How we achieved a Sports Ground for Wivenhoe

How it all began in 1993

Peter Hill

This is the story of how Broad Lane Sports Ground was acquired as a community sports ground.

View across the Wivenhoe Town's football stadium with the unfinished stand on the far side

View across the Wivenhoe Town’s football stadium with the unfinished stand on the far side

 This account is supported by a small selection of copies of minutes, reports and correspondence from that time that I, Peter Hill, founder Chairman of the Wivenhoe & District Sporting Facilities Trust (WDSFT), became involved in the saving of Wivenhoe Town Football Club (the ‘Dragons’) in 1993.

An eventful Town Council meeting on 20th December 1993

I remember turning up to a monthly meeting of the Wivenhoe Town Council on Monday 20th December 1993, 10 minutes late due to the train from London running late. I walked into the Town Council meeting room to discover the room full of people. Geoff Langsdon, Dave Whymark and many other Wivenhoe Town Football Club (WTFC) supporters had come to the meeting to seek the support of the Town Council in securing their future.

Article in the Gazette on 22nd December 1993

Article in the Gazette on 22nd December 1993

Geoff Langsdon, Campaign Director for WTFC, wrote to me after the meeting thanking me for my support although as a Council we were really only able to offer moral support. At that Council meeting I did however propose that a meeting should take place at my home, Toad Hall, to discuss ideas how to save the Club. Geoff’s letter (see Lttr -Langsdon to Hill-21Dec93), and this meeting which took place on 23rd December 1993 (see WTFC & Peter Hill 23Dec93) encouraged me to get involved and it became the start of a long journey which would keep me busy for the next 12 years.

WTFC’s desperate situation in 1993

Since 1990, David Watts had owned both the Football Club and 10 ½ acres of Broad Lane Ground and now, in 1993, wanted to sell them.

David Watts had been Managing Director of Wivenhoe Port Ltd, an importer of grain, coal, soya, and coal which was brought up to the Port site by river, unloaded at the wharf and carried away in heavy lorries up through Wivenhoe’s narrow streets.

In 1988 the company decided it either needed to expand, or sell up.  At a Planning Appeal the Inspector refused the expansion option, and found in favour of the outline planning consent to build 300 houses, which had previously been refused by Colchester Borough Council. (See the story of this Planning Inquiry which is available by clicking here).

It took a long time for Wivenhoe Port Ltd to cease trading and the site to be sold.  One consequence of this was that David Watts wanted to sell his investment in Wivenhoe Town Football Club and the Ground.

The price he was initially seeking was £250,000 although later, he slowly came down to £150,000. This was the sum the Football Club supporters needed to raise if the Club were to remain in existence and have a pitch to play on and facilities to go with it.

Discussions between David Watts and the supporters became much more tense during 1993, and towards the end of that year had reached a low point when he was threatening to lock the players and fans out of the Broad Lane Ground as there seemed very little chance of him getting this money.

Analysis of Options and a Strategy on 23rd December 1993

On 23rd December 1993, Geoff Langsdon, Dave Whymark, Harry Welsh and I sat down to go through the options. It was clear there was a lot of passion for football. My inclination was to think about broadening the use for the Ground and gain support from various bodies by so doing.

We agreed on one thing which could be done immediately and that was to launch a Campaign Fund.

A final football match on 1st January 1994

The last match for Wivenhoe Town Football Club was scheduled for 1st January 1994 against St Albans as the following day, 2nd January 1994 was when David Watts was going to lock the gates and board up the Clubhouse.

WTFC 1994

As David Watts technically owned Wivenhoe Town Football Club, as well as the football ground, a new club was created, called Wivenhoe Town Football Club 1994 and Geoff Langsdon found himself no longer Campaign Director but its Chairman.

Earlier in 1993, the Football Club worked out a temporary financial arrangement with David Watts under which they paid £100 per week plus an additional sum of £200 per week towards the future purchase of the Club and the Ground.  The Club really struggled to find this money although a fighting fund set up by the Club helped enormously.

This arrangement had at least given the Club some breathing space to allow the team to continue playing, and for the Club to work out a plan to secure its future.

Various meetings were held during 1994 to discuss possibilities for raising £150,000. This included the idea of floating the Football Club as a Company and asking people to invest in it.

Colchester Borough Council refused to help 

Geoff Langsdon requested Graham White, Director of Administration, at Colchester Borough Council to ask for their financial support. It was considered by the Borough’s Policy and Resources Committee on 22nd November 1994.

This request for financial support was refused with only the 2 Wivenhoe Councillors voting in favour and 11 voting against. This result was disappointing for everybody.

Clearly a new approach based upon a different concept was required.

A charitable trust was proposed

Although the Football Club were keen on the idea of forming a company and some still wanted to talk about people ‘investing’ in it, it seemed to me that a Trust was required that would hold the facilities for public benefit and for the Ground to be promoted as a community sports ground. I suggested that this Trust could in time become a registered charity with consequential benefits of up to 90% relief on business rates, a not inconsiderable benefit to a financially struggling football club.

Lots of meetings and telephone calls took place that year. David Watts needed to know that the Football Club were still aiming to raise the money. Geoff worked really hard whilst the Football Club continued to play at Broad Lane. Meetings were held with individual Councillors as well as Borough officers.

One problem was the strain on the Football Club’s accounts of paying players a wage to play for the Dragons, as well as the costs of playing League matches with the need for coaches to take players and the dedicated fans to away matches, and the costs imposed by the League for the referee and line officials.

Discussions continued too about how a Trust could work. This was clearly going to be a difficult balancing act!

1995 – Detailed discussions with CBC

Whilst there was support from the officers (particularly Graham White, Steve Clarke and Keith Nicholson) to the idea of the Council buying the 10 ½ acre site of the football ground, but they had suggested that a realistic valuation was only circa £50,000 – £60,000.

They accepted that the stadium and the club-house was worth far more if someone had to build them anew but that this would only apply if someone actually wanted the stadium and clubhouse of course.

The other problem affecting the valuation was that the stadium had been erected without planning permission and restrictive covenants had been breached in its erection.  More complications.

Further complications involving Wivenhoe Youth Football Club

A further complication was Wivenhoe Youth Football Club. They owned the 7 acres of land behind the 10 ½ acres owned by WTFC / David Watts. There were boundary issues and access rights over WTFC land; their car park was owned by WTFC and promises had been made to them about changing rooms. In return, WYFC mowed all of the grass behind the stadium.

These issues complicated matters for the officers at the Borough Council in particular.

March 1995 – Legal advice sought

In March 1995, Graham White as Director of Administration sought legal advice on issues relating to valuation, restrictive covenants and third party rights.

Eventually we agreed with the officers that they would recommend to the Councillors that the Council could acquire the site for £80,000 and lease it back at 6% per annum.

The officers though were reluctant to consider leasing the ground back to WTFC directly but wanted to deal with another body with a wider community purpose.  The idea to form what had now been agreed to be called as the Wivenhoe & District Sporting Facilities Trust had gained momentum.

We still needed though to raise more money than the £80,000 we had agreed with the officers to buy out David Watts.

University approached for funding

Geoff approached the University to see if they could put some money in. The late Tony Rich was Registrar at the time. He was supportive and agreed that the University could make a contribution of £10,000, with the condition though that the University could hold important matches at the Ground. (See the letter confirming the £10,000 contribution and the conditions: Lttr Uni £10k – 5Jul95).

He also said he would ask Andrew Nightingale to join us to represent the University. Andrew later did join us and proved himself a real asset.

Contributors to the fund

A number of individuals were approached to see if they were willing to help out with cash donations.

In the end, the following people each added £2,500 to the fund: Peter Hill, Geoff Langsdon, Richard Perry, Dave Whymark, Harry Welsh, and Steve Sharman added £500.  A total of £13,000. A few others were approached but declined.

Wivenhoe Town Supporters Club added £1,000, and the Football Club had been paying David Watts various sums of money since January the previous year. This eventually amounted to around £6,000.

In July 1995, Wivenhoe Town Council agreed to add £2,500 to the fund. See letter:  WTC lttr July95 of £2,500

A crisis meeting at Toad Hall on 7th March 1995

Faced with a ‘final’ deadline of 31st May 1995, set by David Watts for just short of three months away, an important meeting was held at my home, Toad Hall, to discuss options for the future of WTFC. Geoff Langsdon chaired the meeting. In addition to Geoff and myself, there was also: Dave Whymark, Andrew Nightingale (representing the University), our solicitor Oliver Peacock from Greenwood Page & Ward, the Club’s accountant John Seymour, Richard Perry from the Flag Inn who used to supply beer to the Club, Cllr Bob Richardson (Town & Borough Cllr) Eddie Tolliday (a former President WTFC) and Vic Williamson (a former Chairman of WTFC)

A lot of discussion took place how to raise the money necessary to buy out David Watts.  CBC seemed likely to approve £80,000 and the University had offered £10,000 plus, at this stage a few of us had committed to giving £2,500 each.

A first draft of a Business Plan, drawn up by myself and Geoff Langsdon, was also reviewed. A second draft was planned for discussion at the next meeting on 24th March.

A broad plan was agreed based around the idea of the Wivenhoe & District Sporting Facilities Trust (WDSFT) although there were still some concerns by several people about the role of the Football Club and whether it would dominate the Trust, or be dominated by it.  This issue would re-surface a few weeks later.

May 1995 – Town Council elections

On top of all this, local elections were upon us. I was re-standing for election. Geoff said he would be interested in standing. Only Len Horner agreed to re-stand from all the people who had previously served on the Town Council.

At our first Town Council meeting in May, I was the only Councillor with any experience, apart from Len Horner who had only been co-opted on to the Council 18 months previously.

I found myself being elected as Mayor (for the second time as I had previously been Town Mayor in 1987/88), and Len Horner became Deputy Mayor. I was pleased that Geoff Langsdon was elected on to the Council.   There was the challenge of getting Geoff and 6 other new councillors up to speed in the workings of the Town Council, its duties and responsibilities.

Deadline of 31st May 1995 looms

To keep the pressure on us all, David Watts’s ‘final’ deadline of 31st May was fast approaching. Our time was running out. Having been waiting since January 1994 for the £150, 000 the sum he wanted for the Club and the Ground, it was understandable he was getting impatient.

Geoff did a good job in appeasing him by saying we were actively working on getting the money together. We were, but not as much as David Watts wanted, or we had hoped.

By this time, the Borough officers had agreed to buy the Ground for £80,000 although were still concerned about various matters like the restrictive covenants relating to the Stadium.  Despite these, Graham White felt able to write a detailed report to the Policy & Resources Committee recommending approval. This report went before the Committee on Tuesday 6th June.

At this stage, the main problem was persuading the Councillors who were reluctant to support the Football Club to change their view although the idea of interposing a Sporting Trust between the Borough Council and the Football Club appeared attractive to them.  Geoff and I had meetings with Borough Council Leaders Cllrs Steve Cawley and Colin Sykes, and we both wrote to other councillors to get their support – see my letter to fellow Town Councillor Borough Cllr Bob Richardson outlining our vision:  Briefing Note to Cllr Bob Richardson CBC – June1995

6th June 1995 – A significant meeting of the Borough’s Policy & Resources Committee

This was really a crunch meeting. David Watts had agreed to extend his deadline by a few days to hear the result of this meeting. Graham White, Director of Administration had prepared a 10 page report detailing every facet of our discussions with the Borough Council. At the same time, Geoff and I wrote to all three political groups outlining our vision for a community sports ground based around the stadium as a home for Wivenhoe Town Football Club.   

At the meeting, Councillor Bob Richardson moved an amendment to change the earlier decision of the Council to refuse financial support which was agreed. We lived to fight another day! And the officers were mandated to continue negotiations with us.

Cold feet – 8th July 1995

In the first week of July, I had two meetings with Harry Welsh, President of the Football Club, and Dave Whymark, former Chairman of the Club. They still had concerns about the future for the Football Club and this proposed Trust and weren’t sure how it would work. I wrote a detailed letter to them to answer all of their points and for them to mull over with others in the Club.   See letter:  Lttr Hill to Welsh & Whymark – July 1995

The Isthmian League

On top of all this the football league in which the Dragons played, the Isthmian League, were getting increasingly anxious about the Football Club ad its ability to play at Broad Lane Sports Ground for the following football season. They kept putting additional pressure on the Football Club because of its apparent lack of security of tenure at Broad Lane.  The League were most unhelpful in my view and not at all sympathetic to the Football Club’s situation.

I took up cudgels with the League Secretary in defence of the Football Club when he was threatening to fine the Club because of non-compliance with their rules. This was the last thing the Club needed.

18th August 1995 – Wivenhoe Tennis Club join the WDSFT party

This was a much needed breakthrough. It demonstrated that the new Wivenhoe & District Sporting Facilities Trust (WDSFT) was serious about Broad Lane Sports Ground becoming home for more than just the Football Club.  The meeting and conversations I had had with members of the Club were paying dividends.

The Tennis Club had been using courts at University for 25 years but these were no longer available for hire. The Club had since re-located to playing tennis at Shrub End. See their letter to me:  Lttr Wivenhoe Tennis Club agree to join WDSFT 28Aug1995

The Tennis Club later agreed to add £1,000 to the Fund as a goodwill gesture. This act of faith was wonderful as it was not until five years later that the £125,500 was raised to install 4 floodlit tennis courts at Broad Lane.

29th August 1995 – CBC meeting expresses concern over finances of WTFC

A meeting of the CBC Policy & Resources Committee hear concerns about the finances of the Football Club but are pleased with progress on establishing WDSFT that would have 9 trustees with only a maximum of 4 people from the Football Club.   They also wanted an annual rent of £5,000 to be guaranteed by the trustees of WDSFT.  Importantly  the meeting did agree to instruct Graham White to begin discussions with David Watts how CBC could buy the Ground for £80,000 in what Graham said, in a letter to Geoff and I after the meeting, was a ‘somewhat complicated’ transaction as we also had to simultaneously agree to buy the Football Club from him for £70,000.

More meetings in September / October  

Geoff and I had detailed discussions with various officers as Steve Clarke, Head of Estates Services and Keith Nicholson, Head of Leisure Services, Andrew Weavers, Head of Legal Services, our lawyer, Oliver Peacock and other key individuals as Dave Whymark, Harry Welsh, and Andrew Nightingale from the University who had become involved by then.  A key issue was the 99 year lease that was being proposed between CBC and WDSFT.

David Watts, understandably, wanted a simultaneous agreement that he would receive the £70,000 balance. It was proving tricky getting this money paid over to our solicitors.

16th November 1995 – the first formal meeting of Wivenhoe & District Sporting Facilities Trust

The first formal meeting of the Trust was held on 16th November 1995. I was elected Chairman and Geoff Langsdon as Deputy Chairman. See minutes of that first meeting:  Minutes 1st Mtg WDSFT 16Nov95.  At that meeting the Trust Objects were agreed – see Trust Objects:  WDSFT Objects

Later, in January 1996, the Tennis Club contributed £1,000 towards the acquisition of Broad Lane Sports Ground and in consequence were invited to have a nominative trustee on the board WDSFT.

15th February 1996 – Deal reached with David Watts

I invited David Watts to my home on 15th February to meet the trustees of WDSFT. After an amicable discussion, we agreed a deal with him whereby:

Diagram of the cash flows

– the land and the buildings were sold to CBC for £80,000,

– WDSFT simultaneously entered into a lease with CBC on the 10.5 acre site for 99 years

– and WTFC 1994 bought the rights to the football club for an undisclosed sum.

We had succeeded in saving the Football Club and its Ground, and secured a site for Wivenhoe Tennis Club in the future to have 4 floodlit tennis courts. This was the beginnings of our grand vision to develop a prestigious sports facility at Broad Lane for the benefit of inhabitants of the surrounding area as well as to broaden the range of sporting activities there for the benefit of residents living in Wivenhoe and in the adjoining local area.

The Money

WDSFT raised the required money to buy out David Watts with the money from CBC, contributions from WTFC 1994 and its supporters, the University of Essex who contributed £10k, Wivenhoe Tennis Club £1,000), and the following bodies and individuals who each contributed £2,500 Wivenhoe Town Council, WDSFT Chairman Cllr Peter Hill, Geoff Langsdon (Chairman WTFC), Dave Whymark, Harry Welsh (President of the Football Club, Harry Welsh), and Richard Perry (landlord of The Flag Inn). In return, WDSFT got a lease on the Ground for 99 years.

Oliver Peacock submitted his invoice for legal work of £616.87 but agreed to reduce it to just under £450 which Cllr Bob Richardson very generously agreed to pay.

Press Release – 18th February 1996

Just over two years after the Football Club approached Wivenhoe Town Council for their help to save the Football Club, everything finally fell into place, and we were able to announce the deal in a Press Release – See attached:  Press Release 18Feb96 Broad Lane Acquired

Geoff Langsdon had achieved what he set out to do and that was to preserve Broad Lane as home for the Dragons; I was motivated to establish a community sports ground for Wivenhoe, and David Watts finally accepted a sum lower than his previously stated objective £150,000.

WDSFT first Annual Report

The Trustees ended their first year on 28th February 1997 and published their report dated March 1997.  See copy of the report: 1st Annual Report WDSFT – March 1997

Charity Commission in 1996

I submitted our application to the Charity Commission on 10th March 1996 to become a registered charity.  We had established WDSFT using the Charity Commission’s Model Constitution for a Charity suitably amended for an organisation established to promote sporting facilities.  This constitution included the rules concerning trustees and the governing the running of WDSFT.

A lot of correspondence and discussions were had with the Charity Commission. A principal concern of theirs surrounded the opportunity of the public to use the facilities.  The Charity Commission made the point that we needed to demonstrate that the Trust would operate the Ground and its facilities for the public benefit rather than for the benefit of a particular club or clubs. Only then would the Trust be considered for registration as a charity.

Eventually, in July 1997, I managed to persuade an officer of the Charity Commission to visit Wivenhoe and meet WTFC President Harry Welsh and myself to view the premises and discuss our plans. We were able to clarify many issues with him. This resulted in final tweaks to the Trust Deed which the Trustees agreed on 18th July 1997.

The Charity Commission also asked that we revise the objects to read as follows:

The Trust is established for the benefit of the inhabitants of Wivenhoe and the surrounding area by providing and assisting in the provision of facilities for recreation, sports and leisure-time occupation in the interests of social welfare and with the objects of improving the conditions of life for the said inhabitants.

WDSFT became a charity in March 1998

These changes seemed to clinch matters and on 26th March 1998, WDSFT became a registered charity (no. 1068881).

15th July 2000 – £126,000 raised for 4 new all-weather tennis courts

With help of an £80,000 grant from the Sports Lottery, £40,000 from the sale of a piece of land to Transco and various fund-raising activities including a Grand Ball in the Moot Hall, John Laidlaw’s epic cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats which raised £1,068, and a magnificent sum of £2,000 from Cllr Mary Hignell’s Wivenhoe Mayor’s Charity Fund, the money was raised for 4 all-weather flood-lit tennis courts.

Construction work was completed in the summer of 2001 and officially opened in September that year by Colchester Mayor Cllr Mike Hogg.

Summer 2006 – Stepped down from chairing WDSFT

I retired from the chairmanship of WDSFT in the summer of 2006, 10 years after we founded the Trust and 12 years after the whole story began. A lot of intense discussions and meetings had taken place in my dining room at Toad Hall over these years.

A celebration with the Mayors of Wivenhoe and Colchester, Cllrs Richard Davies and Chris Garnett, over raising £126,000 for the new tennis courts.

A celebration with the Mayors of Wivenhoe and Colchester, Cllrs Richard Davies and Chris Garnett, over raising £126,000 for the new tennis courts.

Sadly Geoff Langsdon left Wivenhoe shortly after the Trust was formed and Andrew Nightingale became Deputy Chairman, and remained so during my term of office. Mark Freeman worked hard along with many other people from each of the various Clubs to achieve a great deal during this period.

We coined a phrase to describe what we all aspired to achieve and that was a Sporting Co-operative where all the clubs contributed towards the costs of running Broad Lane Sports Ground with money and volunteer effort.

Everybody who had played a part during these 12 years, and there were lots of people, far more than those I have mentioned in this write-up, should all be proud of what was achieved.

Peter Hill
March 2018

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