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Ground for hope as Rec decision looms on Bath Rugby's business plan

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Written by:   | Posted 13-March-2015 17:10

Ground for hope as Rec decision looms on Bath Rugby's business plan

Bath Rugby are “quietly optimistic” that a counter appeal in May will go their way and set them on the path to a long-awaited new stadium on The Rec.

The club, its supporters and the Recreation Ground Trust have had a frustratingly long wait since expansion plans were punctured by a charity tribunal last March, preventing more land being leased than the club currently occupies.

But a date has been set for the trust’s appeal against that tribunal decision, and May 18 is the next key fixture in the future of Bath Rugby’s city-centre home since 1894.

In September, owner Bruce Craig appointed Tarquin McDonald, pictured, as the new managing director.

And, in his first sit-down interview since his tenure began, Mr McDonald admitted to the Bath Chronicle that the butterflies are starting to flutter ahead of the crucial hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice.

If it goes the way the club wants, it should jump a major hurdle to a sporting arena with a capacity in the region of 16,500. If it doesn’t, it could be back to the drawing board for the umpteenth time.

Mr McDonald said: “The advice we’ve had is very much that the expected outcome will be more favourable, than unfavourable. So, clearly we hope that’s the case and we remain quietly optimistic.”

Last March’s tribunal overturned a key aspect of a Charity Commission-approved scheme allowing the trust to lease a larger area of The Rec to Bath Rugby, in exchange for control of their old training ground in Lambridge. The move would almost double the overall area of recreational space.

In August, the club temporarily increased its capacity from 12,200 to about 13,350. Since then it has consistently sold out home games, including the less glamorous LV= Cup.

Mr McDonald added: “We’ve thrown a lot of resource, time and effort into this and we made a huge amount of progress before we hit that stumbling block last March.

“That was enormously frustrating because we think the majority of people would love to see this happen. This has been going on for years and people would like it resolved.

“We’ve been filling the extra capacity. The demand is there. What’s happening on the pitch has been great this season and we believe it’s only going to improve, so we’re delighted that we’ve been able to get more people into the stadium enjoying the atmosphere.

“We’ve got brilliant supporters and on match day it’s fantastic, but when you see The Rec empty it doesn’t do justice to the setting. We’ve got the setting, what we don’t have are the facilities within that setting. Heritage is not just about buildings, it’s about the cultural heritage of a city and Bath Rugby is recognised as a central part of the cultural fabric of the city.”

Mr McDonald shares Mr Craig’s ambition for historically-successful Bath to be one of the powerhouses of European rugby.

And the MD is confident it will be financially self-sufficient within a couple of years – a rarity for a professional rugby club these days.

But a bigger, modern stadium is seen as a key driver for that vision. So, what if the counter appeal goes against the trust?

“That’s something we would need to work through with the trust,” Mr McDonald added. “There is a further stage of appeal, but then you’re getting into the finer points of law and it’s very complex.

“We’re Bath Rugby. We want to be in the city. We’ve been in the city throughout our history and that connection is important to us, so we will deal with that if we have to.”

With The Rec saga, the on-going development of the club’s HQ at Farleigh House and investment in a squad that is becoming one of the strongest in the Premiership, it’s been a busy first six months for the club’s former finance and strategy director.

“As job’s go, it’s brilliant,” he said. “I feel incredibly lucky that I met Bruce in a previous role and that I’ve been able to have this opportunity to work here.

“It’s a really busy time, but a really exciting time.

“In terms of the business, which is all about trying to put the best possible team on the pitch and drive the success that all the supporters want, there’s bags of opportunity, both at Farleigh and here at The Rec.

“I wouldn’t be in the role if I didn’t buy into Bruce’s ambition. It’s about creating something exceptional, something a bit different in terms of how we play, in terms of the attacking style we want.

“We want the crowd to come and really enjoy the games. The business will become self-sustaining and the club will be profitable.

“We’re moving to profitability and in the next few years we will be operating without having to rely on the owner. I think that’s what all the supporters would like to see.

“We should be proud of that. Hopefully, a new stadium will help to develop that further.

“Not being arrogant, we absolutely believe that we will win trophies. So, hopefully, that happens in the 150th season.”

Scrum down: long-running melee over a new stadium

The saga of a new stadium for Bath Rugby has been rumbling on for decades.
The Recreation Ground has been the club’s home since 1894.
The land was given to the city in 1956, but is subject to charity law.
In June 2013, after consulting the public, the Charity Commission approved a new “scheme” which would permit the club to lease more land on The Rec, allowing for a larger stadium.
For that to happen, the club said it would give up its old training ground at Lambridge to public ownership, under the Recreation Ground Trust’s control, as compensation.
The proposed new stadium would have permanent stands on three sides and a temporary east stand would be erected for the playing season.
That would be removed during the summer so the pitch could be available for other uses.
However, Bath residents Nigel Websper, Jack Sparrow and Rosemary Carne appealed the Charity Commission’s decision.
A Charity Tribunal (Lower) heard their appeal last January and upheld it last March.
One of the stipulations made by that three-strong panel was that Bath Rugby could not lease Rec land that exceeded the area currently occupied, thus restricting future expansion.
The trust applied for leave to appeal that judgment, leave was granted by Judge Peter Hinchliffe last May, and the appeal will be heard in the Tax and Chancery Chamber (Upper Tribunal) at the Royal Courts of Justice this May 18. It will be a one-day hearing and a ruling is expected to be handed down in June. If the trustees are successful, the Charity Commission-approved scheme is expected to go back to the lower tribunal for amendments to make it workable.
In August, Bath Rugby was granted permission by the council for a two-year stadium capacity increase.

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