Oct 25 2012 by Nick Hilton, The Liverpool Post
A 12-GAME unbeaten start ensured Tranmere’s 2012/13 campaign in League One will be one for the record books. If another result goes Rovers’ way tonight, at a meeting of Wirral Council Planning Committee, then this season could prove a pivotal one in shaping the club’s long-term future.
Councillors are due to decide on Tranmere’s dual application for permission to build 90 homes on the Ingleborough Road training ground and to redevelop the Woodchurch Leisure Centre into a new training complex, incorporating facilities to be shared with the local community.
The two projects are inextricably linked: neither can go ahead without the other. Council officials recommend approval but the final say rests with the elected politicians.
The plans were first put before the council in 2011, withdrawn in February of this year and resubmitted during the summer.
The Ingleborough Road housing development has the support of residents’ associations in the area but is opposed by local historical groups led by the Wilfred Owen Story ‘Heroes Not Houses’ campaign. They claim the six acre site close to Prenton Park, formerly the school playing fields for Birkenhead Institute, is a war memorial to the 88 pupils at the school who fell during the First World War and should be kept as open space.
The go-ahead for the project offers more than just a state-of-the-art training base for Tranmere’s professional and youth teams, who currently use leased training pitches at Raby Vale, with the academy set-up based at Ingleborough Road.
A green light also presents a club with an opportunity to significantly reduce long-standing debts of around £5 million owed to chairman and controlling shareholder Peter Johnson.
The difference between the windfall from the sale of Ingleborough and the cost of the Woodchurch redevelopment has been estimated at between £2 million and £3 million, depending on factors such as grant funding.
Enough certainly to take Johnson further down the road towards the objective of retiring from active control of the club he bought out of administration in 1987. The 72-year-old Birkenhead born businessman, currently living as a tax exile in Switzerland, last week collected £30 million from the sale of 60 million shares in the Park Group of companies. Johnson’s holding in Park, which he found himself, is now down to just under 30%.
He has been looking to sell a 60% stake in Tranmere over the past decade. Many potential suitors have been put off by the debt issue as well as Johnson’s insistence on finding a buyer with the long-term interests of his home town club at heart.
Johnson entered negotiations with the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust during the summer of 2011. The Trust remain committed to the project of buying the shares and taking the club into community ownership but have raised less than £200,000 from fans.
The reduction or removal of the debt issue would certainly work in favour of the Trust’s ambitions. They backed the twin projects from the start.
Trust chairman Ben Harrison insisted this week that approval would deliver a number of benefits to the community and “leave a lasting legacy for generations of young people”.
Harrison, said: “The choice is between retaining a privately-owned, inaccessible field which is not fit for purpose and serves nobody, or giving approval to a transformational scheme which would benefit thousands of people for years to come by creating jobs and providing new housing and top-rate community sports facilities.”
The Trust cannot ignore the possibility that should the Ingleborough/Woodchurch plans be approved and Rovers be able to reduce the debt to the chairman, then new potential buyers could emerge from the shadows to challenge them.
A “no” vote from the council planning committee would throw all parties back to square one.