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Falmer plans on hold
Tuesday July 27, 2004
By Adam Trimingham
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott today overruled the judgements of two of his most senior planning inspectors to keep the Albion's dream of a new community stadium alive.
Mr Prescott has not come down categorically in favour of the proposed 22,000-seat arena in Falmer. But, crucially, he has also not ruled out the plan.
Instead, he has called for a short coda to the public inquiry to iron out the remaining issue: Is there another suitable site in the city?
A third inspector will preside over the hearing, which is scheduled to report back before Christmas.
Supporters of the club's bid today said although the latest delay was frustrating, its results are likely to circumvent opponents' calls for a potentially lengthier and far more expensive judicial review.
A letter from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was received this morning by all parties who made representations to the original Falmer public inquiry, which ran for eight months from February last year.
It identified six other sites within the city as possible alternative locations for the stadium.
The reopened inquiry will have to rule whether any of these meets nine specific criteria which would enable them to be considered as a viable alternative to Falmer.
The sites are Brighton station, Coral's Greyhound Stadium in Hove, Shoreham Harbour, Sheepcote Valley in Brighton, Toad's Hole Valley in Hove, Waterhall Valley in Brighton and Withdean Stadium in Brighton.
The criteria include size, cost, public safety, planning issues, public transport access and environmental impact.
Mr Prescott has been already criticised for the length of time it has taken his department to publish the report.
But it is clear today he is treading a fine political line.
Planning inspector John Collyer, who oversaw the Falmer inquiry, ruled against the stadium at Village Way North.
His verdict followed an earlier rejection by another independent inspector, Charles Hoile, who dismissed the site in a more general inquiry into the Brighton and Hove Local Plan.
Mr Prescott's ruling will be seen by critics as a measure to help safeguard the seats of the three Labour MPs in the forthcoming general election, expected early next year.
But by supporters it is being viewed as an "amber light" for Falmer and clear acceptance of the club's desperate need for a new ground.
Albion chairman Dick Knight was busy wading through the 300 pages of the official report at his offices today.
He said: "The application for Falmer has not been refused. The club is optimistic. If he was going to rule out Falmer, he would have done so now.
"A lot of opponents have said there are other sites. They now have to put up or shut up.
"I want to make it clear to all Albion fans we are not going to go outside Brighton and Hove. The club has been here 103 years and will stay."
Hove Labour MP Ivor Caplin, a strong Falmer supporter, said: "I believe this is a good and positive decision for the future of the football club and also the stadium."
Lord Bassam of Brighton, former leader of the city council, said: "This is a big step forward for the Albion's plans. The Deputy Prime Minister has had a very difficult decision to make.
"John Prescott is effectively saying the case for the stadium is well made but needs to be convinced the Falmer site is the best.
"To defeat the club's application, the opponents will have to demonstrate there is another site in Brighton that is available, viable and meets Government policy on sustainable transport."
Paul Samrah, chairman of the supporters' Falmer for All Campaign, said: "It is an amber light. It is not a rejection by a long chalk. The need for a new stadium has been firmly established. We will continue to campaign for Falmer."
Liz Costa, vice-chairwoman of the Albion supporters' club, said: "It is good news. We have proved a new stadium is a must."
Council leader Ken Bodfish said: "It's clearly not over and it's a brave decision by Mr Prescott to challenge the conclusions of the inspector.
"At the public inquiry, the club and council exhaustively spelled out the problems with all alternative sites.
"But if we have to do it again to convince Mr Prescott Falmer is the only viable option, we are happy to do so."
Tory opposition leader Garry Peltzer Dunn said: "I am astounded at this cop out. Most people wanted either a yes or a no. Mr Prescott did not have the courage to say no with a general election coming up and three Labour MPs in the city."
City council Green convenor Keith Taylor said: "Falmer has not been an easy decision to make. If it had been, Mr Prescott would have approved it."
Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Elgood said: "It's a strange decision and we feel the issue should have been resolved once and for all."
People living in Falmer who fought against the scheme were upbeat. Melanie Cutress, a member of Falmer Parish Council, said: "I am absolutely delighted, this is fantastic news.
"Prescott has turned down Falmer, that is the position. We don't know what the future holds but this is great."
Pete Lenihan, 48, is the tenant farmer who rents the land earmarked for the stadium. He said: "We are guardedly optimistic."