Hard-up Accies face local opposition as they struggle to save the birthplace of international rugby
LATER this week a large wad of papers will be lodged with the planning department of Edinburgh City Council by Frank Spratt, a well-known Edinburgh property project manager.
So far so normal, but the controversial proposals to redevelop Raeburn Place in Stockbridge will be the spark that ignites one of the capital’s most keenly-contested planning applications since Sir Patrick Abercrombie came within a whisker of extending the M8 along Princes Street and up The Mound in the 1950s.
On one side will be one of the world’s oldest rugby clubs, Edinburgh Accies, who effectively own the ground and are seeking to build a 2,500-seater stand, terracing for 2,500 standing spectators, a rugby museum, function suites and a retail development. On the other is Save Our Stockbridge, a vocal group of well-organised and well-heeled residents who have pledged to scupper the plans. There have been several noisy public meetings, with up to 500 partisan supporters and opponents of the development crammed into normally sedate gatherings of Stockbridge Community Council. The only thing missing at these meetings has been any hint of consensus or middle ground.
The stakes are high because Raeburn Place’s continued existence as a rugby ground is said to be on the line. No big deal, you might think. But this isn’t any common or garden sporting venue. As well as being the place where the first-ever match of international rugby was played, when Scotland beat England in 1871, it is also the home of all international sport. The first football international, a goal-less draw between England and Scotland in Glasgow, wasn’t until 1872, while cricket’s first Test match took place in 1877 when England met Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
For all of its history, however, Raeburn Place is now in a fairly parlous state. The clubhouse and changing rooms are a collection of portable sheds, the main stand is a tin structure with railway sleepers for seats and the kit is stored in steel shipping containers parked next to the first-team pitch. This is the result of a botched redevelopment five years ago when Festival Inns, who owned the Raeburn House Hotel next to the ground and had agreed to finance the redevelopment and running of Raeburn Place, demolished Accies’ old clubhouse without permission and before the scheduled date, and then promptly went bust. With no company to sue and the hotel sold to a property developer, the redevelopment which would have guaranteed Raeburn Place’s future was effectively dead.
The problem is that Accies, the third-oldest rugby club in the world and originally set up for former pupils of the Edinburgh Academy but which now runs a huge youth section and sends coaches into most of the state schools in North Edinburgh, is losing £100,000 a year. The handful of members who have been covering the shortfall out of their own pockets always said it would be for a limited period and that period is now up. Spratt, who doubles as Accies’ chairman, says that, unless the club is able to push ahead with a redevelopment plan that would make the club financially sustainable, the only option left will be to sell its historic home and relocate.
While Save Our Stockbridge say that this is scaremongering, few disagree that Raeburn Place is an eyesore which needs to be addressed. The issue is over what form any development should take, with the sheer size of the retail development and the main stand being particular bones of contention for residents. Objectors have also questioned why, when Scottish club rugby is now essentially an amateur game, the club needs the large sums that would be raised from such a substantial retail footprint.
“This is a commercial development, not a rugby development,” said Bruce Thompson, the chairman of Save Our Stockbridge and, back in the mists of time, a former Accies player. “Accies’ average crowd is 200, yet they plan to spend £7.1m building a stand the height of three double deckers, with seating for 2,500 spectators and standing room for another 2,500, plus a restaurant and bar, not to mention 19,000 square feet of shop space, which is enough for 20 small shops or five Scot-Mids. We all have sympathy with the situation Accies find themselves in but this is out of all proportion to what they need for the purposes of playing rugby.”
Some Stockbridge residents have also expressed concern that, if developed, Raeburn Place could become home to Edinburgh Rugby, which would in turn lead to further development and fortnightly Friday night matches. Edinburgh have made no secret of their desire to leave Murrayfield for all but the very biggest games, but have scoured the capital in vain for an alternative site.
Raeburn Place is in the sport’s Scottish heartland and hosted a game during the under-21 Rugby World Cup which drew 5,000 spectators. It would also be relatively simple to expand the main stand to accommodate the professional side. As with Murrayfield, there is a lack of parking but there are good transport links and neighbours The Grange have held international cricket matches against England and Australia featuring large crowds without undue disruption.
“This redevelopment is not about hosting Edinburgh Rugby, it’s about safeguarding the future of one of rugby’s most historic venues and about ensuring the survival of a club which does a hell of a lot of good in the community,” says Spratt.
“The truth is that there is no way we can afford to go on as we are, so we looked at several rugby clubs down in England to see what works, and we think this plan will put us on a sustainable financial footing for the foreseeable future. It will allow us to continue our work developing youth rugby while also running a progressive Premier Division team that can compete at the top level and improve playing so that Scottish rugby can compete.
“I’ve heard all sorts of conspiracy theories about how the retail space will be taken by Tesco but they are all wide of the mark. No one’s making any money out of this redevelopment, we’re all involved because we feel strongly about preserving one of Edinburgh and Scotland’s great sporting institutions. The bottom line is that the status quo is untenable – the ground has to be developed or we’ll have to sell it.”
The one thing for sure is that the proposals will be fiercely contested. Residents last year saw off Edinburgh Council when it tried to build houses on a corner of Inverleith Park and they believe the same intensive campaigning and application of political pressure will also stymie Accies’ proposed development, even though it’s private land.
Save Our Stockbridge says it compiled a petition of 1,800 signatures in three days and claims that 95 per cent of residents support their stance. The club, meanwhile, point to the fact that their proposals fit closely with national planning policy for sport and urban areas and say they remain confident of success. They can’t both be right.
“Raeburn Place is a national treasure, but it’s looked tired since the old pavilion was knocked down,” says former Scotland skipper Mike Blair, one of over 100 internationalists to come out of Accies. “The new development would be absolutely fantastic for rugby in Edinburgh and, let’s face it, the alternative just doesn’t bear thinking about.”
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