U's new stadium gets go-ahead

THERE were jubilant scenes last night after councillors unanimously agreed to bankroll the building of a long-awaited community stadium destined to become the new home of Colchester United.

By Roddy Ashworth

THERE were jubilant scenes last night after councillors unanimously agreed to bankroll the building of a long-awaited community stadium destined to become the new home of Colchester United.

The decision, which will see the Colchester Borough Council borrowing up to £14.2 million to fund the project, now means construction is expected to begin early next spring, with the stadium opening a year later.

The full council meeting approved the motion to finance the project after considering a report by senior council officers on a complex business plan proposed by the shadow board of the stadium's management company.

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More than 250 members of the public packed into Colchester's historic Moot Hall to watch the proceedings, with a number addressing the meeting.

Outside, between 200 and 300 U's supporters who could not get into the meeting amassed in the town's High Street. When news of the decision was announced, they burst into song, chanting: “We've got our stadium, we've got our stadium.”

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Immediately after the full council's decision, the town's ruling cabinet rubber-stamped the agreement that should mean the stadium will be up and running on land at Cuckoo Farm, in north Colchester, by March 2008.

The report said that although there are still some matters to be ironed out, officers are confident that the basic finances of the stadium project are robust and there is little risk of an impact on council tax levels.

And yesterday Steve Clarke, the officer who has spearheaded the council's work on the stadium, said that the remaining obstacles should be easier to overcome now the decision to borrow the money has been taken.

Speaking to the meeting, former garrison commander Tony Barton, representing the town's local strategic partnership Colchester 2020, urged councillors to back the plan. “The stadium will act as a beacon of civic pride and opportunity,” he said.

“We are on the brink of realising this magnificent aspiration. Let us not falter.”

Peter Heard, chairman and former owner of the club, said: “This new community stadium is badly needed to bring our town prestige and show us as progressive and forward looking.

“The club is happy to play its part. Please pass this motion. It is a turning point. Failure to do so will cause the club to wither and die. Just look at what happened at Chelmsford.”

Tory leader of the council Robert Davidson said: “This is a cross-party matter. All three political parties have been involved in this business case, and given advice at various stages.

“The council officers have been magnificent. This is an historic moment in Colchester's history.”

Labour's Richard Bourne said: “On economic grounds and value grounds this stacks up. Economic activity is generated and jobs are created. Colchester gets the jobs, gets the economic activity, gets the stadium for community use, gets a proper ground for the U's, and we get all the money back plus an ongoing revenue stream.

“The cost per job for the stadium is £0. Good deal or not? And we can protect the impact on the council tax payer throughout.”

And Liberal Democrat deputy mayor Ray Gamble, a U's season ticket holder, said: “This is a great day in the history of Colchester and the football club - the day many have been waiting for for a long, long time.

“This is a stepping stone, but it is a giant step in having this stadium up and running.

“I know some people have been given a glimpse of the promised land so often they have begun to believe it won't ever happen.

“But I hope a positive vote today will convince even the most die-hard sceptic that this will now go ahead.”

The new 10-000-seater stadium will be owned by the council and rented to Colchester United, who will cover the interest on the loan the borough is set to take out.

Money to pay back the loan is also due to come from the Football Foundation and the Haven Gateway Partnership.

The club, recently promoted to the Championship, currently plays in out-dated and increasingly run-down premises at Layer Road in Colchester, with a capacity of just over 6,000.

Speaking after yesterday's vote, club chief executive Marie Partner said: “In terms of emotions, for me this surpasses any result, any cup run or any promotion to date.

“This is about realising our ambitions. The players and the fans deserve to have this stadium.”

And Colchester United manager Geraint Williams said: “This is a massive decision for the club's future.

“We are doing very well at Layer Road this season, but it is no secret we need more people to be watching us for the club to progress.”


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