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Woking FC devt 2

ILLUSTRATION: WOKING COMMUNITY STADIUM

The deadline is Friday 10 January to register support or objections to dramatic plans to redevelop Woking football club’s ground, with the aim of increasing its capacity and putting the National League club’s finances on a long-term, stable footing. It’s a plan that has enraged many living nearby, and looks like becoming Woking’s biggest planning row in many years.

In the red corner (Woking play in red and white) are the football club, developers GolDev, and, arguably, Woking borough council. In the other – let’s call it the blue corner – is South Woking Action Group, a vociferous band of local residents who deplore the number of tower blocks of flats included in the plans, and argue that the Cardinal Court development is completely out of keeping with the area.

Back in the red corner, the Woking Community Stadium website is urging supporters to sign up to back the project: “Please help ensure the council make the right decision about the future of Woking FC, its role in our community and the need for more high-quality homes in the borough.” It claims that “residents of Woking want regeneration and want to put our town and football club on the map”. [Well, not all residents, m’lud].

The website goes on to say: “The planning application for Woking Community Stadium was formally submitted on 2 December 2019 and we expect a decision from the council in early 2020. It is time to stand up for our town, community and club, and demand the progress most of us seem to agree is wanted and needed.”

Fighting talk, you might say. Interestingly, there is little or no mention of the more than 1,000 new homes in the blocks of flats planned around the stadium – the blocks that are at the heart of the residents’ objections.

ILLUSTRATION: WOKING COMMUNITY STADIUM

The financial justification for the scheme centres on the club’s current plight. The club says that the existing stadium is no longer fit for purpose and it can’t afford to carry out repairs that are needed. It survives on a “threadbare budget” – Woking is the only part-time club in the fifth-tier National League – “ultimately relying on volunteers and goodwill. The club can no longer rely on handouts to survive. The football club has been losing money for years and this plan will put us in a sound financial footing.”

The plan to increase capacity to around 9,000 – Woking currently averages crowds of just below 2,000 – is aimed at eventually securing the club’s promotion to the Football League. It is argued that more success will increase gates. The redevelopment will include shops aimed at serving the flats, and it is intended that the regular income from these retail outlets will secure the club’s finances.

The South Action Group (Swag) was formed soon after the plans were announced. It has an active social media presence and a smart logo. It argues that it is not against the football club improving the ground, but would like to see it done on a piecemeal approach, and fears that this big redevelopment is over-ambitious, and could actually lead to the club folding.

South Woking Action GroupIn a series of social media postings, it has listed its fears and objections. These include allegations that the developer is indulging in “false advertising”, that the development does not include the right kind of housing, the sewerage system could not cope, and that Woking council is loaning £250m to the developers when it is already one of the most indebted local authorities in the country.

A few months ago members of the action group picketed Woking fans as they were entering the ground for a home game, handing out leaflets that explained their objections. Wokingmatters encountered one objector as he went in, who on inquiry turned out to be a former season-ticket holder at the club. In recent days the action group said that three of its protest placards had disappeared from residential properties. The developers have already reduced the stadium’s projected capacity from 10,000 to 9,000, and added a health centre, after councillors asked them to revise the plans following residents’ objections.

The developer GolDev headed by Wayne Gold has a mixed track record, according to the Surrey Advertiser, with a previous proposed development at Braintee Town FC running into trouble, for instance. The Non-League Football Paper reported: “Interestingly, and perhaps something that will make Woking fans cautious, is that Gold attempted a similar project with now National League South side Braintree Town in 2008 to move the club into a new stadium and build 500 homes nearby. The following year, Gold sought a second developer to help fund the stadium. Subsequently, the plans were dropped before another attempt to build housing was made in 2015 – without the football club – but every councillor on the planning committee voted against the proposal.”

If the plans are approved, construction of the new stadium might begin next year. The team would have to play its fixtures somewhere else for two years while building takes place. A decision on the planning application is expected in March or April 2020.

This feels like both an exciting and dangerous time for Woking FC and the residents, and maybe the council as well. Local pride in the football club and ambition, and a longing for things to stay as they are, are all involved. Can the circle be squared?