Before the last election, there was no mention of the plans for Saracens RFC to set up a Premier League Rugby stadium at Barnet Copthall. Quite the opposite in fact, the local Tories circulated a completely foundationless made up story that the Lib Dems in Mill Hill were planning a football stadium on the site for Kentish Town FC.
The Barnet Eye exposed this as a complete lie. Kentish Town FC play in a minor league and get crowds of 30 people, all friends and partners etc. Furthermore, the Lib Dems had not even heard of the plans. It was perhaps the worst example of a scare story. What the Tories did not mention is that Nigel Wray, who runs Saracens RFC was planning a takeover of Copthall Stadium. Mr Wray lives in Totteridge and is a neighbour of Council Leader Richard Cornelius. It is fair to say the pair know each other quite well.
Barnet Council did a sweetheart deal with Saracens RFC. This resulted in a magnificent new stand being built and Saracens refurbishing the dilapidated old stadium and providing much needed facilities for the community, when not using the stadium. I've attended a few events at the stadium and I believe that it is a positive asset. I do however feel that the deal they got (peppercorn rent, long lease) was not the best that Barnet could have negotiated for the taxpayer.
Saracens RFC have become a part of the community in the year they've been here. What I find interesting is there future plans. There are many issues which have been left unresolved. Firstly the ground, with a 10,000 capacity is too small for Heiniken cup games. This requires a 16,000 capacity, so Saracens need to build more capacity. There have long been rumours that the local Tories asked them to shelve these plans until after the election, when they can be rushed through on a nod and a wink. The thing is, I was recently talking to a rugby journalist and it seems that Saracens have far more ambitious plans than that. The leading rugby club in the UK is Leicester and they get crowds of around 22,000. For Saracens RFC to achieve their dream and overtake them, they will need a home capacity of 25 - 30,000. If you look at Copthall, there is one decent stand taking up approx 1/6th of the available space. There are temporary stands at each end and a dilapidated stand on the other side. To say the stadium is ripe for development is an understatement.
So there are three options that any sensible person would consider
1) Saracens RFC are happy to stay a small club, becoming nomads for Heineken Cup games.
2) Saracens RFC are happy to stay a small club, but will extend their ground to be able to Play Heineken cup games at some point in the future.
3) Saracens RFC are a fiercely ambitious and competetive club, who want to become the biggest club in Europe, with a state of the art stadium, with great transport links on the edge of London.
Now I personally have never yet met anyone involved in sport who wasn't fiercly competetive. I've never met anyone at any club who wasn't ambitious. Saracens don't have a short lease, they are there for the duration. If they had a 30,000 seat, brand new stadium, they could extend the Northern Line on a disused railway line from Mill Hill East and have a direct train service from the heart of London to the Stadium. This would be a huge generator of cash for the club and would most certainly enable the club to achieve its ambitions.
Saracens RFC have hosted fundraising events for the local Tory MP Matthew Offord. As mentioned Mr Wray is a friend of Council Leader Richard Cornelius. It is simply unbelieveable to assume that they have not all discussed the future development of the green belt Copthall site.
Now unlike the Tory leaflet about Kentish Town FC, I make no claims that any of the above scenarios is correct. I will however say this I'll wager any Tory Councillor who cares to take the bet that if they get back in that we will see a massive expansion in the size of Copthall Stadium before the next election if the Tories win. Lets say £500.
And before anyone calls me a Nimby, I personally wouldn't object to the 30,000 stadium plan, if it was combined with improved transport links. If that was the price for an extension to the Northern Line and a new Thameslink Station (or Brent Cross Light rail link) at the RAF museum, it would actually be a great result for Mill Hill and Barnet. It is crazy that we have these amazing assets in Barnet and we don't have any decent public transport for them. What I do object to is the way the Tories never let us plebs know about their plans until after the election.