Coventry City has a mountain to climb – a £122m stadium, a controversial site and Cardiff’s example of what can go wrong still fresh in the memory. The good news is that, so far, it’s all working out.
How does a Premiership football club that is involved in a perennial struggle against relegation find the money for a £122m stadium and a team to get it past the planners?

Coventry City is the club in question, and it has just started preparatory works on a 40 000-seat ground designed by a lifelong fan that will be ready for the 2001 season. The scheme got planning permission in July and contractor HBG is due to start on the RHWL-designed stadium in April next year.

Although Coventry chairman Bryan Richardson describes the process of getting from concept design to reality as “incredibly quick”, so far it has taken two-and-a-half years, a team of legal, planning, transport and environmental experts, a planning inquiry decision by minister Richard Caborn and £1.5m to get the scheme on site.

The search for a stadium site began when Richardson realised that the club had outgrown its 23 000-capacity Highfield Road ground, where it has been for the past 100 years. Highfield Road may have helped the Sky Blues prosper under Jimmy Hill in their 1960s heyday, but Richardson knew that to compete with today’s Premiership giants, he needed not only a bigger stadium but one that could double as a venue for concerts, and even extravaganzas on ice, to bring in extra funds.

He also needed a site big enough to allow land to be sold for retail and leisure schemes that would part-fund the estimated £122m development cost. The stadium shell accounts for £45m, with the rest going on fit-out remedial works, two motorway exits, an access road and a £1.3m railway station on the Coventry-to-Nuneaton line. So, when a 150 ha, former British Gas site in north Coventry became available three years ago, Richardson decided to buy it.

A sorry site?

However, the site was far from ideal, as far as the government’s policy on urban regeneration was concerned. It had poor transport links, was in what planners classed a residential area, and was situated on the edge of town. The only factor that fitted the government’s agenda was the site’s brownfield status, as it was heavily contaminated.

Although Richardson had never been involved in property development before, once he realised he was dealing with a contentious application, he set about assembling a team to deal with the inevitable planning inquiry. “I never doubted we would get planning permission,” he says bullishly. “The only scare was that Coventry City Council would get cold feet. One might have expected them to oppose the development because it’s not city centre. In fact, they got behind it one hundred per cent.

“An amazing number of people were incredibly kind once they saw we were flying against the wind,” he says of fans in high places who gave him valuable advice. These included “good friends” Michael Freeman, founder of developer Argent, and RHWL director Geoff Mann, whose firm was commissioned to design the stadium.

The club chairman did not balk at the cost of his expensive pre-planning team. “I’ve always been a great believer that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly – possibly even if you can’t afford it at the time. It wouldn’t have worked if we had cut corners,” he says.

An amazing number of people were incredibly kind once they saw we were flying against the wind

Bryan Richardson, Chairman, Coventry City FC

Consequently, he engaged planning lawyer Herbert Smith, planning expert Montagu Evans, barrister Bill Hicks, traffic expert Gibb, retail expert Hillier Parker and remediation expert Parkman, as well as engineer Ove Arup & Partners, architect RHWL, quantity surveyor MDA and contractor HBG.

There were traffic and environmental impact surveys, retail impact assessments, negotiations with Railtrack and discussions with the Highways Agency over road links to the M6 and the A44.

Can Coventry win the World Cup?

Post-planning permission negotiations are still continuing over 12 ha of the site that is to be sold in portions to developers to raise funds for the stadium. On the agenda is 9290 m2 for a food store, another 9290 m2 for a convenience store, 1858 m2 for a “district centre” of amenities, and 18 580 m2 to be sold to a leisure operator.

As for the 40 000-seat stadium itself, it has already been selected as part of England’s 2006 World Cup bid. With its sliding pitch, retractable roof, family facilities and restaurants and bars, it is more a multipurpose arena than a football stadium. The five tiers of glass-walled flexible space at its outer edge can be let as offices, restaurants, or even a casino. In addition, RHWL’s Mann says it has a flexible elevation, with elegant terracotta screens fixed to a rail and post system that can be removed to create windows.

Inside, the seating plan is largely uninterrupted by roof supports. Curved beams anchored to slim corner towers outside the main seating area support the retractable roof, so only those in the top tier seats have restricted views.

The 13 000-tonne pitch is also retractable, a process that takes four hours. It is mounted on Teflon pads that slide along ceramic painted rails as it rolls back underneath what will be the car park, revealing a 1.5 m deep concrete pit for hosting other events.

Commenting on the high-tech, multi-use nature of the stadium, Mann says: “The die-hard fans are not really there any more. Football’s a middle class game now. And at £20 a ticket, people demand better facilities. Nobody wants to go back to the meat pie, beer, a concrete slab to sit on and nowhere to go to the toilet.”