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Analysis - Lord Bassam: A step nearer the Falmer dream
Wednesday July 28, 2004
Here, Lord Bassam, an Albion fan and former Brighton council leader, gives his views on the decision by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to reopen the public inquiry into Brighton and Hove Albion's plans for a new stadium at Falmer.
At last we have a decision and one that should give Albion fans cause to cheer.
Without doubt it takes us much nearer to the right decision on the stadium.
John Prescott's decision to reopen the public inquiry on the specific issue of site selection is for many reasons the right decision.
It might not seem full of the Deputy Prime Minister's usual boldness but it does bring greater certainty to the outcome.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will have to provide clear guidance on where the stadium goes and the likelihood is that Falmer will be the site.
Our club, led so ably by Dick Knight and Martin Perry, should be congratulated for getting to where we are.
I confess that, despite the best efforts of the MPs Ivor Caplin, David Lepper and Des Turner, the club, its advisers and lawyers and, most importantly, the fans, I was not filled with optimism over the outcome of the planning inquiry when it closed.
The stadium plans are bold and bright but the anti lobby always has an advantage in these cases, especially when presenting itself as a pro-environment/conservation grouping.
Of course, the delay in concluding the outcome of the Falmer planning applications is frustrating but the decision was always likely to be a qualified one.
Had the Deputy Prime Minister said no, fans would have had a good case with the club and the city council for mounting a legal challenge.
Similarly, had Mr Prescott said yes, the stadium's opponents - the Green Party, Falmer Parish Council, Lib Dems on Lewes District Council and the various conservation and environment bodies - would almost certainly have mounted a challenge that would have delayed the process for much longer.
The decision over Falmer is a complicated one.
But by asking a new inspector to look again at the selection of the site and the sequential test, the Deputy Prime Minister should ensure that, whatever the final outcome, it should be accepted by all concerned.
As I understand things, the inquiry will have a narrow remit and should be concluded hopefully by the end of December.
We will then get a final decision. This time round it will be beyond challenge because, having accepted the case for a stadium in the city, the Deputy Prime Minister will then be left to focus on the best possible option.
The best option
Most Albion fans - myself included - believe that when the site selection evidence is weighed up, Falmer is the best option.
Opponents will now have to prove conclusively that there is a viable, well-costed and sustainable alternative that falls outside the new area of natural beauty (AONB) and proposed national park boundaries. The case for Falmer rests on its merits.
These are clear: Job creation and regeneration, sustainable public transport links, links with skills and education providers and a low impact on other local communities.
My hope is that now the focus of the inquiry has been narrowed, the opponents to Falmer will begin to see the inevitability of an eventual yes decision.
In those circumstances I think the club and the city council could then begin to talk to local residents, who remain fearful of the stadium being developed, and work out in more detail ways of mitigating any real or perceived environmental problems from its location.
One idea worth pursuing is that of using the coach park as part of a structured entry route into the proposed national park when its designation is complete.
The park will undoubtedly be a challenge for local communities to absorb and manage and a stadium at Falmer offers a way of helping with that problem once the boundaries are agreed.
Equally, dialogue with the wider community will need to take place about how we spread and maximise the benefits that flow from the creation of a major study/learning centre within the stadium.
This is no small undertaking, especially given the impressive track record the Albion has established through its current study programme.
With employment set to grow in an area of the city that still has problems of deprivation and higher levels of unemployment than elsewhere, we should be looking to explore the stadium's undoubted benefits.
In the meantime, we must continue to make the case and go through the site issue thoroughly so the Deputy PM's final decision is an easy one.
The inspectors clearly gave the proposals a rigorous examination.
Mr Prescott has effectively said he needs to be satisfied there is no other site, given the likely designation of the national park and AONB boundaries, outside the footprint of the current stadium proposals.
He has clearly understood the case and the need for a top-class community stadium in our major and much-loved city and we should celebrate the progress we have made through his announcement. We just have one more hurdle to clear before we get the go-ahead.
I am confident that, with the best fans in the country behind the club's bid together with the city council and the three MPs, we will get to our promised land.
If we can do so brilliantly as a club and a team at Withdean, then it is obvious that we really will be a club to be reckoned with once we have Falmer. So one more heave as we enter extra time and hopefully avoid a penalty shoot-out.