Could Merton funds help pay for AFCW’s new stadium?

We hear whispers of disturbing developments in the saga of planning approval for AFC Wimbledon’s stadium in Plough Lane.

The application was granted initial approval by Merton planners back in early December, but there is still no sign of the documents having been passed on to the Mayor of London (Stage 2 referral). This would normally take place a matter of weeks after a borough planning hearing, we understand. The size and location of the Plough Lane site close to the Wandsworth border means that the mayor has the power to ratify – or reject – the scheme.

So why the delay? The bundle of documents submitted to the Mayor has to include information about the S106 agreements, which may be causing problems as Merton, Wandsworth and Galliard Homes wrangle over who pays – and gets – what. Merton has so far appeared eager to accept whatever meagre morsels Galliards and AFCW are prepared to toss their way (9.6% affordable housing, anyone? Against the borough target of 40%…), while Wandsworth seem more prepared to play hardball on behalf of their residents.

But most disturbing are whispers of an altogether more serious issue being fought out between the council and developers: who will foot the bill for building the foundations of AFC Wimbledon’s dream stadium?

The football club and Galliard Homes, you’d think. Afterall, they are the ones who came forward with this plan. But there’s a complication. Not only is the stadium being built to a vastly superior specification than is necessary for a football club the size of AFCW – with ambitions to expand the stadium from 11,000 seats initially up to whopping 20,000 – but it is also being built on a flood plain.

In order to win planning approval, the scheme has to not only not increase flooding risk on the site, but it has to actively reduce flooding risk. Not cheap, from a construction point of view, you would imagine.

Throw in the ‘generous’ offer of Galliard Homes to hand over the freehold of the stadium gratis to the London Borough of Merton once construction is complete, and you can see a perfect storm brewing…

  • Why would Galliard Homes pull out all the stops to build a top-spec facility that is then handed over for free?
  • Would it not be tempting to build to the lowest possible spec, cutting corners where possible?
  • Would it be so unlikely that the developers are asking Merton to contribute financially to the build? Given the cosy relationship between the council and developers, as per this brag from cllr Alambritis, we’d have to say no!

Whispers in the environs of Plough Lane, amount to the effect that approval for the project has stalled while AFC Wimbledon’s developer pal Galliard Homes tries to bulldoze Merton Borough Council – which is on the verge of  cutting £5m from essential social care services because of budgetary restraints – into contributing to the construction costs.

Imagine the local outrage should our cashstrapped council, that can apparently no longer afford to fund local adult education services, meals on wheels for the elderly and isolated, mental health support for the vulnerable, respite services for carers, social work etc etc, then miraculously deliver the big bucks required to dig a hole in the ground for the sake of a football club!

So are the rumours true? Who knows: our council is not renowned for its transparency. But in the meantime, AFC Wimbledon has introduced an element of realism to its stadium scheme, admitting it can’t actually afford to build the facility it would like.

Rather than kicking off with 11,000 seats, that scale is being reduced to less than 10,000 to save money. Given that the club’s average home match attendance this season sits at less than 3,850, a smaller stadium is probably much better suited to the needs of League 2 AFCW.

Of course at the same time a smaller stadium will inevitably generate less in the way of revenue including for stadium naming rights, sponsorship, ticket and catering sales. From the residents’ point of view, a smaller stadium also means less in the way of disruption on matchdays.

But if reducing the size leads to knock-on commercial effects, does there come a point when that planning approval becomes essentially meaningless because the business plan no longer stacks up?