Report of the Barnet Residents Association, July 2023
Planning Application 23/1082/FUL, Barnet Elizabethans Rugby Football Club
This report considers three aspects of this planning application
- Rugby – a sport in crisis
- The threat to the green belt
- Use of Council-owned green space for competing activities
Rugby Union – a sport in crisis
Participation in rugby union has been in steady decline for several years, from 260K adults playing twice or more a month in 2016 to 195K in 2020 (Source: Rugby union participation England 2016-2021, Statista.com) The decline continued during COVID and is expected to recover slightly. This steady fall alongside other recent developments have been indicative of a major crisis in rugby union football.
During the 8 months leading up to June 2023, three major professional rugby union clubs have gone into administration, Worcester, Wasps and most recently, London Irish. Whilst each club had different experiences, it seems reasonable to conclude that the collapse of these clubs resulted from them being substantially over- committed financially.
Alongside these developments, there has been an emerging threat to the sport in recent years of early-stage dementia, thought to be caused by repeated shocks to the brain experienced in playing this very physical game. Failure by the game’s authorities to acknowledge and respond to evidence of this awful condition faced by those who have played rugby union has led to class action lawsuits being brought by large groups of players. The first of these was announced in December 2020 when professional players first announced their intention to launch a class action lawsuit against the bodies that governed the game, claiming negligence. A similar lawsuit specific to the amateur game was announced in January 2023 by 55 former amateur players. This latter announcement was particularly devastating to the prospects for amateur rugby. In the words of the Guardian at the time ‘their involvement means the issue isn’t just for people you see on television. It has reached right into your local rugby club’.
It is inevitable that some parents, alarmed by the publicity given to these events, will keep their sons (or daughters) away from the game. A rule change being introduced later this year to limit the legal tackle height to the waist in community rugby will hopefully prevent current and future players from being struck down by this life- threatening condition, but the publicity being accorded to this change will itself remind parents of the dangers in this very physical sport. The very future for amateur rugby in its present form is threatened.
The threat to the green belt
In recommending that this planning application should be rejected, Council planners have concentrated on the impact on the green belt. In summary, these refer to concerns about the proposed scale of the clubhouse, excessive car parking and additional hard surfacing, potential damage to protected oak trees, and the impact of twelve 15-metre-high floodlight gantries which will result in excessive light pollution which will be a threat to the bat population.
There is absolutely no doubt about the presence of bats. The Trustees of the Barnet Environment Centre have been monitoring bats on their neighbouring reserve for many years. They report that there are colonies of common and soprano pipistrelle bats which nest in the trees alongside the allotment plots. The Trustees hold regular ‘bat walks’ where enthusiasts can monitor the bats’ activities. One of the Trustees has been trained in the use of specialist electronic equipment to monitor the bats.
As well as the impact upon the green belt, there will be considerable disturbance to nearby residents. There will be the noise and vehicular movements while the work is going on and after the project is complete, there will be light pollution from the floodlights potentially continuing until 10PM, and there will regularly be large numbers of vehicles heading down Byng Road to the 120 new parking spaces.
Use of Council-owned green space for competing activities
The Byng Road fields are used for many leisure activities as well as rugby including the Medieval Festival, walkers and joggers, dog-walkers, the allotment holders, picnickers, and those just enjoying the solitude (particularly valued by local people during COVID). The Council has a responsibility for managing such competing activities to the satisfaction of all users, and the terms of the lease granted to the Rugby Club makes clear that others may use the area set aside for rugby pitches when rugby is not being played.
The Council’s approach in dealing with competing activities on Council-owned land was described by Cllr. A Naqvi very recently in an email dated 30th June.
'In closing, I would like to clarify that the Administration's 'Borough of Fun' concept is about providing residents with opportunities that reflect the types of activities and services local people want to have available to them in their local area. We do not intend to be prescriptive in this regard and intend to be led by what residents tell us is of interest to them. As such, it is vital that residents, such as yourself, engage with our consultative processes moving forward, otherwise we will not be able to capture an accurate representation of what mix and range of activities local people actually want to see in Barnet.'
This consultative approach has been put into practice in considering the future of the Great North Leisure Park and has led to the decision to redevelop the Finchley Lido Leisure Centre on its existing site.
We are not calling for the Council to initiate a community consultation in the case of the Byng Road fields where many activities have peacefully co-existed for many years, but the approval of this planning application in its current form would clearly prioritise the aspirations of the rugby club over those of other users. High Barnet Councillors Cllr. Emma Whysall and Cllr. Paul Edwards have tried to overcome one source of potential problems by bringing together representatives of the rugby club with those of the Committee charged with organising the annual medieval festival, but there are other groups whose interests need to be addressed. Furthermore, any agreements reached through such an informal process cannot be enforced. They should have formed part of the original planning application.
- A flourishing future for rugby union on which this ambitious project is predicated is deeply uncertain
- If this project goes ahead as proposed in the planning application, this section of green belt will be seriously undermined
- It is inevitable that local residents will suffer considerable disturbance both during the work and subsequently
- Award of planning approval will mean that other users of the Byng Road fields who consequently find their leisure activities jeopardised will have no clear form of redress