Blame game begins after Newbury football ground clubhouse destroyed by fire
THERE was shock across town on Saturday morning after Newbury Football Club’s former Faraday Road football ground clubhouse was gutted by a fire.
Firefighters from Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire were called to a blaze at the ground at 1.18am and spent more than five hours battling the fire, which has left the clubhouse in ruins.
Nobody was injured and the site has since been fenced off while West Berkshire Council, which owns the land, takes external advice on what it needs to do next.
Attention has now turned to the cause of the fire, which hasn’t yet been established, and the state in which the clubhouse and football ground had been left following Newbury Football Club’s eviction by West Berkshire Council in 2018.
The move was to make way for the redevelopment of the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE), but the council’s plans fell through in November 2018 after an agreement with property development company St Modwen to regenerate the site was ruled to be unlawful.
The ground has since fallen into a state of disrepair and an application to demolish the clubhouse and turn the site into an open recreation space ahead of the LRIE redevelopment was set to be heard by the council’s district planning committee on September 8.
Newbury Town Council spokesman on Faraday Road football ground Vaughan Miller (Lib Dem, East Fields) said he was “gutted”.
He said: “It’s 100 years of history gone up in smoke, and that’s how gutted I feel about it.
“But that same feeling applies to the demolition plans and the constant refusal to reopen the ground for football.”
Mr Miller accused the council of not securing the site properly for the last three years; youths have frequently been seen inside the facility and on the roof, while the ground was also hit by a suspected arson attack in December 2019 when a portable building and fencing on the site caught fire.
He continued: “West Berkshire Council have known for several years that the site was not secured properly and that the buildings were regularly used by rough sleepers and also by drug users.
“They also knew school children had been seen playing on the roof.
“So why were they so negligent in securing this site and protecting the public from harm?
“In more tragic circumstances they may have been subject to accusations of corporate manslaughter, not just corporate vandalism.”
However, the council has denied these accusations, and said it had been trying to demolish the buildings to prevent this kind of situation from happening.
It added that it had a contract with a company to keep the site secure.
Deputy leader Graham Bridgman (Con, Burghfield and Mortimer) said: “I’m absolutely certain it was secure.
“If it turns out to be arson, and I’m not certain we’ll ever know, I don’t think it’s possible to stop that from happening without 24-hour on site presence.
“I’m sorry but that building doesn’t warrant the amount of expenditure of that nature.”
The council’s executive member for finance Ross Mackinnon (Con, Bradfield) said: “It’s for precisely this reason we wanted to demolish the structures in the summer.
“We had a planning application live to demolish those buildings as part of the conversion to a public recreational space.
“The reason the buildings still stood at the weekend is that that application was opposed and frustrated at every turn by Newbury town councillors and others, and who have this strange insistence that Faraday Road is the only acceptable place to play football in Newbury.”
The council plans to build a new sports hub at Newbury Rugby Club in Monks Lane and open it by March 2022.
The council’s interim chief executive Susan Halliwell said the council would still be going ahead with its planning application to convert the site into an open recreation space.
Residents reacted with shock and disappointment to the fire, with generations of football fans having enjoyed games there over the years.
Jennie Simmons posted on Newburytoday’s Facebook page: "Lots of good memories of this place but also sad, as the last game of football played on this ground was when our grandsons organised a testimonial match in memory of their dad, Roy Simmons, at the end of May 2018.
"Two days later the club and ground were shut down; what a very sad loss to Newbury."