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'Ambitious' West Berkshire Council timetable for new football ground at Newbury Rugby Club

Council to negotiate with club with aim of March 2022 completion

The timescale for building a new sports ground at Newbury Rugby Club has been labelled “incredibly ambitious”.

West Berkshire Council’s executive voted last week to enter formal discussions with the rugby club about building the new facility.

The council has said that the artificial grass pitch, stadium, floodlights, changing room and function room are expected to be open by March 2022.

Speaking at the meeting, executive member for leisure Howard Woollaston (Con, Lambourn) said it was anticipated that the rugby club would agree to a lease in the next few weeks, which would hopefully return to the council for approval in April.

A project manager will need to be appointed and Mr Woollaston said the council did not anticipate any planning policy issues.

He said that a planning application would be submitted in the spring with construction completed in early autumn, ready to open by the end of March 2022.

He said: “I acknowledge that this is a tight timetable, with little room for mishaps, but the officer team will do its level best to meet it.”

The timescale was labelled as “incredibly ambitious” and risked further reputational damage to the council by opposition councillors.

The ground would serve as a replacement for the stadium in Faraday Road, which the council closed in 2018 to commence work on regenerating the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE).

The ground has sat empty for two years and the council has said it will be at least three more years until construction work starts on the estate.

Tony Vickers (Lib Dem, Wash Common) said: “To my mind, red lights are flashing all over this project.

“The history of projects having anything to do with LRIE tells me it’s very unlikely that you will achieve your objectives on this.

“I wish you well and we’re not going to oppose this plan.”

Steve Masters (Green, Speen) asked whether the council risked further reputational damage “considering how poorly the public view of the handling of LRIE has been in the past”.

Mr Woollaston said: “You just have to decouple what happened in the past with what we’re doing now.”

Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) asked whether an economic impact assessment had been conducted on the impact of Newbury FC supporters going to the rugby club and not into the town centre for matches.

Mr Woollaston said no because it would be premature, but Monks Lane was well within the 20 minutes walking distance of the current site.

He added that the rugby club was “an ideal position, cements community sport in Newbury, provides a facility which we can be proud of as a town and allow Newbury mens and ladies teams to scale the ladders of their respective leagues”.

He said that the Step 6 facility can become Step 5 with minimal spending required, and that this pitch would be the first of many coming forward.

The proposals follow a playing pitch strategy identifying a deficit of seven pitches in the district.

Leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition Lee Dillon (Thatcham North East) said there was no gain as two grass pitches would be lost to one artificial pitch.

Mr Woollaston said that a 3G pitch “could be used far more intensively, so effectively we are replacing more than two grass pitches”.

Mr Dillon replied: “I appreciate that you can play from 7am until 10pm, but you can’t kick two games off at 3pm.”

Mr Woollaston said that Sport England, the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union, had been positive about the proposal. He added that a number of Newbury football teams were also provisionally supportive of the plans, and there would be discussions about who would run the ground based on credible business plans.

A public consultation on the proposal is running until February 28 and can be viewed at www.info.westberks.gov.uk/newburysportsground

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