Funding threat to U's
VITAL cash support which helps keep Colchester United afloat could be slashed in half in swingeing budget cuts next year, it has been revealed.Currently Colchester Borough Council backs the League One club to the tune of about £100,000 a year - an agreement dating back to the early 1990s when it bought the ground from the debt-ridden club.
By Sharon Asplin
VITAL cash support which helps keep Colchester United afloat could be slashed in half in swingeing budget cuts next year, it has been revealed.
Currently Colchester Borough Council backs the League One club to the tune of about £100,000 a year - an agreement dating back to the early 1990s when it bought the ground from the debt-ridden club.
But taking the potential redevelopment value of the Layer Road site into account, in real terms that assistance costs the borough council many thousands of pounds.
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And with it needing to claw back cash across the board to help stop council tax rates spiralling out of control, cabinet members are being forced to consider halving that subsidy to just £50,000 - roughly the equivalent salary of one of the U's first team players.
The news has disappointed the club, which argues it performs a vital service in the community, over and above any financial support it receives.
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A council source said: “Currently Colchester United pays the council £15,000 a year for the use of the Layer Road ground when it is actually sitting on assets worth £4million or £5million.
“The feeling is that the cabinet needs to look at balancing the needs of the ratepayers of the town with the success of the football club.
“They know the football club is as much a cultural part of the town as the new visual arts facility but the question being asked is whether or not this rate of subsidy is fair for a private club when public services are having to be slashed.
“I understand there is no likelihood of the subsidy being removed altogether but discussions are taking place to follow a middle ground and set it at a more realistic level, possibly about half.”
But Marie Partner, Colchester United's chief executive, said she would be “very disappointed” if the council followed this course.
“This is all news to me,” she said. “Like any business, we all work to budgets and we certainly have had no indication that we may need to factor in the loss of this money. If this is true we will have to revisit our own financial situation.
“Every year we are looking for ways to maximise income and everything we are hit with always impacts very much on the bottom line.
“We are not just looking at Colchester United football club for 90 minutes once a fortnight, we should be looking at all the other work we do, particularly our very successful community programme. I do feel that we give back to adults and children alike over and above what we take in.”
Colchester Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell, a life-long U's fan and season ticket holder, said he believed Colchester United paid a fair rate for the standard of facilities they had.
“I hope they are merely looking at this because if the Tories want to surcharge the most successful promotional vehicle that the town of Colchester has then I'm sure the people of Colchester will realise what they are up to.
Last night John Jowers, Conservative council leader, said: “It is far too early to be talking about this now and I cannot be specific.
“But I can say as we are working to a £2million deficit, the cabinet is looking at every aspect of our financial performance and the pain will have to be taken equally. The level of this subsidy may well form part of our budget considerations but that certainly does not mean a decision has been made.”
In 1991, Colchester United sold its 54-year-old ground to Colchester Borough Council for nearly £1.2million, allowing the U's to wipe out their debts to the NatWest Bank.
Under the terms of the agreement, the club was allowed to continue playing there for a maximum of three more seasons for an annual rent charge of more than £100,000. But today that quest for a new home for the U's is still ongoing, although plans are nearing fruition to move into a new community stadium on the Cuckoo Farm development in the north of the town.
From the beginning, the borough council stepped in to help the club pay the rent, leaving it to find an annual contribution of about £12,000. In 2001, the situation was regularised with a new 10-year lease, with Colchester United now paying the borough £15,000 a year for the use of Layer Road.