcome early, open, and honest, discussions as to how the Council intend to not only work with us going forward, but also financially compensate the Club for these errors. We would especially appreciate discussions around:
- Your investment proposals for the site. We would like to be consulted and involved at the earliest opportunity and not simply informed once decisions have been made, as has happened recently with the reseeding of the main pitch, when we objected to the timing but were told it would go ahead regardless.
- The various issues we were working with Advantage 42 and Community Einstein to address, which we now think it not unreasonable to expect you to attend to. If you’ve turned investment down due to your own plans, then presumably you have the funds to deliver the changes and upgrades needed. As alluded to above, some of these will be to meet new RFL guidelines.
- Complete relaying of the main pitch
- Creation of a TV Gantry and 2 separate TV vantage points
- Completion of the stadium, 3 further stands creating a 10,000 capacity.
- Replacement of all broken seats
- Upgrade of the Dug Outs
- Upgrade of the Dressing Rooms
- Increased flux of the Floodlights
- Re-laying and improved drainage of the training pitch
- 12-foot fencing around the training pitch
- Water sprinklers installed under the main and training pitch
- 4g pitch to replace the current, condemned, 1g pitch to allow winter training regardless of the weather
- Beer cellar and cooling system upgrade
- Access to the site to allow events in the Phoenix Bar beyond current LCC restrictions (Needing to close early when there is no cover from Duty officers / Increased overtime charges for additional Duty Officer cover)
This list is not exhaustive but covers the primary concerns and will give us a good start to be going on with. As I mentioned earlier, we are in negotiations over a few issues already at local level. Interestingly, the approach being taken by your colleagues is to ask us for a financial contribution to help make some of the changes we have requested. Given that you’ve now turned down the £10m – £12m that we’ve just brought to the table to deliver much needed improvements to the stadium, then I’d appreciate your confirmation that the Council will meet all financial cost of improvements and upgrades required going forward.
I look forward to an early meeting where we can look to set an agenda and timescale to address all of these matters and begin a full, open, and transparent dialogue around:
- Financial recompense
- Future stadium improvements and timescales for delivery
- Social investment into the local community
- Agreed structure around future meetings.
I would be happy for all if this to be placed in the public domain as a sign of good faith on both sides.
We are serious in coming to the table on a constructive basis, but we must be treated with respect as an equal, as well as “valued” partner in any negotiations going forward and your confirmation of that would be welcome. Please let me know how you want to move forward and I’m happy to meet up to discuss this further if you’d like to give me a few available dates.
Photo: Hunslet Board members Neil Hampshire and Kim Groves in front of the Geoff Gunney Stand at South Leeds Stadium