Maidstone United accuses council of ‘not appreciating’ football club as Gallagher Stadium expansion row boils over
PUBLISHED: 15:34 09 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:34 09 November 2017
The local authority refused to sell the club a narrow strip of scrub land, which formed part of a project to increase capacity at its home ground
Maidstone United has accused the borough council of “not understanding or appreciating” what the football club means to the town after refusing to sell it a narrow strip of scrub land, potentially scuppering plans to expand its home ground.
The strip, which is just two metres wide, is landlocked between the Gallagher Stadium and a path leading to Whatman Park.
It formed part of a project to develop the west side of the stadium and increase the capacity up to the 5,000 required by the Football League.
The Stones are currently flying high in fifth position in the National League - one division below the Football League - but would be denied promotion to the money-spinning fourth tier were they unable to increase capacity at the stadium.
Much to the club’s anger, the town hall decided last week it would only offer a lease agreement, wanting to retain control of the land for its own “strategic” purposes.
Club co-owner Terry Casey said: “This [decision] is a big disappointment as we have been in discussion and negotiation with the council for almost a year.
“It means we will have to produce yet more drawings and calculations and it may jeopardise our application to be allowed to compete in the play-offs and ultimately to be eligible to join the Football League.
“The football club went to great lengths to offer a fair market price but Maidstone Borough Council, despite agreeing the land is surplus to requirements, insisted that they would only offer a lease agreement, as they deemed the strip to be ‘strategic’ and wanted to retain control.
“We explained at length and in detail that the Gallagher Stadium site is already saddled with numerous legal charges, covenants, easements, wayleaves and clawbacks.
“Each time we want to secure a grant or modify the use the legal and administrative costs are prohibitive.
“If we were to agree to a lease we would always be at the mercy of the council and it would make it impossible to raise financing for the future.
“We don’t feel that this is a fair and reasonable position for the club to be put into. It is deeply disappointing in terms of trust and support that the officers said they disagreed with our arguments.
“Regrettably it appears, yet again, that Maidstone Borough Council does not understand or appreciate what Maidstone United Football Club means to the town.
“We urge them to reconsider and are lobbying for the freehold sale option to be given due consideration.”
It is not the first time club and council have come to blows, after United sold their Athletic Ground in the town centre in 1988 and looked to splash some £400,000 on a site elsewhere in the borough only for the town hall to block planning permission.
Forced to share Dartford’s Watling Street ground, the club’s finances imploded, and by 1992, Maidstone had slumped into bankruptcy and became the last club to resign from the league.
It has enjoyed a buoyant revival, however, and bosses point out that after three promotions in four years, they have pumped more than £5m into the county town to ensure the stadium, which opened in 2012, meets growing league regulations.
They say the arena is one of the most popular leisure attractions in Maidstone, welcoming thousands of people every month, with attendances for home games rising year-on-year, to the point where the Stones are now the fifth best-supported club in the National League.
David Pickett, chairman of the council’s heritage, culture and leisure committee, said in response: “We are supportive of Maidstone United’s expansion plans however there is nothing in the council’s proposed course of action that prevents the club from pursuing further development.
“The only issue is that the land the football club plans to use has been identified as strategic due to its location near the river and towpath.
“The council has a disposal of land policy to protect its assets and the security of land and we are following this policy.
“A report was brought to committee on October 31 and a majority vote was made by councillors to uphold the recommendation to offer the land under a 99 year lease agreement.”