Newcastle divided as Toon army aim to camp on the moor

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The Independent Online
Newcastle United Football Club sparked uproar on Tyneside last night after unveiling a pounds 65m plan to build a new "super- stadium" on a historic swathe of land in the city's centre.

The club, whose team and supporters are known as the Toon army, wants to build a 55,000-seater stadium on Castle Leazes moor, which has been in common ownership for over 700 years. The move has caused a rift between councillors and outraged local protesters who have fought to preserve the open space from development.

The proposal follows months of behind-the-scenes wrangling between the club, council chiefs and City Freemen, who control the 1,300-acre moor. Sir John Hall, chairman of Newcastle who is turning the club into a Continental- style sporting club with teams playing several different sports, will be applying for planning permission for the stadium early in January and remains hopeful of getting council backing.

City councillors were given a sneak preview of the plans at a confidential briefing on Wednesday night and many emerged undecided. Outside the meeting, a group calling themselves No Business on the Moor handed councillors an 18,000-signature petition against the proposals.

John Shipley, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition councillors on Newcastle City Council, called for a referendum of city taxpayers on whether the stadium plan should go ahead. Mr Shipley said that he was disappointed that the Labour group on the council had not thought it appropriate that the full council should debate the issue. Instead it was delegated to the development control committee.

"This is so important that it ought to have wider con- sultation and debate," he said.

Mr Shipley said that he would be calling on John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to call a public inquiry into whether the stadium plan should be allowed.

Geoff O'Brien, a Labour councillor who represents the Moorside ward, said: "This is a very dramatic development and it is true that the club have taken steps to try and minimise any damage the development might have on the area.

"But at the end of the day it is not something I can support. The proposal put forward by the club still doesn't meet the needs of my constituents.

"The bottom line is it is going to involve a loss of open space on Castle Leazes."

Lucy Milton, of No Business on the Moor, said that the council and the football club were operating hand in glove.

"They are bypassing the normal procedure of going from committee to committee. It is totally partisan and thoroughly unacceptable. I am sure it is not something that the national Labour Party would approve of. The moor is the heart and lungs of the city."

The moor has been in common ownership for 700 years and provides a green area for recuperating patients at the nearby Royal Victoria Infirmary.

Ms Milton said that the traffic management implications of crowds of 55,000 were "horrific" and that if the scheme was allowed it could set a national trend. "If they get it here, what city centre park will be safe?" she asked.

Yesterday's announcement comes five months after Newcastle City Council took the unusual step of inviting the club to submit a planning application for the Castle Leazes site amid growing fears the club was set to quit the city boundaries for a new home in Gateshead across the River Tyne.

In a further twist to the saga it also emerged yesterday that four years ago Newcastle United actually opposed plans by a development company to build a large sports and music arena on a site adjacent to that proposed for the new football stadium.

A letter to the city council from the football club, seen by The Independent, contains objections to the proposal on the grounds that it would cause serious traffic problems.

Russell Cushing, the club's general manager, wrote: "The siting of another large entertainment venue in such close proximity, with apparently little or no provision for the parking of additional vehicles, would result in major safety management implications for both parties."