Members of the Saddleworth Runners have been offered the chance to meet Oldham Council officials next month, to discuss the future of Churchill Fields.
The athletes are angry at plans to remove the running track from the fields, as part of work to solve long-running drainage problems. They’re also upset they didn’t find out about the proposals until February, almost a year after councillors began working on them.
Cllr Barbara Beeley, who has played a leading role in putting together those proposals, revealed last night that senior council officials have agreed to meet club members on 9 April.
She also told Saddleworth News that updated proposals for the fields will be sent out this week, to anyone who submitted feedback forms and left their contact details at the public meeting to discuss the issue held earlier this month.
The current proposals involve creating four full-size pitches for football and rugby, along with a smaller pitch and a separate training area. The council has identified £150,000 of funding, and hopes football and rugby league bodies will match that. A grass running track would be marked out on the fields during the summer months.
The whole issue was debated during last night’s meeting of Saddleworth Parish Council, held at Uppermill Civic Hall. Jill Davies of Saddleworth Runners began the evening by speaking from the public seats.
She told councillors she had “several concerns” about the fields, saying: “I’m concerned the council only seems to be listening to what some people are trying to say… I’m concerned that it’s extremely difficult to get information about what is happening… But most of all I’m concerned about the children of Saddleworth, who will grow up without a running track.”
Ms Davies said that she’d never forgotten “the feeling of magic” she experienced the first time she set foot on a cinder track as a girl. She added that, at next year’s London Olympics, the most expensive tickets will be for the 100m final: “It is a track like ours which inspired the runners who will take part in that final.”
She concluded: “I believe there can be a compromise. But I’m concerned that for that to happen, someone will have to admit that they got it wrong, and that takes courage.”
Cllr Mike Buckley said he “wholeheartedly” sympathised with the Runners. He added: “People are listening, and they’re very conscious of your concerns. We are purely concerned initially with getting the fields into a usable state. It will inevitably mean that the top of the field will have to be dug up. But there have been no final decision made, no-one wants to exclude anyone.”
Cllr John Hudson commented: “Where it’s gone sadly wrong is with perceptions. It has seemed to suddenly burst forth, without it coming from the bottom to the top. If the money has strings attached and it doesn’t produce what the public have come to expect from Churchill, then the whole process should be slowed down.”
His Conservative colleague, Cllr David Atherton, then added: “I was under the impression that when we agreed to have the Olympics in this country, that money was going to be filtered out for facilities. It all seems to have gone a bit quiet about that. To me it sounds like someone’s come along, plonked down some money and said ‘do it our way or sod off’ and I don’t agree with that.”
Cllr Phil Bagley said he agreed with his fellow Liberal Democrats, that a running track could be reinstated at some point in the future. He said: “I think the runners should grin and bear it if you like, in the hope they’ll get a track back. There are good reasons for removing it for the time being.”
Cllr Ken Hulme called for a representative of the running club to be invited to join the working party which has been looking at the issue over the last year. He warned: “I can’t conceive that if this project goes ahead, it’ll be anything other than football and rugby for time immemoriam… if the athletics track goes – it’s gone.”
He again queried why Saddleworth Runners weren’t told about the proposals before February, and said it “defies belief” nobody at Oldham Council knew the club existed, when it had been involved in joint projects with council leisure and sport officials. Councillors have previously said the club wasn’t contacted earlier, because it didn’t pay to use the track as football and rugby clubs do, and therefore wasn’t on the council’s list of associated clubs.
Cllr Derek Heffernan said: “I’ve been on the track when the water has been up to your ankles. It’s a disgrace, let’s not mess about.” He added that he was hopeful the football and rugby clubs wouldn’t object if, at some point in the future, money could be found to put a new track down at the site.
Councillors were reminded that, because Churchill Fields is an Oldham Council facility rather than a Saddleworth Parish Council one, there was a limit to what they could do within the forum of the Parish Council. They voted to support a motion put forward by Cllr Buckley, that the Parish Council should ask that Saddleworth Runners be involved in future negotiations about the fields.
It was after the meeting that Cllr Beeley revealed that the athletics club had indeed been invited to hold talks with council officials.
You can read previous articles and letters published on Saddleworth News about Churchill Fields by clicking here.