Concerns have also been raised by the town’s footballing community that the new play area development at Westbridge Park will result in a loss of playing field space. And there are fears that the new facilities could attract antisocial behaviour that would affect members of the renowned Stafford and Stone Canoe Club while they are practising their sport.
Stafford Borough Council has put forward plans to install play equipment including facilities accessible by wheelchair users, as well as a multi-use games area (MUGA), skate area, paths, toilets and seating in the park’s western area near Stafford Road. Work is due to get under way on the £1.5m project within weeks, with completion expected in the autumn.
Public body Sport England, which is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, objected to the application because of loss of playing field space however. On Wednesday members of Stafford Borough Council voted to approve the application, subject to referral to the Secretary of State who will consider it.
The borough council’s tree officer also objected to the application because the location of the skating area requires the removal of a number of mature trees. The planning committee report said that four trees would be removed for the development but 15 new trees were set to be planted in the area covered by the application, with three between the skate area and MUGA.
And there were 13 objections from members of the public. Concerns included antisocial behaviour.
Andy Osgathorpe, who spoke on behalf of football interests and Stafford and Stone Canoe Club at Wednesday’s meeting, said: “The application of Sport England’s Playing Field Policy is clear in its protection of playing fields, not just in pitches. The applicant argues that as two pitches still fit the policy is satisfied – it is not.
“Whilst the applicant argues a lack of demand for football in Stone, this is clearly not the case. This season the Staffs FA (Football Association) database shows 46 teams for Stone, 27 playing at the FA Foundation site at Alleyne’s Sports Centre – none of these sides play on Stone’s poor council pitches.
“Rather than ignoring Sport England’s objections, wouldn’t it be better to provide mitigation by improving football facilities elsewhere in the town? Your own PPS (Playing Pitch Strategy) recognises the need for a new 3G football pitch in Stone – would this not be an ideal time to commit to this and support football in the town?
“Stafford and Stone Canoe Club has trained numerous Olympians and Great Britain squad members over the years. It has a growing membership of around 200 and provides 75 junior paddler spaces in sessions throughout the week.
“Police support the application but subject to CCTV being installed for the MUGA and wheeled sports area as the park attracts antisocial behaviour. This is not a potential problem for the future, it is happening now and is distressing for members.
“It sometimes stops sessions early on safety grounds. The applicant’s response is to rely on more CCTV cameras; they don’t stop the problem now, so how do they solve a potentially bigger problem in the future?”
Stone councillor and planning committee member Jill Hood also spoke of the loss of football space at Westbridge Park. She said: “It does not sit well with me that this exciting prospect of giving this long-awaited facility may deprive other youngsters of a football facility.
“I think we have to heed what Sport England is saying. We promised an amount of money to Alleyne’s which hasn’t materialised – they’re giving almost all football facilities within the town through their school.”
She added that she was “absolutely buzzing” about the new play area plans however. She said: “It’s going to bring huge footfall to the town – people are going to bring their children to a fantastic facility, they’re going to go into the High Street and spend in the local shops, eateries, pubs and restaurants and we really welcome that.
“Never has Stone needed this facility more. The rest of the play areas in town are woefully run-down.
“We have got a lot of new young families who have moved in and they need this play area. But we have to be mindful there are a few things that aren’t quite right in this proposal.
“We can mitigate what Sport England have said about the loss of football. Keep the promise to Alleyne’s and give them the money we said we’re going to so they can then hugely increase the conditions of their football pitches.”
Fellow planning committee member Councillor Carolyn Trowbridge, who is also cabinet member for leisure, said: “I understand Mr Osgathorpe’s frustration about football. But one of the main things Stone Town Council said was really important to the people of Stone was an events space.
“We did everything to make sure there could still be events on there and went down all sorts of routes to try and make everything work for what everyone wanted. I know you can’t please everyone all the time but I do think this is a very good concept that we’ve got here.”