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A Look Ahead

Robert Elstone, 14th November 2008 - 16:45

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Robert Elstone

Robert Elstone

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Robert is Everton's Chief Executive.

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Earlier this week, I was asked to highlight the viewing problems fans experience at Goodison Park and I found, without much effort, a Lower Bullens seat with 6 pillars between me and the pitch.  That's a hard seat to sell in good economic times. I then walked from the seat down on to the concourse. It looked cramped with no one in it. As many of you will know better than me, it is a major challenge, at least in three stands to get a drink, something to eat or find a toilet at half-time. 

Our ground is a problem, whether or not we like to admit it and - as I know many of you will be aware - the Public Inquiry into The Kirkby Project begins next week. I thought it would be useful to update you on the likely processes and timescales on what will be a complex, emotive and very public investigation into the opportunities and concerns surrounding the proposed development.  
 
A huge amount of work, on all sides, has been undertaken in the last seven weeks; work about to be presented and challenged in the public forum. Our task has been to set out why Everton Football Club feels planning permission should be granted and on that basis, we've developed a comprehensive report - a 'proof of evidence' - which sets out the reasons why we feel the Club must move and why Kirkby is right for us.  This 'proof' has been developed in partnership with Knowsley Borough Council and Tesco, and with advice and input from our legal team and planning consultants.  The Club is pleased with its submission and confident our work supports and complements the evidence provided by our partners. 

As to how our case is presented, what’s in that proof, those of you who attended the recent General Meeting - or read the various reports here on the official Club website - will already be familiar with many of the factors we believe make the stadium so critical. The evidence to be presented expands on many of the things highlighted at the meeting.
 
Firstly, we have to improve our facilities. It appears to me that there are now two ways to run a football club emerging within the Premier League: the billionaire-led approach demonstrated so extravagantly by Abramovich and the fan base and facility-led club exploited so well by Manchester United and now by Arsenal. Of course, there are variations on this but, as we currently sit at Everton, we don’t fall into either category. On the pitch, our relative competitiveness is declining and we have to fix it. We don't have the billionaire and whilst we have the fan base, our current home lets us down. 
The evidence we've submitted to get a new ground measures the impact of the difficulties of raising revenue for the manager to spend whilst we stay at Goodison  - how, year on year, we're slipping down the table in terms of our ability to develop young players and sign talent. I guess it emphasises how reliant we are, or how exposed we are, on a manager who can out-perform his rivals.

Kirkby presents the Club with a unique opportunity, the chance to build a 50,000 capacity stadium we can be proud of. And its uniqueness is its deliverability.   Our evidence explains that in more detail and sets out our confidence in being able to deliver the project on time and budget.  Absolutely, I agree the Project has become harder to deliver – the world’s economy isn’t helping anyone at the moment – but with good planning, negotiation and hard work, the Board remains confident we can do it.
 Key to success will be to bring every single last fan that loves Goodison, who has been coming to Goodison all their lives, with us to the new stadium. At the same time, we have to bring in new fans, perhaps from Kirkby, perhaps from the areas surrounding Kirkby.  We need to work hard to do this and we won’t just rely on the new stadium effect enjoyed by almost every club that has moved.  Of course, we need your support to deliver this.  Your support bringing your family, your mates, lapsed and future Evertonians. 

Very relevant to filling the stadium is how easy it to get to and get home from.  Many fans are predicting transport problems and believe getting to the new stadium is not going to be as easy as getting to Goodison. What the Club has to do; what the Club can reasonably do, is to deliver something that works for the all our fans. The evidence of our transport advisers sets this out in greater detail.  Clearly the partners in the project, tasked with delivering this do not have a blank sheet of paper to design the perfect transport solution, however, we are being told that what we can deliver is acceptable, reasonable and won’t, in any way, prohibit people coming to the game. In short, they conclude fans will not having a transport problem ruin their enjoyment of watching Everton.
 
The Transport Working Group that has been pulled together shows the Club is listening to fans’ views and concerns and trying to tackle those head on and fold them into the discussions and evolution surrounding the transport plan that we are tasked with delivering. It’s very clear to me that if we build a stadium that people struggle to get to, then Everton will suffer. We are incentivised more than anybody to deliver a transport plan that works. It’s on our shoulders, with help from partners, and the Club is committed to listening to its fans and responding to their needs - something I believe is absolutely at the heart of the future success of the Club.
 
So what happens next? What happens once the inquiry gets underway next Tuesday?
 The inspector will hear our evidence, our partners’ evidence, objector evidence and, during the course of all this, we then invite the views and opinions of members of the public. The inquiry is scheduled to run up to Christmas, adjourn over the holiday period, and then reconvene in the New Year, running for a couple more weeks into January.
 
At its completion, the inspector will sit back and digest what has been presented and discussed, before producing a report and making a recommendation which will go forward to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We would then hope that the Minister will make her decision, based on the inspector’s report, as promptly as she feels able. Taking that into account, we are hopeful of a favourable decision some time in spring 2009, perhaps by early March.
 
It is vital that we make the most of this opportunity so a timely decision is important to us. We hope a positive decision will allow us to move in for the start of the 2011/12 season. We are aiming for a two-year build programme which would mean a start date in early summer 2009. That is our hope and that is what we’re optimistic will be achieved. What does appear to be clear is that to have a public inquiry within this timeframe highlights the scale and prominence of this project and how important this is to us as a football club, to Tesco and Knowsley as our partners.

We recognize that the project is a very emotive and significant development in a number of ways.  Much of the case centres the regeneration of Kirkby and there are very few people who wouldn’t acknowledge that there is a need for regeneration. A project of this scale would give Kirkby and its surrounding areas a huge lift, a shot in the arm that might not come around again for a considerable time. To me, that has to be a very powerful argument in our favour, particularly in tough economic times. We have a project that is going to create jobs, wealth, civic pride and identity – it seems to me to be a tough decision to deny that opportunity. 

From the Club’s point of view, this is a fantastic opportunity, an opportunity that hasn’t come along to the same extent at any previous time in our history. It is an opportunity that we believe doesn’t exist anywhere else in the City and so we have an obligation to grasp it, make the most of it and make sure we deliver it. That’s our intention.

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