Much Hoole village sports plans put on hold over tennis-versus-football wrangle
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The proposed development – on land behind the recently-rebuilt Much Hoole Village Memorial Hall – had been recommended for refusal by South Ribble Borough Council planning officers, after Sport England said there was insufficient proof that the current tennis courts were no longer in demand.
The sports-promoting organisation objected to the creation of the so-called “multi-use games area” (MUGA) on that basis – and also wanted details about the type of playing surface being planned and the layout of a new sports pavilion building, which also forms part of the vision for the site.
However, members of the council’s planning committee were served with a long list of reasons why locals thought the new facility should be built – and so deferred their decision on the application to see if the concerns raised could be overcome.
Claire Sutton, the village hall trustee leading the MUGA project, told the meeting that tennis had not been played regularly on the trio of courts since an associated club closed down around seven years ago “after a long decline”. She added that random surveys over the summer had found “no use” of the facilities, although she acknowledged that “anecdotal evidence” suggested that one court was played on “occasionally”.
The meeting heard that the courts were in need of repair, but Ms. Sutton said that there was “no appetite” for that work locally if the three surfaces were “unlikely to be used”. She noted that an online community survey had shown “a clear preference for [a facility offering] five-a-side football, football training, tennis and netball – with the football options being most popular”.
The government-founded Sport England – which has responded to several submissions of evidence in relation to the plans – requested a “robust needs assessment” of the tennis courts, as it remains unconvinced that they are surplus to requirements and that there is a demand for football and netball on the Liverpool Old Road site.
However, the agent for the application, Richard Bramley – himself a villager – said that the evidence being sought from a group of volunteers was “unreasonable”, adding that it was difficult to “prove a negative” and show that the courts were no longer required. In one written response from the village hall committee, they said that while their evidence was clearly not enough to satisfy Sport England, it was based on their own “common sense” conclusions.
The new village hall opened in August 2021 after locals generated £480,000 from more than a decade of fundraising for the project. South Ribble Borough Council provided a £150,000 loan and £50,000 grant to get the project over the line.
Chair of the village hall trustees, Howard Davidson, appealed to the planning committee to “allow local demand [and] enthusiasm to overcome Sport England’s concerns”
Committee member Cllr Haydn Williams said that there was “nothing better than local knowledge…and if [this] is what the locals say they want…then that’s what they should get”. However, he said that, beyond the issue of need and demand, the other matters outlined by Sport England did need addressing -and warned that the plans did not currently demonstrate that the proposed playing surfaces were “fit for purpose”.
His committee colleague, Cllr Mary Green, added that several issues had been left “up in the air” by the application – including whether the floodlights for the facility would have an impact on nearby households.
However, Cllr Will Adams said that the Sport England objection amounted to a “technicality” and added that the project would be “of great benefit to the community”.
Advising the committee that if they were minded to approve the proposal, Sport England’s concerns still needed to be addressed, council planning manager Catherine Thomas suggested a deferral in order to allow the opportunity to “resolve” them. The application will be brought back before members at a later date.