The Madness of Crowds and Grandma’s Apple Pie

Wycombe can be a curious and puzzling place at times. The District Council upon which I serve is heavily dominated by Tories (48 out of 60), so clearly they have a lot of freedom and don’t have to worry too much about opposition members like me. But the size of their majority also seems to make many of them blase about the opinions of protest groups among the public too. Presumably, they feel quite confident about winning another large majority again come May. Two years ago, they closed down our open air lido to save money. Admittedly, two poor summers had the left Holywell Mead Pool losing money – and it was also long overdue for some TLC and maintenance. Nonetheless, we opposed the closure and contended that with a little imagination and investment, the healthy and well loved facility might blossom again. At the time, Wycombe District Council organised a ‘consultation’, which allowed web or paper responses to questions about the future of the site. We thought it rather unfair that none of the options respondents could tick were ‘reopen the main pool’. For this reason, we encouraged residents who wanted the pool reopened to fill in the consultation and make clear in the ‘free form’ part of the response form that that was what they wanted. Unsurprisingly (to us at least), the consultation closed with a large number of responses saying ‘reopen our pool’. The Tories were incandescant. We had (according to them) ruined their consultation and made the results of it unreliable. We contended that we had just encouraged people to give the view they wanted to – even though the format of the questions made that difficult.

Another issue, another consultation – but a bit of background is necessary. We got wind of rumours, more than a year ago, that the Council were talking to millionaire Steve Hayes (owner of Wycombe Wanderers Football Club and London Wasps Rugby Club) about a new stadium. Wycombe Wanderers have been in Wycombe for more than a century, and have passionate, local supporters. London Wasps moved to Wycombe more recently under a ‘ground sharing’ agreement. Neither club is currently profitable.

Hayes thinks WDC should enable the provision of a ‘Community Stadium’ – a 17,500 seater stadium built as some kind of joint venture with the Council.

I was worried as to whether the Council should be investing in the risky world of loss-making sports clubs, but also worried about whether it was in the best interests of Wycombe Wanderers (who at least completely own their current ground). Not only that, Wycombe fans were contacting me to express their concerns. I actually went to one of the home games, back in March, and got fans to complete a simple survey to find out what they really thought. I actually found them to be split down the middle – 50:50 – about whether they wanted to be in a new stadium or remain at their current home.

I love football, and as any fan knows, there’s nothing worse than being in a half empty stadium. Shiny new stadium sounds very attractive – but only if you can pull in the crowds. You only have to look to a club like Darlington (currently mid-table in the Blue Square Bet League in a 25,000 seater stadium) to realise what can and does happen. Certainly having a bigger stadium is no guarantee of pulling in a bigger crowd.

What’s really scary is where they want to build this new ground. Wycombe Air Park is 90 hectares of Green Belt land in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is home to Booker Gliding Club, and gliding at the site traces its history as far back as the training of WWII glider pilots in the forties. A recent report by the Council’s Improvement and Review commission finds that 60 hectares would have to be lost (including the ‘enabling development’).

I was castigated by the Tories for suggesting back in the spring that Wycombe Air Park may be selected as the site for this development – but selected it was by the Cabinet earlier this week. Another ‘consultation’ was held, in which two-thirds of respondents backed the site. But this was after Steve Hayes had used the full weight of his media power to campaign for the site. Football fans and shoppers were met by club staff hadning out glossy fliers and rugby fans were treated to an email from no less than Laurence Dallaglio urging them to vote for the Booker site. Half of all respondents admitted that they didn’t even live in Wycombe. Nonetheless, the consultation was accepted by the cabinet as evidence that the public were behind the plans.

A few brave Tories have come out against the plans, but the majority still looks comfortable. 300 demonstrators turned up outside the Cabinet Meeting opposed to the plans. If you were a councillor, would you believe a consultation that had been heavily influenced – or the demonstrators outside in the street? Perhaps you would do your own survey and talk to local residents yourself. That’s what two leading Tories did – and they have now come out against.

The Chair of the Improvement and Review Commission likened asking people if the wanted a new stadium to asking them if they’d like a slice of Grandma’s Apple Pie. Most people would immediately say yes, until presented with the downsides. Of course if you asked people ‘should we concrete over 60 hectares of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?’ most people would say no. It depends how you pose the questions sometimes.

I do know that last time we had whole council elections, Tory leaflets promised to ‘vigorously defend the Green Belt and AONB’. They also promised fiscal probity.

I wonder what their leaflets will say this year?