A report in today’s Liverpool Echo suggests the latest version of plans for Liverpool’s new stadium should get approval next week.
This is the third set of plans submitted to the council so far, looking cosmetically at least very close to the second set announced in July, and although “downgraded” from that version, still far superior to the version that became known by many as “The Parry Bowl”.
The planning department have looked at the latest set of plans and have changed the status to “recommended”. The next step is for the planning committee to look at the recommendations and decide whether or not to grant approval.
The first version of the stadium was announced in 2002, with a message that it was hoped it would be open by 2006, but definitely in time for the 2008 Capital of Culture year. Instead, Paul McCartney will be performing his summer gig for the 2008 event at Anfield.
In July the club’s owners arrived at Anfield with computer renderings of a stadium that impressed just about everyone. It looked unique, it looked prestigious, it looked like it was going to be something the fans could be proud of. Moving out of Anfield has never been something fans have accepted easily, but a stadium as impressive as that was seen by many fans as the nearest thing there was to a suitable replacement.
Then there came some bad news.
In December, Rick Parry was forced to announce that the plans were being scrapped. The phrase “slightly downgraded” was used in the Echo’s version of the interview, but by the time it appeared on the official website it became “slightly different”. In a period of growing suspicion towards the owners it was a worrying amendment. Parry had already tried to evade the issue two days earlier, and now his words were being changed. The reason for the change was financial; the version in July had come back at around £100m more than the owners wanted.
New New Plans
The following month the actual revised plans were unveiled, and to be quite honest it was difficult to see a major difference at first glance. Comparing images side-by-side showed there were certainly cosmetic changes, less use of glass and steel, but nothing much else was explained.
It wasn’t until the revised drawings went before the council that details of the changes were revealed, and the Echo listed some of those today. This version of the plans will be considered by the city council’s planning committee when it meets on May 6th.
Both version two and three of the plans were submitted as 60,000-seater stadiums, but with the provision for future expansion of approval could be given at a later date. The version 2 plans were provisioned with a maximum of 76,000 seats, but version 3 has a maximum of 73,000 according to the Echo. However that 73,000 figure conflicts with the 71,000 figure that was given in the announcement in January.
There were rumours that the underground car park had been scrapped, and although this isn’t true it has been halved in size. The Echo describes how a “three-storey car park will be located under tennis courts and a games area in Stanley Park, shielded from Priory Road by a ‘green wall’.”
Also what wasn’t apparent on the drawings revealed in January is the difference in physical size: “The width, length and height of the stadium has been reduced by several metres.” Changes have been made to the roof opening meaning it is smaller, and “designed differently to keep the crowd dry and help the pitch grow.”
The “skywalk” has been ditched, along with a roof terrace restaurant in the “Kop” end of the new stadium.
As the Echo points out, the work to improve the rest of Stanley Park, in effect the “sweetener” that not only helped the club to obtain grants but also did no harm in gaining the original planning consent is already underway. It’s on target for completion by the end of the year.
The recommendation in the council’s report said: “The overall form of the stadium, with the Kop as the main generator of the building form will add to the city skyline, and create a positive landmark and a focus for further investment. The changes introduced in March do little to dilute the architectural quality of the proposed stadium.”
But approval should only be granted on certain conditions. The cars in that 970-space car park must arrive an hour before kick-off, and remain there for at least an hour after the end of the game. There is also a requirement that for the first five years of the stadium’s life the club must fund annual reviews of residential parking around the ground, and pay for any recommendations that come up each year.
If approval is given then work will commence using the £60m from the controversial £350m refinancing package taken out by Tom Hicks and George Gillett in January. However, despite approval from the council being due on May 6th, work still can’t begin until a further waiting period has passed.
Another report in the Echo alludes to a claim gathering pace about the true intentions of the owners with regards the stadium. It says: “The suspicion is that the planning application is nothing but a paper exercise, at least while the two men holding the purse strings remain at loggerheads.”
The theory was first mentioned months ago, shortly after the new drawings were unveiled. Although the Echo doesn’t expand on it, the theory goes that the new stadium was never intended to be built, and that the new plans were drawn up purely to help increase the valuation of the club. The idea is that with approval for the new stadium in place, the club is worth more money. The part of the theory that hasn’t yet been explained is why approval for a £350m version of the stadium makes the club more valuable than with a £450m version.
The theory may also have been helped in some ways because of claims that documentation supplied for this latest attempt for planning permission was a far smaller pile of paper than the plans submitted in July. But another theory says this is because a procedural error in November’s planning decision meant the club could shortcut the usual processes needed for an amendment to the plans.
A subject as emotive as this – not just for Liverpool supporters but also for local residents and of course Everton fans still unhappy at having to move to an out-of-town site as a replacement for Goodison – is always going to result in theories being thrown around. And that’s before adding the battle for the ownership of the club between Tom Hicks and Dubai into the equation. That battle is tied into a battle for the hearts and minds of fans of course.
Suggestions as to how much all these plans have cost are pretty heartbreaking if true. A figure between £15m and £20m has been repeated on more than one occasion, again going back some months, and although it doesn’t take much imagination to work out who this figure might come from, it doesn’t take much imagination to believe it either. Whether that figure is for all the plans drawn up since the club changed hands, or just the latest set isn’t actually clear. But the fact it’s such a high figure suggests the “paper exercise” theory may be stretching matters a touch.
One question that must be asked though is who was to blame for the overpriced plans in July. If HKS were given a figure to work to, surely they must be liable for the costs of drawing up the amended plans at the more affordable price-level. If they weren’t given a figure to work to then it has to be asked why not?
It’s essential that the full capacity of 73,000 is approved if the stadium is to be a success, and although a reduced-capacity car-park hinders that hope, a new rail facility would help it. Back in February officials from Anfield and Merseytravel went on a journey to investigate the possibilities of adding a new rail station on the old Bootle branch line.
These days it’s only used for freight, but it could be refurbished to allow match-day transport options to be given a boost.
Rick Parry and Merseytravel’s CEO Neil Scales were amongst those who boarded a train at Lime Street to see if the idea was feasible. Parry said at the time: “It is vital to explore how it could contribute to north Liverpool’s regeneration. Getting so many people to see it first hand was an important first step.”
Scales said: “We are serious about making this work. This will be key for the club, but it is also about how we can better support north Liverpool.”
Also on board was Tuebrook councillor Steve Radford, who said it wouldn’t just be match-day travellers benefitting from such an idea: “This could regenerate the entire area. It would remove the need to travel by car, making north Liverpool much more attractive to professionals who need trains to commute.”
Possibilities suggested for the station included Utting Avenue (near The Clarence pub), Townsend Lane, and near to Anfield cemetery (close to the junction of Cherry Avenue and Stanley Park Avenue).
The costs of such a scheme aren’t believed to be prohibitive, especially when considering the facility could be the key to permission for the larger capacity of 73,000. That’s an extra 247,000 match tickets that can be sold every season for league games alone. Even at £40 each that’s close to £10m extra in ticket revenues per season over the 60,000 seats in the initial plans.
£40 a ticket would bring in £21.2m extra per league season compared to Anfield, and £40 is likely to be less than the minimum price by the time the new stadium opens. With all the other money a fan is likely to spend on an average visit it’s clear the number crunchers in the US and Dubai will have had a far higher figure factored into their predictions. Add possible Champions League and domestic cup games into the figures, alongside summer events making use of the ground, and then of course naming rights and it’s obvious why this stadium is so vital to Liverpool FC.
As well as the council making their decision at that committee meeting, it’s important that each of the current owners and the potential owners make their decisions too.
Tom Hicks, if he hasn’t already done so, needs to find the money and make the offer to George Gillett that he’s been promising he would since the turn of the year. He needs to do this as soon as possible.
Dubai International Capital, or whatever part of the Dubai government it ultimately is that wants to buy the club, needs to decide if it has made its final offer to both Gillett and Hicks. If it hasn’t then it needs to be making that final offer, one it won’t consider increasing under any circumstances, as soon as possible.
George Gillett, if he finds himself with two offers in front of him, has to decide which one to take. His decision will no doubt include considerations over how disruptive and costly any possible legal action might be, and how much profit he stands to make from either deal. If he remains firm in his assertion not to sell to Tom Hicks, perhaps it’s time he accepted that offer from DIC and allowed the next stage of that fight to commence. Otherwise he needs to make his mind up as soon as possible.
There’s every chance that meetings might take place around the time of the Champions League second leg next week, meetings that see some resolution, but if the theory is true that permission for this set of plans increases the club’s value then Gillett will no doubt wait that little bit longer.
Meanwhile, even if those involved in this ownership dispute all agreed to get back to negotiating in private, there’s now a chance more dirt will be dragged up under another public spotlight. The All Party Parliamentary Football Group of MPs has decided it’s time to launch an inquiry into “English football and its governance” and they feel the situation at Anfield one area they must look at. The chairman of the group is Alan Keen MP, who said: “English club football is enjoying great success in Europe at the moment. Yet many questions remain about the standard of corporate governance and whether it is best equipped to deal, at every level, with the long-term challenges of the game’s future.
“This is the focus of the group’s new inquiry. The group will examine case studies on governance, including Liverpool FC, where the role of the owners has raised significant public concerns and overshadowed achievements on the field.”
Important is this mess is to Liverpool fans, as awful as it’s been, it seems a little low down what should be a priority list for a group of MPs to spend time on, even if they’re going to spend time on football. UEFA’s attitude to English fans might have been more important, especially when looked at in conjunction with their treatment at the hands of authorities on the continent. Their time would possibly be of more use investigating how travel companies are able to obtain massive, often adjacent, blocks of tickets to football matches and sell them at inflated prices. After all, football ticket touting is illegal, yet somehow these agencies are not only finding it easy to get hold of tickets, but also to sell them for an easy profit. They may, whilst in the mood to investigate inflated prices, look into travel packages for big European fixtures.
There is a long list of issues that such a group would be far better looking into. After all, one way or another, Liverpool’s ownership mess is likely to be over and done with before they’ve arrived with their clipboards to gather information on it all.