County view May 28, 2008

Oval held hostage by Health and Safety

The Health and Safety Executive has objected to the proposed erection of a four-star 168-bedroom hotel and nearly 2000 seats some 150 yards from the gas-holders at The Oval

Kennington's famous gasholders were no barrier to the new OCS Stand © Getty Images
The original edition of The World of Cricket carries an evocative photograph of a gathering storm during a Test match between England and Australia at The Oval in 1964. The sky foretells an abandonment, but the dominant image is the reassurance of the two gasholders, as integral an element of the great ground as Father Time is to Lord's across the river. They, rather than the tower of Kennington Church, have caught the eye between overs, for as this historical book, the first of its kind, emphasised, this is a setting reflective of its south London surrounds.

"No lawn or flower bed relieves the harsh practicality of its pathways and courtyards; no tree offers shade for picnic lunch. Encircling traffic prohibits restful contemplation; tall buildings reflect the glare and heat of summer days." It is getting on for half a century since those descriptive words were written by J.M. Kilburn and there have been immeasurable improvements since, not least in the form of the OCS Stand, and yet they still resonate. Even after that horror of horrors, the Health and Safety Executive, decided to impart its opinion of planned ground redevelopments.

It is bad enough that the Rose Bowl can obtain insurance for a terrorist attack and yet not cover a spectator who is bitten by an animal. So Hampshire have upset members and some of the media by banning dogs from all matches. Worse, though, is the Health and Safety Executive's objections to the proposed erection of a four-star 168-bedroom hotel and nearly 2,000 seats some 150 yards from the gas holders at the Brit Oval, as it is now known.

These will replace the Surrey Tavern and the Laker, Lock and May Stands. A public inquiry is to be called over their safety, which will not be held before the autumn at the earliest. This means that the ground will not be ready in time for the lucrative Test against Australia and World Twenty20 matches next year. For Surrey, whose plans were approved by Lambeth's planning department in January, this represents a huge loss of income.

The gas holders belong to the Victorian age, which means they were properly constructed. Since then, they have not developed a crack, let alone a leak, from the supply that is still in everyday use. Cricinfo has learnt that the Health and Safety Executive apparently deems them to be a risk to spectators in the new seating because it is concerned about a specific type of "foreseeable and credible" accident: instant ignition which would create a massive fireball.

Surrey will counter that this could not happen unless the gasholders are deliberately ignited. The very low pressure in a gasholder, they maintain, means that, if there is a hole in the metal, the gas within will not escape at high velocity, as occurs if a high-pressure pipeline is breached. The friction between the gas and the metal will not ignite the gas spontaneously.

There are other obstacles facing Surrey, who will be represented by Robert Griffiths QC, the lawyer who acted for Darrell Hair, the umpire who has returned to Test cricket, at his tribunal hearing last year. These will have to be addressed at the public inquiry, which will be chaired by Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but they are more workaday. These are to do with the privacy, outlook, sunlight and the amount of noise that will be caused to local residents - although noise levels could hardly rise above what exists already through the swirl of traffic in Harleyford Road; transport, for 57 parking spaces are to be built beneath the hotel, to be designed by the Arora group; and requirements over renewable energy - in other words, a Green approach.

Arora are sticking with their project, but building inflation is running at 10% a year and, given the number of hotels being built in the City and the fact that Britain is supposedly in a recession, inevitably there will be speculation over the necessity for this, as at other county grounds. The Oval, though, is different from, say, the St Lawrence ground at Canterbury, which might well struggle to fill rooms. For one thing, there is a dearth of decent hotel accommodation in Kennington - visiting counties and international sides stay north of the river - and yet this is separated from central London only by the Thames. Witness, for example, the number of MPs who live, or have lived, in Fentiman Road, an attractive street five minutes walk from The Oval.

The public transport links by tube or rail from Vauxhall are ideal. The thinking behind a hotel on the ground takes into account a desire for better facilities and being able to view the cricket from balconies and terraces. Besides, The Oval has to keep pace with Lord's, which is spending the little matter of £200m on the ground - not least on a hotel.