On Monday, 25thNovember, we met with representatives of Liverpool County FA at their Walton Hall Park office. We contacted them after reading about their plans to redevelop the PlayFootball site in Thornton in the local press.
Based on the preferred route we had seen, we wanted to understand how such a development could co-exist with Highways England’s own plans to build what is effectively an extension of the motorway from Switch Island, right past the location of the site – and either through, or next to other football pitches at Buckley Hill and Brook Vale.
What engagement had they had with Highways England so far? What were their views on the air pollution that would be generated next to a facility, promoting sport, healthy living and fitness?
On the face of it, none of it seems to make any sense.
Chief Executive David Pugh welcomed us, talked about the number of clubs, players and referees they represent and explained that Sefton falls within its catchment area.
He told us that there has been little-to-no investment in football in Sefton for a long time and there are many neglected sites.
This project is part of plans to address this.
Senior Football Development Manager, Tony Smith, explained that another part of their work is to protect existing pitches and to promote football across Sefton.
This is particularly important as Sefton Council carry out a playing pitch survey every 3 years and the last revealed a deficit of available playing fields in the borough.
The PlayFootball Project
Chairman Ian Wild told us that this project has been over two years in the making and that they believe as much of the groundwork as possible has been done in order for the planning application to be successful.
Importantly, they have worked hard to secure funding and are backed by bodies including Sport England, the national FA and the Football Foundation, each of whom are powerful organisations in their own right.
Their hope was that a planning application would be submitted before the end of this year.
They told us about their plans to redevelop and improve the site and to invest in the local community. They want the site to become a community hub, not exclusively for football use and they will actively encourage community involvement.
They formally took possession of the site on 1st November, 2019 and say they will refresh the existing pitches, create a new 3G pitch and redesign the 5-a-side pitches, with work hopefully completed in time for the start of the 2021-22 season. This includes new buildings and facilities.
Throughout this process, they were clearly aware of Highways England’s plans but explained that they could not pass up the opportunity to invest in this location, nor be paralysed by plans for a road that may or may not happen.
What about Highways England?
Board member Pat Farrell made it clear that Liverpool County FA is not a political organisation and cannot align with any political views; its focus is sport and football. However, he and his colleagues were willing to talk to us about their engagement with Highways England to date.
We were told that they met with Highways England approximately 10-12 months ago and were shown a more detailed version of the proposed route than what had been made public. This is the route that we have since learned has been scrapped at Highways England’s public information sessions, although we do not know if certain sections of it will remain.
At that time, it included a narrowing of the road near the PlayFootball site – possibly to a single lane carriageway – with the idea of a sunken section, screening and tree-planting.
It also included the construction of a lake for drainage on Brook Vale. It was believed, at that time, that the intention was to move the pitches that would be lost here to another location in the area.
We know that Crosby Stuart FC have since secured a long-term lease on this site. This obviously raises even more questions about the proposed route and its impact on football facilities in Sefton.
Finally, we learned that Highways England asked Liverpool County FA to broker a meeting between themselves and Sefton Council, which they refused to do.
Presumably, this was a result of the Council’s policy of non-cooperation with Highways England on the road plans.
If they were looking for support from Liverpool County FA, they weren’t going to get it, so this was a bit of an own goal on their part.
Plans to object
The single, most important thing we took away from this meeting is that they anticipate that, because of the PlayFootball project and the wider implications of Highways England’s scheme on football at the other sites mentioned above, there will be a number of formal objections to the road.
These could come from Sport England, the Football Foundation and the FA themselves.
Highways England is aware of this.
It must therefore factor in significant mitigation in any redesigned route. Essentially, they will need to work around Liverpool County FA’s plans, not the other way around.
The prospect of Highways England issuing a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on any footballing site would be viewed very dimly indeed by all of the sporting bodies involved.
So, what did we learn?
Liverpool County FA, as an organisation, wants to deliver a leading football and community facility which promotes sport, fitness and health.
They share our concerns about the scheme and its potential impact on this site, the loss of other football pitches at Buckley Hill and Brook Vale as well as the risks to air quality in the area.
We understand and respect that they cannot engage in the politics behind the A5036 Port of Liverpool Access Scheme.
However, we believe that their opposition – and the opposition of their partners – will present a significant obstacle to Highways England’s plans in the next phases of the project.
We can only hope that this, our own efforts and more challenges by other interested parties will mean that these plans are shown the red card.