County cricket July 28, 2008

Canterbury feels the crunch

The St Lawrence at Canterbury, the ground on which Colin Cowdrey once wrote that he would choose to spend his last moments on earth, hosts the oldest cricket festival in the country this week


The St Lawrence at Canterbury: under pressure from the developers © Getty Images
 
The St Lawrence at Canterbury, the ground on which Colin Cowdrey once wrote that he would choose to spend his last moments on earth, hosts the oldest cricket festival in the country this week. This used to comprise two championship matches but otherwise remains unchanged and redolent of great names such as the Old Stagers and the Band of Brothers.

Players of yesteryear attend and ruminate over deeds of the past, mingling, perhaps, with the Archbishop of their parish and the Governor of the Bank of England. The contest being played out in front of them is but a backdrop to this social swirl. So, this year, will be the controversial £40m redevelopment which was supposed to have commenced in the spring, was put off until after Tunbridge Wells week and which now might never happen at all.

Ground redevelopments can be carried out tastefully, as has been the case at Cardiff, or through necessity, as will occur at Chelmsford. Canterbury is a different matter. It is an evocative, picturesque ground of listed buildings and a still, small voice of calm. Tampering with it, as Kent's committee and, in particular, its former chairman, Carl Openshaw, have attempted to do to stem losses - some of these self-inflicted - was always going to court controversy. What is more, this project has coincided with the so-called credit crunch that could lead to recession, which clearly is unfortunate.

Since Openshaw stood down at the AGM last March, there has been a deafening silence over whether the building works will ever commence. There has been no memo to members, recent detail on the website or comment in the local press. All the while, interest rates and the fees of architects and solicitors rise inexorably. It is necessary merely to take in that MCC's projected costs for the redevelopment of Lord's have gone from £200m to £300m to appreciate that even something on a much smaller scale to that or Wembley can go horribly out of sync.

Paul Millman's take is that the redevelopment will still go ahead despite the slowdown in the economy, but then, as chief executive, he has to remain optimistic. He cannot put a definite date on when work will start. The bald facts are that Persimmon Homes, who are supposed to be building 70-plus homes behind the pavilion and on the Bat and Ball car park just inside the main gate, shed 1,100 jobs earlier this month and made clear that cutting back on building projects in the county was not merely a short-term scenario.

Millman would not say this week whether they have put their signature to a contract or not. "We are in the hands of two development commercial partners so our risk is relatively low," he said. "We are no different from the rest of the country in being affected by the economic slowdown - Sussex are as well - but this is a long-term project so there is no rush. Some members have in fact expressed relief that there will be no noise from building work during Canterbury week."

Millman has already had to ward off a legal challenge from a member, Ben Moorhead, which will have added to the considerable costs already incurred on specialists' fees and doubtless caused a further delay. Planning permission has been granted, which will add to the value of the ground, but which has to be activated within a time span to take effect. Any change in Kent's plans will mean having to hold another special meeting of the membership, with all the consequential delays and costs involved. The turnout that gave the committee the go-ahead was small enough in the first place.

A further concern is whether Canterbury is a large enough city to justify a new hotel and conference centre, which would stand between Old Dover Road and the boundary edge. A suggestion by Jim Woodhouse, the county's former chief executive, that Cazenove, The Queen's stockbrokers, as well as other prominent financiers, be brought to Canterbury to offer professional advice was spurned by Openshaw before he left office. This week, even Derek Ufton, who has given a lifetime's service to the club as wicketkeeper and committee member and who still sits on the cricket committee, did not know whether the redevelopment would be going ahead.

The concern now being expressed by some members is that the ground might be sold and the club moved to a purpose-built site near the M25, or, conceivably, to Beckenham, which would be more geographically attractive to the members who live in that densely populated area where south London meets Kent. Just think what Lord Harris would have made of that.

Millman's stance is that the ground does not generate sufficient income on 40 days cricket a year. That may well be the case, and it is certainly true that the stands need some attention, but the subsidies from the ECB and revenue from Twenty20 cricket, which will only increase in 2010, coupled with functions and the occasional pop concert should be sufficient to keep the club afloat. It is, after all, not obligatory to sign an endless stream of Kolpak players, short-term overseas individuals who often make modest contributions, and cricketers from other counties who are often not of the first rank. The team might have reached the FPT final and Twenty20 finals day, but the club is in danger of losing its soul.