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  • Writer's picturethe football architect

We've been robbed

a brief discussion on how to go about potentially limiting crime at grassroots football facilities through strategic planning...

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a massive list of problems and difficulties across all areas of society, none more serious than the massive risk to life the whole of the human race is facing.  Clearly priorities in these extraordinary times is to protect the public, to stay safe and to follow the advice of experts so that we can emerge from this disaster as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

Football has of course been hit hard along with many other industries but even within the industry of ‘football’ there comes a wide range of challenges to be tackled.  This article will look very briefly into an issue that seems to particularly affect lower league, non-league and grassroots football (and general sports) clubs across the UK; vandalism and theft occurring at facilities.

These crimes may seem insignificant in the wider context right now, and they are lower down the priority ladder for sure.  However, the longer term impact of the theft of key equipment, or the vandalism of pitches, equipment and facilities at smaller sports grounds can be massively detrimental to the communities in which they serve.  

These smaller scale clubs are often integral to their communities, providing a wide range of social and health benefits from giving young people opportunities to exercise and all the physical and mental health benefits that brings, the feeling of belonging to something, to learn about team working and dealing with triumph and adversity through to offering opportunities for volunteers to develop skills and offer a focal point for local civic pride.

Often run on shoe-string budgets and dependent on an army of volunteers and/or lower paid workers, the impact of criminal behaviour can be massive and in effect potentially cripple a key community resource.  Often much work within facilities has been undertaken by volunteers and therefore insurance companies can only cover a limited amount of the damage done. Whilst any time spent away from operations whilst waiting for replacements or repairs can mean a dramatic loss of income that can destroy the cash flow of the club such as we are seeing now during the Coronavirus pandemic.

So why are smaller scale sports facilities such a target for thieves and criminals?  Well, there are of course many possible reasons, but one big one is derived from how we as a society plan our urban environments at the very most fundamental of levels.

Often our sports facilities are removed as far as possible from residential areas, effectively zoned so as to be separate to minimise noise and traffic disturbance.  This is not always the case of course, but with the increased need for floodlights and the increased pressure on land for housing, it is becoming more often to see newer football spaces being pushed to the edge of our urban environments.

The effect this then has is to remove the facilities from our sight.  By turning our backs to the grounds to shield our eyes from the glare of floodlights we allow villains to sneak between the shadows and assault our assets.  Without natural surveillance the crimes can be committed unobserved, and unrecorded until much later when finally noticed, by which point the perpetrators have long since vanished.

There are opportunities constantly to address this issue and bring our sports facilities into the heart of our communities once again as they often used to be.  Yet, from my own personal recent experience I have witnessed chance after chance missed, often due to the overly rigid framework of our planning system in combination with capitalist drivers.  

Just this last season a nearby housing development was granted permission at appeal to develop a large vacant site directly adjacent to an existing large grassroots football facility that has served the local village for years.  Instead of the housing development actually ‘engaging’ with the ground it shut it off, facing gable ends and positioning high fences, hedges and brick walls at the main boundary. Not even pedestrian access from the new estate to the pitches was included in the proposals.  Yes, they have at least contributed to the s106/CIL funding for the local community, but the developer made only token gestures to support this vital community asset directly through the offer of ‘one set of training tops for the first team’. This developer makes millions of pounds of profit year after year, is building on fields in a high value village in rural northern England right next to a football club that was founded over 100 years ago and the best they could do in terms of engaging with the site is to supply some training tops.  Simply put, this is far from good enough.

It does not have to be like this however.  

Imagine if our forward planning for our communities included more opportunities for mixed use developments.  Imagine if we were able to create development partnerships to enable successful long term planning for our villages, town and cities.  Imagine actually giving focus to healthy lifestyles that can then determine our urban planning rather than allowing swathes of contextless housing and tarmac washing across the land and forcing us into our cars for every journey from large supermarkets to huge sports centres and so forth.

Whilst some of this does happen in the UK already, it is the exception rather than the norm.

Taking the example used previously, could the planning system not have identified the fields adjacent to the ground as suitable for development and put forward simple guidance on how this was to be achieved.  It could have integrated the pitches into the new housing with pedestrian access directly, it could have faced roads and streets onto the ground to give natural surveillance, it could have included a natural play area within the ground to give small children opportunities to play whilst their siblings are on the pitch, it could have included a circular track around both sites to encourage exercise from new residents.  It could have included small sided pitches within the housing development itself to further encourage sports and play. So many things could have been done that would not only have made a more interesting and vibrant residential area, but could have better engaged new residents with the sports clubs, giving a greater sense of ownership, giving natural surveillance and increasing occupation and use so that opportunities for crime are diminished.

Other countries have adopted this model and often and regularly fully integrate sports facilities among their residential areas.  Of course it is not always possible to directly transfer ideas across cultures with success, but it does go to show just what can be done if we think about things a bit differently.

And for the argument that suggests profits at all costs will always win and that these ideas to fully integrate sports clubs within the communities in which they serve will reduce the bottom line and therefore not ever materialise, well let's take a look at the world around us right now and see if the pursuit of money at all costs is really what we want the world to look like post COVID-19?  I would argue there’s no point in having all the money and living in a substandard fashion. Let us create wonderful spaces in which to live and thrive and treasure. Our football spaces can become football places, places of real identity that are loved and maintained and used and can discourage anti-social behaviour and crime and all the damage that does.

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