An Open Letter to Steve Waggott - CEO of Blackburn Rovers

Dear Mr. Waggott,

We are writing you an open letter because we, along with many other lifelong season ticket holders, are absolutely dismayed by the proposals to sell off part of the Brockhall training complex for housing redevelopment. We think these proposals raise huge concern in a number of areas which are detailed below.

The existing facilities

Most Rovers fans will probably be coming from the starting position that we already have fabulous training facilities both for the first team and the Academy given to us by Jack Walker. Consequently the Academy already holds a prestigious Category 1 status only currently held by 25 other Clubs.

Indeed you yourself seemed to be of much the same view three months after joining the Club when you told the Lancashire Telegraph in February 2018 that our Category 1 Academy was “Unbelievable” and that the facilities at the Senior Training Centre were “Stunning”.

Fast forward just five months however and it was being noted in the minutes from a Fans Forum meeting in July 2018 that the Club “would like to merge the 2 sites at Brockhall as there would be savings from removing duplication of facilities”.

Moving forward another two and a half years up to date and the same facilities you described as “Stunning” and “Unbelievable” only three years ago are now being variously depicted as “Thirty years old” and “tired” despite the fact they are still independently rated as good enough to maintain Category 1 Academy Status.

Unless the facilities have been so badly maintained during your tenure they have become no longer fit for purpose then many people might find this sudden and drastic change of heart very strange:

Category 1 Academy Status

Moving back to the question of Category 1 Academy Status you told the Lancashire Telegraph on the 3rd of March 2021 how this this was “Really really important” to you. You also stated that a two storey build would be necessary to maintain Category 1 status. Unfortunately however this does not appear to tally with the screening application submitted to Ribble Valley Borough Council which refers to a new facility of a “similar scale” on a similar footprint with identical specification to the existing single storey Senior Training Centre.

Developing this theme, the EFL Youth Development Charter gudelines at 295 -303 refer to the need generally for a Category 1 Academy to have

“Facilities and accommodation available for the exclusive use of its Academy at all times when it requires access to them”

and also an artificial pitch of minimum size available for the exclusive use of the Academy at all times.

As the plans submitted to Ribble Valley Borough Council appear to entail squeezing the facilities for all the Club’s teams into a site and facility roughly half the size of the existing combined ones, how can the inevitable need to share facilities and carefully timetable the use of resources possibly meet the Category 1 requirement of exclusivity?

Similarly, as regards the outdoor facilities, the plans submitted would appear to entail the loss of five outdoor pitches and one floodlit synthetic pitch leaving us with only four full size outdoor pitches at the proposed new facility. As the EFL Youth Charter also requires:

It is once again impossible to see how this can all be accommodated on the one site.

It is also worth noting that an application for floodlight pylons has already been turned down at the proposed site of the new combined training centre in 2015.

The plans themselves

Fans may be forgiven for wondering why detailed plans of the proposed housing development are available and details of the new training centre are not.

A great deal of work and planning has obviously gone into ascertaining that the maximum potential of the proposed building development is 170 houses. However the level of thought that has gone into a new training centre doesn’t appear to have extended further than superimposing an oblong on a Google Earth map of the proposed new site.

Given this lack of detail and the fact that neither yourself nor manager Tony Mowbray appear able to cite a single genuine advantage the new facilities would have over the existing ones, how can fans feel confident that anything at all will be built? Let alone a facility meeting Category 1 requirements.

You have also previously stated that the two planning applications are interlinked and will only go forward if both are passed. This reassurance is meaningless however if both applications are in fact passed. At that point the Club would have the option to proceed with either project but is under no obligation whatsoever to do so.

In your Lancashire Telegraph interview of the 2nd of March 2021 you also hinted that the owners “may have to contribute” towards the scheme if there is a shortfall. That position was then somewhat contradicted by the inference that a new training centre could be triggered “If we get to a higher level status”.

Have the owners definitely committed to making up any shortfall if the scheme went ahead?

Or is there a danger that if both sets of plans are passed, the housing development will go ahead but any plans for a new training centre would have to be put on ice indefinitely until we are promoted?

Even if this were not the case, and the two developments went ahead simultaneously as envisaged, presumably none of our teams would be left with anywhere to train?

The Coventry City situation

It is perhaps surprising given the average lifespan of purpose built, state of the art training facilities such as those developed for the Club by the vision and largesse of Jack Walker, that yourself, Manager Tony Mowbray and assistant manager Mark Venus all already have previous experience of attempting to sell off training facilities for redevelopment.

It is a matter of public record that yourself and Mr. Venus were Directors at different times of the Company that owned the footballing side of the Club at Coventry City, Otium Entertainment Group Ltd, which acquired Coventry’s Ryton training ground in 2013.

Subsequent reports from the Coventry Telegraph at the time do not make encouraging reading. Firstly, agents acting on behalf of Otium Entertainment Ltd secretly presented to Rugby Council the Ryton site as being suitable for housing development in 2014.

The Football Club subsequently issued a five point plan in January 2015 aimed at bringing the Academy and training ground together on one site. Exactly the same rationale that is being advanced here.

Finally, following your departure from the Club in November 2015, Mark Venus whilst caretaker manager, took up the mantle and made a presentation to Ryton Parish Council in October 2016 outlining the case for a 76 home development on the site. An interesting extension to his team management responsibilities.

Many Rovers fans will see worrying parallels between what happened at Coventry City and what is happening now. They might also be forgiven for thinking that the three of you are either exceptionally unlucky to keep landing at Clubs where the training facilities seemingly don’t meet your requirements, or that this is more than mere coincidence and that the building of housing developments is actually a far higher priority than improving the training facilities.

The Coventry redevelopment was blocked at the time by Sport England until a suitable alternative site could be found. To this day it seems that a new site has never been secured and a new training centre has never been built.

Given this history, along with a lack of detailed plans for our proposed combined training centre, how can fans be confident that anything at all will be built, let alone a facility meeting Category 1 requirements?

The Jack Walker Legacy

A large proportion of the fan base will no doubt consider, as we do, that these proposals demonstrate a distinct lack of respect for what Jack Walker did for the Club.

Jack’s legacy to the Blackburn public wasn’t just the 1995 Premier League title win. It was also the fabulous facilities he left the Club in the form of the new Ewood Park and the superb facilities at Brockhall. A legacy Madame Desai promised to respect and uphold when the Club was purchased by the present owners.

Unfortunately that legacy has become increasingly tarnished. Over the last few years the exterior of the stadium and the surrounding areas have become dirty and in recent months the surroundings have become litter strewn, overgrown and unkempt. Whilst this is a separate issue it does create the impression that there is insufficient regard for the Jack Walker legacy within the Club.

However, this latest proposal to sell off a large proportion of the infrastructure that Jack gifted Blackburn Rovers with what looks like next to no detailed planning takes this apparent lack of regard to a whole new level.

On February the 21st 2021 Lancs Live reported that the planners Peacocks were applying to remove covenants protecting the use of the land at Brockhall. Is this correct? If so that’s not merely disrespecting Jack’s legacy, it’s going to a great deal of trouble to actively dismantle it.

Given that such infrastructure decisions have very long lasting impact far beyond the tenure of a typical CEO such as yourself, the silence from the owners on this issue is deafening.

They, like us fans, will have to live with the outcome of your proposal long after you have moved on.

We would very much appreciate a detailed response to the concerns we have raised but understand that you are very busy. Failing that we feel that it is absolutely imperative that each and every one of these issues is comprehensively addressed by you in public at the earliest opportunity to allay supporters’ fears.

Yours Sincerely

Simon Leigh simonjleigh@ntlworld.com
Dennis Gasgarth
Mark Jarrett

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