The plans are in – the return of standing?

Rail seats at a ground in Germany. Picture: Jon Darch

Rail seats at a ground in Germany. Picture: Jon Darch

Southend United’s proposed new stadium at Fossetts Farm will have the potential to incorporate safe standing.

Plans have finally been validated by Southend Council after six weeks of wrangling over an apparent missing form and disagreements about the planning fee.

The hefty design and access statement – essentially the booklet that outlines the plans – runs to more than 150 pages but All At Sea has waded through it on a Sunday afternoon so you don’t have to.

The news which will excite supporters is the potential to include a standing area to the back of the west stand, behind one goal. At present, the plans are for an all-seater stadium but the document suggests that, if legislation should change, this area could be converted to standing accommodation to house around 2,700 fans. This would result in some ‘seat kills’ in the adjacent corner sections – meaning those seats would not be in use because the view of the pitch would be obscured by standing supporters – but the number would be around 150 and probably not significant enough to act as a deterrent particularly in a stadium with such a sizeable capacity.

The bad news is the stadium would, as had been planned before, be phased. This means that three sides would be built first and the main north stand, which is to front Fossetts Way and incorporate a hotel and residential development, would be built later. The reason for this is funding. Ron Martin is hopeful that a significant hotel developer will get on board and pay for the stand. While this is a probability as long as the rest of the development gets built, it is by no means guaranteed, which will worry supporters.

This phasing means that for an unspecified amount of time, a large hoarding and temporary floodlights would run along one side of the stadium, temporary dugouts would be located along the opposite side and the players would be getting changed in portakabins. Not an ideal set-up and a state of affairs that will concern fans in case the north stand is delayed or funding falls through.

As is well known, the overall Fossetts Farm development will not only include a shiny new stadium for our heroes in blue, but considerable enabling development including a cinema, shops and restaurants, residential development, training facilities and two large academy domes which were bought about two years ago and are currently slowly rusting along the side of Boots and Laces.

The biggest change from previous plans is the significant increase in residential development which would not only be incorporated into the stadium itself but in three separate buildings on the site. With planning rules on residential development having been relaxed to encourage more building, particularly in the south east of the country, the plans seek to capitalise on this to increase revenue.

The phasing would see the three-sided stadium be built first, along with the training facility north of the stadium (this already has planning permission from Rochford Council, where this part of the development is located). The retail and cinema element would also be built as part of the first phase.

The second phase would be the main stand, car parking, and residential buildings on the corner of the junction of Sutton Road and Fossetts Way, and the third phase would be the academy/community facilities and dome.

The stadium looks unusual from the outside, because residential development ‘wraps’ the top of the stadium, resulting in a building that resembles a cruise ship. Inside, the pitch (the largest permitted at 106x68m) runs from west to east and the stadium, once complete, would be fully enclosed. Away fans would be housed in the south east corner (the planning document states “unfortunately, football fans require segregation to prevent crowd disorder”). The capacity of the three sides which will first be built is 14,000, but this will increase to 21,000 when the main stand is constructed.

Fans will access the stadium via a tree-lined walkway running from Sutton Road and this will open out into a plaza directly outside the south stand. There will be a large video screen here as well as a cafe and club shop. Restaurants will open up onto this plaza and the cinema will also be located just off it. The shops form a line from Eastern Avenue down towards the stadium. Unlike previous applications, there is no specific mention of a supporters pub or bar in the plans.

With regards to a standing area, the document says: “Increasingly clubs are discussing how fans can be provided with standing. We have reviewed the seating bowl design and have set out how a trial area could be implemented if the club wished and if standing were made legal. The trial area is in the rear rows above the vomitory in the home fans’ west stand” (A vomitory is apparently where the supporters enter the stand and not somewhere you go to expel seven pre-match pints).

Overall, the plans look pretty smart. The inside of the stadium looks modern if a little similar to countless other new grounds with all stands roughly the same height. The roof has a clear front to let in light and floodlights are located on the roofs of the stands. Residential development rises up from the rear of the north stand at both corners.

The walkway and plaza are well-designed and aesthetically pleasing but whether fans/cinema goers linger long in the area will depend on what restaurants and shops take on leases. Fans will be hoping for somewhere to have a pre-match pint – at present the nearest pub to the site is The Railway, a 15-minute walk away from the stadium.

This is an extremely large development. Although planning consent has been granted previously, this scheme is very different from the one that was given the green light back in 2008, with considerably more going on in terms of retail and residential development. While it appears to be an extremely well-designed scheme, there is likely to be significant opposition to the proposals from local residents and traders who feel it will damage the high street.

Last week the Echo ran an article saying discussions between the club and British Land, who are funding the majority of the scheme, were “on hold”. While this is a little concerning, it is apparently not uncommon and it shouldn’t affect the planning stage.

So what happens now? The validation of the planning application triggers the 16-week consultation stage. This means now is the time to register a comment about the scheme either in support or in objection. If you support it, write in and say so. While councillors will ultimately have to base their final decision on planning merits, a groundswell of opinion on either side is likely to influence their thinking. It is likely to be discussed by the council in the autumn, possibly at the October meeting of the development control committee. As it is such a large application however, the full council will also need to ratify it.

Will it ever happen? Who knows. With British Land involved, there will be hope that they can be a more reliable partner than Sainsburys were, but the whole thing still depends on not only planning permission for this site but for a large number of new homes on Roots Hall, where Weston Homes are reportedly set to take on the development. Marrying up the two schemes has always been the sticking point in the past but with reputable partners involved and precedent having been set on the Fossetts site, theoretically things should be easier this time around.

The application number is 17/00733/FUL and is now online at Southend Council’s website.