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People Power!

By: Todd Bontoft
Date: 25/09/2000

In his guest column this week Todd Bontoft recalls the week preceding the decision by North East Lincolnshire Council to oppose the change to the local plan which stopped the Mariner's new ground from going ahead, and looks what the options for Town fans to do something about it are

It may not have been an event of major national or international significance. And to just about everyone outside the boundaries of greater Lincolnshire it will have totally passed them by.

But to many Town fans they can remember where they were and most certainly how they felt after hearing the news. I'm not talking about a famous footballing victory or disaster, but simply the moments surrounding discovering that North East Lincolnshire Council had refused variations to the area's local plan - which is the document that governs all planning consent - and in doing so effectively killed off the possibility of developing a brand new stadium at Great Coates.

That black day of 13 July 2000, twenty individuals reached a decision that left me in total disbelief. Not only was it a body blow to me as an individual, but also to the club I love.

Paradoxically perhaps those twenty councillors did not realise that it is possibly a knockout blow to the public perception - already low - of councils and local democracy. Whatever your political persuasions - Tory, Liberal and Labour councillors all played their part in defeating the football club's plans - the crime remains that they collectively IGNORED strong local opinion. With 84% of the population of Grimsby and the surrounding area in favour of the move, the politicians who voted against the eminently sound proposal will not be forgotten or forgiven quickly.

During the week leading up to the council meeting the football club published the results of their comprehensive survey of every household in the entire county. Of the almost 14,000 who returned the questionnaire, 84 per cent supported building the stadium off the A180 at Great Coates, with only 11 per cent opposed to the scheme. From Cleethorpes Park ward, which contains Blundell Park, there were 1,111 replies, 94 per cent of which supported the scheme. Even the ward that includes Great Coates, a majority voted in favour of the scheme with 63 per cent of the 1,160 respondents in favour, and 33 per cent against

But the most unbearable feeling that we shared at the time was the total powerlessness. What could we do?

Rob Sedgwick, our venerable editor, was moved to write at the time, "I for one will not let this lie. I am considering standing myself as an independent councillor in the next council election and I urge others who feel the same to do likewise. Please contact me if you are interested. I am not going to sit and watch our football club die, it would be like a piece of myself dying."

Unfortunately, it felt that we were soundly beaten by the system and, in any case, council elections are several years away. So, in terms of the immediacy of our plans, standing for election would be of little help in rescuing a club losing over £1M a year.

Besides, giving a few freeloaders a bloody nose at the polls in 2003 would be a hollow victory.

But the public outcry has been overwhelming, culminating in a face saving 'commissioning of a consultant's report' by our beloved civic leaders. We can only hope the report that confirms Great Coates as the one and only suitable location - as exclusively revealed by the Fishy - will this time get the council's official sanction. Town fans need to mobilise, organise and publicly demonstrate in support of the Great Coates' development, keeping up the pressure on the council right until decision time. We must ensure the original decision is reversed.

Perhaps, with hindsight, the council felt able to reach its decision because it had badly misjudged the public mood. This was fuelled by the dearth of public displays in support of the new stadium by town fans and consequently handed the initiative to the Great Coates' NIMBYs, who had the unthinking ear of a number of our elected representatives. Therefore, public pronouncements and peaceful gatherings in support of the stadium must be forthcoming so that they (the councillors) can understand the passion we feel.

But what if the decision is not reversed and history does - in effect - repeat itself? What if the unthinkable really does happen and the Great Coates project is rejected? What then?

The article continues in Part two

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