Three judges in the Court of Appeal effectively saved Old Trafford cricket ground for the nation yesterday. Sentiment will have played no part but had they decided that permission for a £32m redevelopment should be refused the arena may have slipped quickly into decay and disuse, and more than 150 years of English sporting history with it.
The ruling means that Lancashire County Cricket Club can now proceed with their plan to bring into the 21st century a ground that barely entered the 20th. Work will begin in September on new grandstands, dressing rooms and a refurbished pavilion, which will be the only remnant remaining of the old ground.
Lancashire are not yet home free because the delays in having their plans finally approved have cost them £2m in grants. Their budget is also partly based on attracting a money-spinning Ashes Test to the ground in 2013. Without the ground being redeveloped this would have been out of the question and even now Old Trafford will be involved in a bidding war with grounds old and new.
They will be aware that the England and Wales Cricket Board's major matches group is about on a par with Court of Appeal of judges when it comes to letting sentiment intrude in its rulings. The club will have to ensure they put in a considerable bid, which is also one they can afford.
But yesterday's ruling was cause for much delight. Jim Cumbes, the club's endlessly likeable chief executive who has postponed his retirement to see his cherished dream come to fruition, said after the hearing: "This is one of the biggest days in the club's history. If we don't redevelop then 150-odd years of history would have been in danger of disappearing.
"With redevelopment, I am confident Old Trafford can continue as an international cricket ground. Today's decision means that the work can start and we can get the spades out."
It took Lancashire long enough to act as the ground became ever shabbier in the last 25 years. But when at last they did so, recognising that Old Trafford's place at the international table was no longer guaranteed, they assembled a workable scheme in partnership with Trafford Borough Council. They cannot have imagined the resistance they would then confront. It has been intriguing to watch as each time they seem to have succeeded another legal obstacle has been erected by the multi-millionaire philanthropist with whom they found themselves in opposition.
At the heart of it has been a dispute over planning permission for a supermarket. Lancashire's scheme involved the construction, a few hundred yards from Old Trafford, of a Tesco store. The murky waters of planning law and the manner in which permission is granted and refused then intruded.
Lancashire and their partners, Ask Developments and the council, met opposition in the form of Derwent Holdings, which is run by supermarket mogul and property developer Albert Gubay. The constant sticking point for Derwent was that it had been denied permission for a supermarket at the nearby White City retail park and was considerably annoyed.
The dispute between the sides became increasingly embittered. Lancashire, which clearly had the backing of most but not all of the local residents, regularly played the emotive card of 150 years of history. They also had support from not only their partners, the borough council, Visit Manchester, MediaCity UK but Manchester United and Manchester City. They received funding of more than £5m from the North West Regional Development Agency. They also painted a picture of Derwent Holdings as an aggressive litigant and were not afraid to try to win friends by referring to Mr Gubay as a multi-millionaire tax exile (his home is on the Isle of Man). Derwent stood their ground perpetually.
Lancashire won the original planning permission and when it was decided there was no need for an inquiry that might have been that. But at the last possible moment, Derwent sought a judicial review. In this, too, they were unsuccessful and the High Court found that the original planning permission was perfectly in order and specifically stated that there were no grounds for appeal.
Derwent refused to go quietly, however. Albert Gubay made his first fortune from the Kwik Save chain of supermarkets and a second from property development. He has not been afraid in the past to resort to the courts to win his argument and a development in Liverpool took 12 years to resolve.
Yet he has also earned a reputation as one of Britain's most benevolent millionaires. When he was a young man in North Wales, the son of a Jewish Iraqi refugee father, he made a promise that if God helped him to become a millionaire he could have half the money. Mr Gubay has since donated almost his entire wealth to charities, many connected with the Roman Catholic Church, and has set up a trust worth £480m.
Lancashire may still face an anxious wait to see if there is any other legal avenue open to Derwent. Last night Matt Colledge, the leader of Trafford Council, which has been awarded all its legal costs, said: "The Court of Appeal has supported not only our position but that of the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State who considered and approved the planning committee's original decision to grant permission for this development.
"This has been a long, drawn-out process and the council, as decision maker, has been vindicated at every stage. At last the cricket club can move forward with their redevelopment and the sports-led regeneration of this area can begin to take shape."
When it is eventually finished – in time for an Ashes Test in 2013 – Old Trafford will have a capacity of 15,000 capable of rising to 25,000, floodlights, a state of the art indoor school and areas in which spectators can mix comfortably instead of wishing they had stayed at home. The Tesco store will provide 500 jobs.
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