Posted: August 18, 2013 By:

Don Valley – Is demolition really the best solution?

First of all, I should declare my interest in this issue. I moved to Sheffield way back in 1989 specifically to work on the (structural) design of Don Valley Stadium. It was one of my first jobs, and one that I’m still very proud of.

I was therefore gutted when I heard that Sheffield City Council are planning to demolish the stadium, barely a year since the heady days of Jess Ennis and London 2012, and less than 25 years since it was built (surely the design life was at least double this?). To me it just sends out all the wrong messages in terms of sporting legacy and sustainability (in all its various forms). If Don valley is demolished, we’ll almost certainly never have another world class facility like it in the city, and a generation of aspiring athletes will be significantly disadvantaged, if not lost forever. Claims that Woodbourn Road is a comparable facility merely insult our intelligence.

There appears to be a general lack of both political will and imagination from politicians (at both local and national level, and across the three main political parties), sporting bodies and SIV, the company which runs the stadium. Demolition of the Stadium will be a massive backward step for both sport in the city and the city itself, and will make Sheffield’s title of ‘National City of Sport’ laughable.

I accept the financial situation is far from ideal (although it’s potentially not as bad as the Council suggests), and I don’t pretend to have any easy answers, but surely the need to maintain and upgrade the stadium can’t have come as a surprise to anyone, and some funding should have been ringfenced for this purpose. Income is clearly a major challenge, as it almost certainly is for most, if not all, athletics stadia, but that doesn’t mean we should just wave the white flag and knock them all down. Clearly new income streams need to be found, whilst existing income streams need to be maximised.

Take pop concerts as one example of how existing income streams could be maximised – the stadium has attracted some huge acts over the years, and correspondingly huge crowds (typically 50,000) to both the stadium and the city, but in the last 5 years or so there have been just a handful of concerts (notably U2 and the Arctic Monkeys). So why have bands stopped coming, and how can we get them back?

Unfortunately, the golden opportunity to build on the huge popularity of London 2012 has now been missed – surely a post-olympic athletics meeting with a generous sprinkling of Team GB’s medal winners competing would have filled the stadium twice over, giving people unable to get (or afford) London 2012 tickets an opportunity to share in the excitement first hand. Interestingly, £10m of olympic legacy money is to be spent on the Sheffield headquarters of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, which is to be based at Graves Tennis and Leisure Centre. With some joined up thinking, this money could surely have been better spent on providing these facilities at Don Valley, and upgrading the stadium at the same time, as opposed to starting from scratch?

The only hope appears to be offered by former athlete Lewis Samuel and community sports coach Rob Creasey, leaders of the group who recently submitted an application asking city bosses to transfer ownership of the venue to them so it can be run as a community asset (click on the link below for further details).

Indeed, running stadia as community facilities which don’t just open up on matchday is nothing new, particulary in football (although in fairness, Don Valley stadium is open every day of the week, even if it is significantly under-utilised). Hull’s KC Stadium is a good example of this initiative (incorporating public sports facilities and a Learning Zone run by Hull College, although admittedly with income from top flight football and rugby league clubs), as well as the Community Stadium planned for York, and more recent proposals coming on the back of the ‘Community Right to Bid’ regulations introduced in 2012. Whilst obviously based on football stadia, the report ‘Grounds for Benefit: Developing and protecting community benefit in football stadia’ is worth a read in terms of community ownership, and operation, of stadia. Published by ‘Supporters Direct’ in early 2013, this report presents five case studies of protecting community and supporter interests in football stadia (click the link below).

So, let’s hope the Council give the community group a chance (not to mention their full support) when they make their decision next month, and give them 6 months to develop a sustainable business model. Otherwise, what is Cameron’s Big Society all about?

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