Saturday was a good day for local football.
Stansted won 2-1 at home against Saffron Walden in an eagerly anticipated and keenly fought local derby match. For the Blues it was the 11th win on the bounce. For the Bloods, their loss ended a streak of 15 matches in which they were undefeated and threatened their tenuous lead in the Essex Senior League.
Meanwhile, Elsenham U-14s beat Potton 2-1 as the next generation of local footballers pitted themselves against the third-ranked team in their division of the Cambridge & District Colts League – a vast turnaround from the first match of the season which saw morale-sapping scorelines.
It has not been an easy season for the Stansted and Elsenham clubs. They play well, but with one hand tied behind their backs due to a legacy of under-investment in community sports facilities. Waterlogged pitches have led to cancelled matches and both clubs lack the kind of facilities many of their respective league peers enjoy.
This is not due to ill-fate, it is due to a lack of will among those who can make a difference, particularly Uttlesford District Council which has control over local leisure strategy. Community football is an activity that addresses many policy priorities: getting people active and healthy, addressing mental illness and social isolation, and fighting racism. UDC does not fully recognise the value of local community sports in bringing communities together.
Regardless of the political party in control, the culture within the district council has preferred concentrating resources in Saffron Walden to the exclusion of other towns and villages. There is no other reason why there is such a massive inequality of provision within our district, particularly in the rural-town divide. Even council-commissioned independent research has suggested the Stansted and Elsenham area is in dire need of investment in football pitches.
Pitch Strategy Underplays Local Needs
According to the Uttlesford District Council Playing Pitch Strategy and Action Plan – carried out by consultants Knight, Kavanagh and Page and published last May – Stansted has a grass pitch capacity shortfall of 0.5 match equivalent sessions (MES) per week on adult pitches and youth 11v11 pitches. By 2033, the survey predicts that adult shortfall will remain at 0.5 MES while youth 11v11 shortfall will rise to 1.5 MES. The situation in rural areas – outside Saffron Walden, Great Dunmow and Stansted – is worse with very high shortfalls that effectively deny many adults and young people sufficient facilities. The survey also found that Stansted had a shortfall of one floodlit 3G pitch with a district-wide shortfall of four 3G pitches.
The survey concluded that “Although both the Stansted Mountfitchet and Great Dunmow analysis area have shortfalls, they are minimal and either do not increase, or increase minimally base on future demand.”
Many in Stansted will strongly disagree. The survey fails to assess the limitations of the current pitch, despite the football club’s best efforts. The pitch is based on clay, which makes it prone to waterlogging and reduces the number of days it can be played in the season. Efforts to deal with the problem have largely been temporary as a permanent fix would require significant investment. Until that happens, the pitch cannot sustain use by more teams – it can barely cope with current needs.
The football pitch overlaps with the cricket pitch, which means no football can be played in the first few weeks of the season. The number of match equivalent sessions is therefore lower than estimated in UDC’s survey.
This idiosyncratic arrangement is a major obstacle to the club’s growth. Stansted FC will never be promoted to the next step in the league system with the current arrangement. When the club came close to winning the Essex Senior League last year, there were serious concerns that the grounds would prevent promotion and an immediate need for at least £20,000 of improvements.
Ground requirements for promotion include a path around the perimeter of the pitch, permanent barriers, a second turnstile, improved changing facilities and investment in renovating the stands. The money needed to protect and enhance the existing facilities is a tall order for a small club, but new grounds are needed if the club is to expand with more teams and advance up the league system.
Elsenham YFC: It’s Not All About Pitches
The youth are the future of football and competitive sport keeps them healthy and fit. In its health and wellbeing strategy, UDC states “18% of children in Reception classes and 26% of those in Year 6 were classified as either overweight or obese in 2016/17. Rising levels of obesity increases the risk of further conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. This data could mean that today’s children will have a lower life expectancy than their parents.”
Elsenham Youth Football Club is doing its bit to support healthy, wholesome team sports among children. It has 250 registered players across 20 teams and the club is growing fast, rivaling the behemoth of Bishop’s Stortford’s youth teams. Elsenham parish council has worked with the club to keep the recreation ground in reasonable condition, although the UDC pitch strategy notes that “The site assessment highlights an issue with grass coverage and pitch evenness, as well as there being evidence of heavy use with muddy patches.”
The club’s growth means it has hit up against capacity constraints and it has started to use a secondary site at the airport, which now has four pitches of various sizes. Two mini teams use a third site in Rickling.
Facilities are a major issue at all three locations. Elsenham memorial hall provides some very basic facilities, which could improve with the planned construction of a new community building on the other side of the Rec with the help of contributions from housing developers.
However, the airport site lacks any kind of facilities, including storage, and children are reliant on the goodwill of a nearby cafe for toilets. A portable toilet is planned, but this is not a satisfactory long-term arrangement for children. There is a similar arrangement with a portable toilet at Rickling, which the club hires from the Parish Council. The pitch survey states that the pitch at Stansted Airport playing fields is poor quality, “suffers from poor drainage and is only available on an annual rental agreement.”
Teams also have to hire floodlit training facilities for their training during the winter months, travelling to Manuden, Stansted Romeera, Hockerill, Birchwood and as far away as Helena Romanes in Great Dunmow. The hire of commercial training facilities is one of the club’s major sources of expenditure.
Planning Committee Ignores Community Needs
Local football clubs did see a glimmer of hope in 2013 with the promise of four football pitches (adult and youth), including changing facilities, car park and club house, at Bentfield End Causeway as part of a 140-house development (UTT/13/1203/OP). This was seen by Stansted FC as a chance to grow the club and boost its number of teams. These plans were rejected by UDC’s planning committee with councillors opposing the urbanising nature of sports facilities; the committee’s decision was upheld on appeal.
Despite these supposed concerns about urbanisation, the council went on to approve Bloor Homes’ 147 houses in a new private housing estate at nearby Walpole Farm, right next to Pennington Lane. UDC also advocates a 70-house development at Bentfield Causeway, which would not include football pitches. Instead of approving 140 homes with pitches as well as a new primary school and allotments, the council has opted for more than 200 homes without them.
If pitches had been created, they would have prevented potential over-development in the Bentfield area – now a distinct risk following the collapse of the council’s local plan. Community football lost out, but housing development hasn’t been halted.
Uttlesford Relies on Stortford to Pay for Stansted’s Pitches
The UDC sports strategy document rests heavily on the provision of pitches at the new Herts and Essex secondary school site, which fall within Uttlesford boundary and “will provide one adult and one youth 11v11 grass pitch and will be subject to a community use agreement”. The school has not yet been built and the specs are not known (any floods, stands and barriers?) let alone any agreements in principle for the use of local clubs – Bishop’s Stortford Community FC has a right to first dibs.
The dependence on East Herts tax payers for Uttlesford’s services is an enduring theme – UDC fails to invest in our services because a neighbouring local authority is delivering them. It is a story of abject neglect of residents in the Stansted area.
Stortford and Walden Show How to Turn Things Around
It is unacceptable that our community football teams are struggling to get decent pitches and facilities, particularly when we are told that the country is facing an obesity crisis and children need to get active.
We do not need to be in this position. The success at Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford in turning around football facilities through multi-agency co-ordination offers clues as to the way forward – if there is political will.
Bishop’s Stortford Community Football Club (BSCFC) worked closely with Birchwood High School to co-fund a full-sized, floodlit, 3G training facility at the school, which opened in 2007. However, East Herts District Council’s 2010 study of pitch provision in Bishop’s Stortford confirmed that the town still had the worst pitch provision in Hertfordshire.
The woeful situation prompted a concerted effort to turn the situation around. BSCFC has gained a commitment from the Football Association as a priority club. MPs, councillors and EHDC’s chief executive are working together with the club to secure £3 million for pitch provision and facilities from the Stortford North development. They are now looking for a suitable parcel of land to establish more pitch provision. Investment has enabled BSCFC to affiliate 74 teams with over 900 playing members, making it a behemoth in local football.
Saffron Walden has also seen the benefits of a multi-agency approach to turn around poor facilities and pitch provision to support community sports. When Saffron Walden FC was in financial trouble in 2011, Uttlesford District Council released more than £90,000 from a housing development agreement from to save it. An additional £100,000 was spent on improving Herberts Farm clubhouse, changing facilities and grounds, £30,000 was given to improve the ladies’ football ground at Crabtrees and nearly £30,000 was given to create two junior pitches. A total of £250,000 was spent on football facilities in Saffron Walden.
Other clubs in the Essex Senior League are also benefitting from direct council investment. Redbridge is investing £1.6 million in upgrading Ashton Playing Fields in Woodford Green. The stadium on the council-owned site in Chigwell Road is being rebuilt to enable the local athletics club to host British Division 1 meets and enable the borough to host Woodford Town FC, which currently uses Harlow Town FC’s facilities for its home matches.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Uttlesford District Council has ignored the needs of this part of the district for too long. Meetings between clubs and the local authority, supported by the Essex FA, have come to nothing. I have been told by local clubs that there has been no contact with UDC in the past couple of years and that meetings with the council have been at Essex FA’s behest, not the council’s own initiative. The lack of enthusiasm at Uttlesford for the resource-starved south of the district has prompted Essex FA to swing behind plans for a 3G pitch at the County High School in Saffron Walden.
A change of administration last May has not seen any improvement. R4U-controlled UDC has not yet responded to calls for a round table meeting to look at how existing football ground and facilities could be improved, let alone work towards creating a 3G pitch for the club, the school and the wider community as suggested by its own pitch survey. Planning permission has been granted for a £900,000 3G pitch in Saffron Walden, which is being built through fund-raising by the football club. Meanwhile, UDC’s lack of interest in Stansted has not exactly boosted the Essex FA’s confidence in getting a 3G pitch in the south of the district.
There’s a pattern here. UDC has always regarded Stansted as a backwater and put Saffron Walden first. If Stansted has to rely on Bishop’s Stortford for sports facilities because of a lack of political will in UDC, it would be better off in East Herts and leaving Essex altogether.