An expert brought in by Oldham Council to assess the state of Churchill Fields said the site was “clearly very difficult with many obstacles to overcome.”
Agronomist John Hacker of Professional Sportsturf Design inspected the area between Greenfield and Uppermill back in January, and his report has been released to Saddleworth News by Oldham Council under Freedom of Information laws.
Mr Hacker listed gas and water mains, sewers, and stones from the days when part of the fields were a riverbed, as underground challenges in the way of any improvements.
The report also shows that he suggested three general ways in which the council could go about improving the often-waterlogged fields.
Two of those would involve keeping the layout as it is, with the fields either being drained in their current state, or drained after an adjustment of the levels of the pitches.
The third option would be more wide-ranging, with the running track being removed to allow a reconfiguration of the pitch layout along with drainage work.
Liberal Democrat borough councillors presented the latter option to a stormy public meeting held in Uppermill in March, at which members of Saddleworth Runners and others expressed frustration both at the likely removal of the track, and their exclusion from the year-long process until a matter of days before the meeting. Some councillors said the track had to be removed to allow the drainage work to happen, and that it would cost too much to replace with a new one.
Later, a compromise was offered by the council, with a hard-standing area included in the plans to allow for both a sprinting track for athletics, and to help with events such as the Saddleworth Show. The proposals would see the number of full-size pitches for football and rugby league increased from three to four.
Both at the public meeting and since, councillors and figures from the football and rugby league community have repeatedly warned that the fields must be drained soon, for fear they could soon be unusable for anything at all. Clubs have said they are embarrassed by the standard of facilities at Churchill Fields, and have revealed that it is typically unplayable on one weekend out of every three during the season.
Adding to the urgency of the situation is the fact that there is currently £150,000 of Oldham Council funding available, which it’s hoped will be matched by the Football Foundation and Rugby Football League, to allow the drainage to take place. Councillors involved in the process have stated that the money must be spent in this financial year, or it will be lost for good.
The council has chosen to redact, which means black out, estimates Mr Hacker made in his report about the possible cost of each of the options he suggested. The council said this was because the figures could “put the council at a disadvantage in negotiations if such work were to go to market to tender.”
Meanwhile, campaigners against the removal of the running track were at the fields on Sunday for the Saddleworth Show, and collected more than 250 signatures on a petition.
Helen Bishop, spokeswoman for the Churchill Playing Fields Action Group and recent Independent parish council candidate, said: “We believe that it’s against the wishes of the community, and we also believe that there’s been a complete lack of due democratic process involved.”
She added: “We will do everything we can to try to retain these playing fields, and get the drainage done, but not at the expense of the running track, and not at the expense of community events that the people of Saddleworth all enjoy.”
To hear more from that interview, click on the box below.
In his report, Mr Hacker indicated that the work would take between eight and 16 weeks, depending on what was ultimately agreed, but added that if new topsoil were put in, the fields would need to be out of action for a full season.
Earlier in the year, it was suggested by councillors that this year’s Saddleworth Show might be the last event to take place on Churchill Fields before work began, but there’s no sign yet of a formal start date for the work, or even whether the expected funding from the football and rugby league bodies will materialise.
The Saddleworth and Lees District Partnership, a body made up of local councillors and others and funded by Oldham Council, is expected to receive a verbal update on the funding applications at its meeting in Grotton tomorrow night. The Partnership has put up £50,000 of the £150,000 of council cash currently linked to the project.
The proposals for the fields also include hopes for a ‘phase two’ of development at some unspecified date in the future, if money can be found. That would include improvements to the changing rooms, and the upgrading of the tennis and netball courts.
To read more articles about Churchill Fields from Saddleworth News, click here.