Work on a major £35m redevelopment of Headingley stadium could start within weeks, after Leeds council’s cabinet today approved an emergency deal to safeguard the long-term future of international cricket in the city.
As previously reported, planning permission for the development of both the rugby and cricket sides of the stadium was granted two months ago, but work was delayed due to a lack of funding. Earlier this month, Leeds City Council revealed that it has brokered an agreement with a private financial services firm which will provide the bulk of the funding for the project.
Although no taxpayer money will be involved, the council is effectively underwriting the deal. It had previously looked at offering a £4m loan to the cricket club, but the offer was withdrawn.
Leeds Rhinos is also pledging £5m to the revamp.
At today’s executive board meeting at Leeds Civic Hall, councillors across the parties voted to rush through approval of the new deal so that final agreements can be signed between the four key parties, and work can start by the end of June.
Martin Farrington, the council’s director of city development, explained that the south stand at the stadium has to be developed in order for the ground to meet the criteria to be a Cricket World Cup venue in 2019. The absence of a deal would expose the club to a “significant risk” of losing out, he told colleagues.
He said the executive board’s approval paves the way for final agreements to be signed by the summer.
The timescale was “critical and twofold” he said, as initial “soft stripping” work at the ground needs to start in preparation for construction work to begin by September this year.
A request had been submitted ahead of the meeting by councillor Mark Dobson, an independent councillor for Garforth who quit the Labour group just weeks ago, for the decision to be scrutinised by a cross-party watchdog panel before it is signed off.
However the board decided to bypass the process, with councillor Andrew Carter, leader of the opposition Conservative group, noting that “it will delay the process and will help nobody at all in my view”.
Councillor Stewart Golton, leader of the Lib Dem group, agreed with the call-in request and reserved his party’s position.
He said: “There is a certain amount of risk to the council...the secret is making sure that it’s a well managed risk. For the benefits it can bring to the city, it’s worth the risk.”
However he stressed that if the authority was “confident” in its decision, then it “shouldn’t be shying away from a certain level of transparency”and a scrutiny inquiry could be carried out “flexibly and promptly” if needs be.
As part of the deal, the council will lease the new facilities from the investor.
Yorkshire County Cricket Club and Leeds Rhinos will then take sub-leases from the council to cover the cost of the development in full.
To protect and reduce the risk to the council, both clubs will have to provide adequate security on both assets and income should there be any default in their rent.
Councillor Judith Blake, leader of the council, admitted at today’s meeting that “risk is a major factor, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been absolutely scrupulous in looking at the way that we want to take this forward”.
She said that “time pressure” meant the authority had to move in haste to some extent.
But she added: “We have to move forward and provide the facilities we need for the city going forward.”
Councillor Carter said there was a “compelling” case for the council’s intervention as the cricket and rugby clubs were “two significant contributors to the life of the city”.
He stressed the interests of Leeds Rhinos should not be overshadowed by those of the cricket club, and “the future of one impacts on the other”.
Coun Blake responded that the safeguarding of cricket and rugby in the city went “hand in hand”, as both were an “emotional” and vital part of the city’s story.
Speaking after today’s meeting, councillor Blake added: “I am pleased that executive board has backed the deal which we have arranged with a private third-party investor to fund the redevelopment of Headingley Carnegie Stadium.
“It’s vital for both the city and the region that Headingley continues to host high-class international and domestic sport. With the tight timescales which are involved for this work to begin, this route offers the best and most viable option moving forward.
“As part of this agreement, the cost of financing the development will be met by both the rugby and cricket clubs at no cost to the tax-payer.
“Headingley is a historic sporting venue recognised around the world. In hosting top-class matches it brings a large international profile and significant economic benefits to Leeds and the wider region. The impact of having elite sports men and women playing at Headingley is also in many ways bigger than the sports themselves. The power they have as role models to inspire young people in our communities cannot be underestimated and neither is the ability through their success from a personal and team perspective to instil great pride in our city.”
LEEDS RHINOS BOSS WELCOMES ‘SIGNIFICANT STEP’ IN REDEVELOPMENT VISION
Leeds Rhinos has pledged £5m towards the total cost of the stadium redevelopment.
The club’s chief executive Gary Hetherington said today: “This is really good news and a significant step towards our plan to bring the re-development of Headingley Carnegie Stadium to fruition.
“Councillor Judith Blake and her team at Leeds City Council are to be congratulated for managing what has been a very difficult and complex issue extremely well.
“Both Leeds Rhinos and Yorkshire County Cricket are grateful for their support and we now hope to make a final announcement in the near future.
“There are still a number of outstanding issues to be worked through but we are confident they can be addressed. It is a good day for the city, the county, Yorkshire County Cricket, Leeds Rhinos and Yorkshire Carnegie.”