Previous Section Index Home Page




Health (Asbestosis and Mesothelioma)

10.31 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I rise to present a petition on behalf of almost 600 of my constituents who call on the Government to reverse the House of Lords’ decision that pleural plaques is not a disease and sufferers do not qualify for compensation. The petition has been collected through the hard work of my constituent, Mr. Brian Prosser.

The petition states:


10 Nov 2008 : Column 609

Universities (Cumbria)

10.32 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I rise to present a petition on behalf of the residents of Cumbria, and particularly those of the town of Ambleside and surrounding villages.

The petition states:


Traffic Management (Essex)

10.33 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): School access and parking are perennial problems for MPs to deal with, and they require careful and considerate action from councils to ensure that children are safe and local residents are not unnecessarily or unreasonably inconvenienced. In this case, although residents approached the council for help with traffic management in New Park road many months ago, nothing has yet been done. There is a consultation on yellow lines outside the school, but I urge the authorities to make appropriate changes to relieve New Park road and to help the many excellent residents who have sent this petition to me.

The petition states:


10 Nov 2008 : Column 610

Gloucester City Football Club

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Ms Butler.]

10.34 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): It is a real honour to speak in this Chamber on behalf of my constituents and my local football team, Gloucester City football club. The team has 125 years of history and tradition—roughly the same as Tottenham Hotspur. Earlier this season, much was made of Tottenham being in crisis, before Harry “Houdini” Redknapp turned up and sorted out their problems. I must say that if Tottenham Hotspur think they have problems, they should see what it is like non-league, at the grass roots, where clubs really do have major difficulties to overcome. Gloucester City have had major difficulties to overcome, not least those brought about by the floods of 2007.

As I said, the club has 125 years of history. It came into being in March 1883, and one of Gloucestershire’s most famous sons refereed the opening game—a certain W.G. Grace. He was famous for playing cricket, but he refereed that game all those years ago. We have had many ups and downs over the years. In the mid-1980s—1986, to be precise—we moved to Meadow Park, in the Gloucester docks area. In the 1980s we also hosted Wealdstone, who had quite an effective young left back by the name of Stuart Pearce. We do not know what happened to him since, but we went on to have some great seasons in the 1990s. West Ham United fans will recall a player by the name of Leroy Rosenior, who was our player-manager. In 1996-97, we had a particularly good season, with a great cup run. Come the very last game of the season, we were on the edge of promotion. We got the wrong result and unfortunately, Cheltenham Town got the right result for them. They went up.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Dhanda: I give way to the Cheltenham Town fan.

Mr. Bailey: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. As he said, I have to own up to being a season ticket holder and lifelong supporter of the arch-rivals of Gloucester City, Cheltenham Town. I offer my hon. Friend my support, as a Cheltenham supporter. I remember going, long before he was even thought of, to the old Longlevens ground to watch Cheltenham play Gloucester, and then of course to Horton road and, more recently, Meadow Park. The loss of the football ground has deprived Gloucestershire of one of the key highlights of the football season: the annual Cheltenham versus Gloucester game. A new ground would give them a tremendous boost, so that they might rise up the leagues and play us on equal terms again.

Mr. Dhanda: I appreciate the comments of my hon. Friend, who is probably the most famous Cheltenham Town fan in Parliament. He is right: the local rivalry is important, although in recent years the clubs have worked very well together. We have also learned something very important from the fact that Cheltenham have been successful and have got into the Football League. Ours is the largest area in the country that does not have a professional team in the Football League, which just
10 Nov 2008 : Column 611
goes to show that we have a real opportunity and real possibilities. At the minute, we have a very young and effective team that is doing well, pushing for promotion and full of local lads. We have real cause to be ambitious in terms of what we are doing on the ground.

Along came that day in July 2007—22 July. Local people will be well aware of the famous picture of Meadow Park 8 ft under water. All that could be seen was the top of the crossbars. It was impossible for us to return to Meadow Park, and we have not played in Gloucester since—for the last 15 months. That was the third time that the ground had flooded in 21 years, which makes Meadow Park uninsurable, so we cannot go back there. There could be serious rainfall and flooding, and if we wanted to play there again it would cost nearly £100,000 to get back in and repair the damage caused by the last set of floods.

We have been beavering away in the southern premier league. Even though we are playing a long way outside Gloucester, we have the largest away support of any team in our division. That shows the devotion of our fans. Last season, we played in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), at Forest Green. We are very grateful to Forest Green for letting us play there last season, although at a price. This season, we are playing our games in Cirencester, at the home of Cirencester Town. For myself and all other Gloucester City fans, that means a 40-mile round trip to see our local team play a home game, and that is not an acceptable situation for us to be in 15 months after the floods.

I pay tribute to those involved in running the club. They have kept it afloat—pardon the pun—and alive despite all the difficulties that they have had to face. In particular, I am thinking of someone whom I am proud to say has become a good friend—we spend a lot of time together of late—the chairman, Dave Phillips; Phil Warren, the club’s historian and the chair of the supporters trust; Mike Dunstan, the club’s press officer; and Tim Harris, the general manager. All of them have made the journey up to London to witness tonight’s debate, and that shows their level of devotion. I also pay tribute to Eamonn McGurk, the club’s biggest shareholder, who has had to bail it out on many occasions. Most importantly, I should mention the volunteers who muck in week in, week out to help to keep our local team ticking over.

This debate is a very important occasion for us, and I know that a lot of people in Gloucester will be watching it at home, so it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to put a few requests to the Minister. The Football Foundation has been a good friend to my constituency. I play whenever I can; on Thursday nights, I have a kick-about with the reserve team at Abbeymead Rovers. The club has a wonderful new third-generation Astroturf pitch, laid in no small part thanks to the Football Foundation, which has put hundreds of thousands of pounds into that project in Abbeydale. It has also invested a similar sum in a project supporting Quedgeley Wanderers, in the south of my constituency, providing new changing facilities. The Football Foundation is a wonderful organisation that does good work, but I must make it clear that if Gloucester City is to survive as a club, given that it has little resource and has fallen on hard times through no fault of its own—the fault lies with the flooding—we will need the Football Foundation
10 Nov 2008 : Column 612
to step in, support us, probably to the tune of millions of pounds, and help us to find a stadium back in the city.

Throughout the flooding, Gloucester City football club was frank in putting its concerns to one side and saying, “This is about people’s lives and about properties.” But 15 months have passed and people’s lives are moving on. We are heading into an economic downturn, but at times like this people rely on their local sporting institutions more than ever. A thriving football club with our catchment area and our young players, back in the heart of the city of Gloucester, could make an economic difference to our city. What can the Minister do to support us? The Football Foundation has been very helpful in the past, so if she can help to engage it with me, with the club and with our local authorities, that will make a difference.

I had not planned to talk about specific options tonight, but having spoken to the club, and as the Minister is in her place, I shall briefly mention the two most likely ones for a return, because she could help us on this matter. The first option is to return to Meadow Park. The ground would require a lot of work in order for it to be insurable again. The level of the ground would probably have to be raised, the pitch might even need to be rotated through 180° and new channels might have to be found to release the water. We might even need to take mitigating measures so that other floodplain is available, because we do not want properties to be flooded as a result of raising the pitch level. Thus, an involved, thorough and quick piece of work needs to be done by the Environment Agency. The club has to play this season and the following one at Cirencester Town’s ground, so we need a quick solution to give the fans hope for the future that they deserve. Any help that the Minister can give me in engaging the Environment Agency in a possible return to Meadow Park is one avenue that could be taken. That approach may not be possible, because returning may be far too complicated.

There is another good, strong possibility. Last week, I met the leaders of Gloucester city council. A couple of weeks ago, I met the leaders of Gloucestershire county council. This is not about politics. Across political lines, I have heard only good things from the leaders of both councils, who tell me that they are keen to work with the club and to bring it home as quickly as possible. I viewed another site last Friday, which was Blackbridge playing fields—a 20 to 30 acre site in the heart of my constituency, which is owned by Gloucestershire county council.

I look forward to engaging with the council on the possibility of bringing Gloucester City home to the Blackbridge site. We would not need the whole site; a small corner of the site could offer the strong possibility of a modest stadium, a clubhouse and some car parking. It would take only a 50 yd road—at most a 100 yd road—from Stroud road, which is one of the busy roads in my constituency, to the ground in a parcel of that land. It stands alongside a strip owned by Network Rail, so I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to work with me and with local agencies to involve Network Rail in any possible dialogue to speed along any solution for the club at the Blackbridge playing fields.

I am encouraged, as I say, by the contact that I have had with Gloucestershire county council and Gloucester city council. I believe that the time could well be right now to work together to bring one of the two solutions
10 Nov 2008 : Column 613
to the fore, to find a strong business case to present and to work with the Football Foundation to bring the club home.

Our sporting institutions play a big role in our lives. They certainly play a big role in the life of my constituency.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for his recognition that we hosted Gloucester City last year. Does he agree that one problem in a county such as Gloucestershire is that we have historically had very good football, rugby and cricket, but our facilities have not moved on? The rugby club, as he knows better than I do, has had a difficult job in developing a new stadium. We need outside help, because every area is looking to renew and regenerate. It is about time we did that in Gloucestershire.

Mr. Dhanda: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, not least because he reminds me that there are far greater implications for the community, too. Gloucester City have 120 people involved in their youth teams. A further 100 are involved in coaching and working with young women, too. To have a modern site, albeit a modest one, in the heart of my constituency would make a real difference to all the local communities.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was with local fans at a fundraiser for the club. One activist there—a diehard fan by the name of Nigel Hughes—came up to me. He has recently been widowed; he lost his wife just a few weeks ago. He said, “Parmjit, right now at this time in my life, this football club means more to me than you could ever imagine.” I know that many other people in the city of Gloucester feel the same way. They are equally passionate about our local club. For Nigel Hughes’ sake, for Beverley Hughes, for all Gloucester City supporters and for the city of Gloucester, I hope that my hon. Friend can help me to work with the local authorities, the Football Foundation and the local club to bring Gloucester City back home where they belong.

10.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) on securing the debate and I commend him for the passion with which he talks about his football club. A football club is much more than just somewhere to play sport; it is about identity and family, and I am glad that members of a family have been so supportive of my hon. Friend and that he in turn has been so supportive of them.

I know from my Stevenage constituency what a difference a regenerated football club has made both to the town’s whole ethos and to its economy. Clubs perform a function in the economy. Gloucester City should be proud of my hon. Friend and of the work he is doing for his constituents and the communities who support the club.

A key element in helping to deliver the Government’s commitments to sport, about which I shall say more in a moment, is to ensure that communities across the country have a wide range of good provision, which in turn encourages them to participate more and to lead healthier lives. Not only does sport reduce the chances
10 Nov 2008 : Column 614
of ill health; it can also improve skills and confidence—something we badly need at present—enhance social networks and strengthen social cohesion. As my hon. Friend has demonstrated, the power of sport goes way beyond the pitch, court or track, and Gloucester City football club is a wonderful example of that power.

Only last week in the House, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport spoke about the Government’s key legacy goals for sport, which include creating a world-leading community sports system and getting 1 million more people playing sport. Our goal builds on significant investment in sport over recent years, particularly in facilities. Since 2001, more than £1 billion has been committed to develop new or refurbished facilities through a mix of Exchequer and lottery funding. In total, 4,000 new or refurbished sports facilities are being supported by Government funding programmes. It is clear that the investment is paying off; in the last decade, 65 per cent. of the nation’s facilities stock has been either rebuilt or refurbished.

We have also taken steps to protect places where sport is played, specifically playing fields. After years of having our playing fields sold off, we now have tough measures to protect them. Sport England is a statutory consultee on all planning applications affecting playing fields, and planning guidance to local authorities is clear: no playing field needed by the community should be removed. All that work has brought us to a position where currently 90 per cent. of the population of England is within 20 minutes’ travel time of at least two different facilities for sports that are most in demand by the public. I realise that for Gloucester City there is a 40-mile round trip, so the distance is further in that case.

The Government have provided an unprecedented level of support for sport. However, I stress the fact that local authorities are the main providers of sports and recreation facilities and, as such, are best placed to make decisions about what facilities best meet the needs of the local community. I am glad that my hon. Friend has engaged both the county and the city councils, as I know from my constituency that in the end the solution comes from the council—working with Stevenage borough council we broke through.

Mr. Dhanda: I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying. She rightly sets out the level of funding for sporting infrastructure. Although she is not the sports Minister, does she feel from her understanding of the situation that it is the sort of project that the Football Foundation should and would want to get behind?

Barbara Follett: That is, of course, a matter for the Football Foundation, but I am sure that, as my hon. Friend has raised the matter tonight in the House, it will take it into account and work with Gloucester city council and the county council, as it has with many other authorities, to ensure that we have the provision in England that we need.

Next Section Index Home Page