Football club and car company kick off needle match: Nissan falls out with Sunderland over new stadium

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

SUNDERLAND FC versus Nissan (UK) Ltd, is a match no one wanted to stage. But tonight (Thursday) the first round of what may prove to be a long and bitter contest , tougher than any road to Wembley, will begin.

The key players are Sunderland football club, local developers and the Roker Park fans who all want a new ground and the Nissan car company, which the city of Sunderland wooed and welcomed. into its then dramatically reduced industrial fold.

Nissan, and along with an assortment of other less influtential objectors, has taken exception to the proposed siting of a huge new pounds 76m sport and leisure development within a Micra's horn blast of its Sunderland factory.

In spite of its close and fairly public links with the local community, Nissan has decided to object strongly to the development which, tonight, will almost certainly be given outline planning approval. Nissan says the development should not be sited alongside its production plant and will strenuously argue that if it goes ahead, its business operations in the North-east will face something of a uncertain future and any company expansion plans the company may have will be at risk.

Nissan says the development would cause 'long-term irretrievable' damage to its competitive edge and that the car plant and the new complex are 'fundamentally incompatible'. The company is, it says, 'landlocked'. Since production in Sunderland began in 1986 it s own has developed its 800-acre site has been rapidly developed by itself and together with its suppliers and the only land left for further expansion , it says, lies to the north, where the new complex would be built.

The disagreement between Sunderland football club and car company is the first public clash between Nissan, which spends about pounds 500m annually in the North-east, and Sunderland.

It is a dispute both the car company and the city of Sunderland could well do without, primarily because it will help to foster an already growing impression of discord between the motor manufacturer and local people.

There is some truth in this, but in reality,

The Nissan car plant employs about 4,250 people, only 30 of whom are directly from Japan. If, as the car company says, its business is curtailed, then there is the real prospect of any future expansion being in Spain. rather than the North-east. That, according to the developers ment lobby, is emotional blackmail and they say Nissan should not be allowed to halt the project.

The plans for the new football stadium and a regional leisure and recreation centre covering 287 acres of land adjacent to the Nissan plant, to the west of the A19, . , in Sunderland. The development has its origins in Lord Justice 's Taylor's report which required all Premiership and First Division football grounds to introduce all-seating stadiums. So, rather than merely upgrade the With Sunderland's Roker park ground hemmed inon all sides by houses, the club and developers want to build a new stadium, the 'Wembley of the North' along with a conference and exhibition centre, leisure facilities and a hotel complex.

Under the present rules, Roker Park's crowd capacity would have to be cut from about 29,000 to 9,000 if the regulations are not met. The new plan is the largest single development in Sunderland in many years, but it covers land in the Green Belt and would be a big departure from the local development plan. this will almost certainly lead to a full public inquiry.

Nissan does have a strong case about the siting of the centre, but finds itself is in a Catch 22 situation. As the company opposes the plan it is held up publicly to be making a stand against the local community and in particular its football plans.

Nissan The company has recently produced a full brochure on the issue to explain its case. and It has said it 'regrets' Sunderland FC's decision to turn its genuine concerns over a major planning issue 'into an emotive challenge' and that the club has misunderstood its Nissan's position. But if Nissan does prevent the development it almost certainly faces going ahead, then almost certainly it faces a fairly strong backlash from people locally.

Les Nicholls, Nissan's director of engineering in Sunderland, said: is aware of the pitfalls, but believes it is important people understand the problems the company faces if the development is allowed. 'The last thing we want is to have a slanging match or falling out. But we do have a voice and we have to say that we believe the whole plan is wrong. There is a basic incompatibility between our plant and the development.'

One of Nissan's worries is having the strangulation of its access and exit roads blocked. , ironically through an increase in car traffic. Nissan relies very much on what the car world calls 'just in time' delivery of the component parts. to make its vehicles. These arrive from a spider web of suppliers outside the plant and means that batches of parts are delivered to the plant's final assembly line four times every hour, round the clock.

Mr Nicholls said: 'It is a key element of our business and would be disrupted if this development goes ahead.'

John Wood, a director of Sunderland FC, said the club wanted to 'harmonise' with Nissan, but it did have to find a new site. 'It will be a massive blow if it does not go ahead. 'We do feel there is a bit of emotional blackmail going on from Nissan and it is wrong to say that we want to prejudice Nissan's operations.' Neither do we want to fall out.'

There are those in Sunderland, however, who feel that whoever wins, the scoreline will read: Sunderland 0, Nissan 0.

(Photograph omitted)

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