Pitch invasion that could besmirch Kipling's Downs

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The Independent Online
A pounds 25m plan to build a stadium and sports complex for homeless Brighton and Hove Albion is threatening to cause as much grief to lovers of the South Downs as the football club's miserable form and property-dealing directors have to the Seagulls' fans.

Waterhall Valley, where the developers Alfred McAlpine want to build the stadium, cuts into the Downs at one of the narrowest points of the officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

If the development goes ahead there will be a loud "we told you so" from campaigners for national park status for Kipling's "blunt, bow-head, whale- backed Downs". Unlike a park authority, the low-budget Sussex Downs Conservation Board has no statutory planning powers and has to rely on exhortation.

Martin Perry, a key figure on Albion's new board and a McAlpine's director, said a lot could be done to "green" the stadium but if the club had not submitted an outline planning application it could have been dropped from the Football League.

Though Albion has a make-shift arrangement to play at Gillingham, Kent, the League wanted evidence that it is actively seeking a local ground. "We do have other possible sites, but Waterhall is our preferred location," Mr Perry said.

Conservationists have reacted with horror. "This is a call to arms," Peter Brandon, chairman of the Sussex branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England said. "The Downs here are barely two miles wide as a result of encroachment by the Brighton conurbation. "If this scheme goes ahead it could lead to a concrete corridor separating the eastern Downs from the west. The priority for this land has to be informal, quiet recreation, not mass organised sport," Mr Brandon said.

Waterhall is beyond the A27 bypass, which delineates the northern sprawl of Brighton and Hove just as surely as the sea does to the south. The floor of the valley is occupied by rugby and football pitches but the floodlights and facilities make little impact on the landscape.

Brighton Rugby Club is likely to be offered a place in the development, which includes an indoor arena and park-and-ride facilities. The key feature is the 15,000 all-seater stadium which would provide a new ground for troubled Albion. Capacity may eventually rise to 25,000.

The pounds 7m sale of the Goldstone Ground in 1995 was the last straw for fans who had watched their once-successful team drift down the divisions. Club executives were suspected of making a killing on the sale and were vilified in ugly protests at matches. A draw at Hereford last month spared Albion from relegation from the League, but without a home its place was still in jeopardy. If Brighton and Hove Council give the go-ahead, the new stadium could be similar to McAlpine's pounds 16m development at Huddersfield. The council is both planning authority and owner of the site, a happy coincidence that has aroused the suspicions of conservationists.