The future of one of the largest sports clubs in the borough now lies in the hands of Government planners in the Midlands.
Last week Cheshire West and Chester Council’s planning committee approved the ambitious renovation plans on appeal by a slender 6-5 vote with one abstention, with chairman Cllr Alex Black (Lab) using his casting vote in favour.
But this approval is subject to a referral to the Department for Communities and Local Government national casework unit, due to the size of development proposed in green belt land.
Vauxhall Sports and Social Club on Rivacre Road, Ellesmere Port, had put forward ambitious plans for redevelopment including 56 affordable homes.
The bid includes two new all-weather pitches, a new clubhouse and the refurbishment of the changing rooms.
The club’s application, involving green belt land, attracted strong views in support and against.
Councillors previously refused permission on an 8-3 vote on green belt grounds and on the basis the housing would not be close to shops, community facilities, schools or public transport.
Changes made by Manchester-based agents Barton Willmore, acting for the club, were said to ‘materially and significantly’ overcome councillors’ previous concerns.
They were recommended for approval, but planning officers felt although the benefits were ‘exceptional’, the development remained ‘borderline’.
Last Tuesday (July 5) the plans were again called in to the borough’s planning committee by Willaston and Thornton ward councillor Myles Hogg (Con), who believed the development would be harmful to the green belt for which no very special circumstances had been demonstrated.
Cllr Hogg asked, if the club was cherished, ‘why is it in the financial state it claims to be?’.
He argued ‘precious green belt must not be sacrificed for financial reasons’.
He described the plans as ‘poor and rushed’ and added: “If their case is so strong they should have appealed the original application”.
Objector Gill Holmes, representing 170 others, told councillors the ‘green oasis’ was not related to shops, schools or public transport. The club had been struggling financially since 2010 and ‘there is no guarantee it would survive in the longer term’.
Club president Tony Woodley insisted there were ‘43,000 reasons’ behind asking for approval. “The proposed development will save the club,” he said.
Changes to the plans had covered the areas councillors had been concerned about in the first place and without approval the site would close.
Those backing the application included MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston Justin Madders (Lab), his predecessor Andrew Miller, Chester MP Chris Matheson (Lab) and Rory Harvey, chairman and managing director of Vauxhall Motors.
Mr Madders pointed out the club was the largest provider of football pitches in the town. If these facilities were lost he had ‘no doubt the local community would suffer badly’.
Objectors said the club was surrounded by the green belt and almost all the area proposed for development was currently green belt open space.
Planning officers described the application as ‘finely balanced’ but were satisfied there were special circumstances.
Agent Dan Mitchell for the club described the development as being of ‘vital significance’ to the borough.
Profits from the homes would go to the maintenance of the club and he insisted there were ‘very strong very special circumstances’.
Netherpool ward councillor Diane Roberts (Lab) believed the application was ‘a huge opportunity to provide affordable social housing’ and to provide for the health and wellbeing of the community.
She felt ‘robust’ proposals had been put forward to deal with the previous concerns and suggested councillors had felt the site was more isolated than it actually was.
There was a housing crisis and the club, which she described as ‘irreplaceable’, had to survive,
But Chester councillor Jill Houlbrook said: “It is a long way from anywhere basically, it’s actually a long and dangerous way.”
Moving approval, Ledsham and Manor councillor Peter Rooney (Lab) argued changes had been made to make the application viable and added: “We need places for young families to live.”
The Department for Communities and Local Government national casework unit’s planning officers could now accept the approval, in which case permission will be granted by the council, subject to 27 conditions and separate legal agreements, or they can require a public inquiry with the final decision being taken in Whitehall.