Nov 1 2012 by Nick Hilton, The Liverpool Post
TRANMERE have moved an important step closer to the twin objectives of establishing a new training complex and reducing the club’s debt.
But no-one at Prenton Park is celebrating just yet following Wirral Council’s decision to grant outline planning permission for the building of 90 homes on the training ground and for the redevelopment of the Woodchurch Leisure Centre into Rovers’ new training base.
One reason for the caution is that opponents of the Ingleborough housing scheme say they plan to appeal and take the fight further.
And although the plans have been approved in principle, the club must now provide detailed information about how the Woodchurch scheme will be funded. Until the money is in place no work will be allowed to take place at Ingleborough.
Those against the plans have maintained the field is a memorial to 88 former Birkenhead Institute pupils – including war poet Wilfred Owen – who died during the First World War and should be preserved.
Their argument was rejected by council planners, who said that while the field was a war memorial, it had no legal protection.
But Dean Johnson, who led the “Heroes not Houses” campaign said: “This is not a loss for us or a victory for them. We’re waiting to see if the government’s National Planning Casework Unit will refer the decision to the Secretary of State.
“We also want to look at the legal side of trying to keep covenants on the site which say it must be used for recreation. This will garner an avalanche of scorn for the borough.”
While Tranmere have remained silent on the issue during the planning process, the club’s corner has been fought by the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust.
Trust chairman Ben Harrison welcomed the council’s planning decision. He said: “We can now look towards the future with renewed optimism. These two developments will deliver a number of significant benefits for Wirral, including new housing, a host of jobs and state-of-the-art sports facilities, so we are pleased that the committee has made a common sense decision in keeping with the wishes of so many residents in Tranmere and Woodchurch.”
A final go-ahead for the projects 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 setup based at Ingleborough Road.
A green light also presents the 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.
It is 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 has been looking to sell his 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.
However, the Trust cannot ignore the possibility that should the Ingleborough/Woodchurch plans are approved and Rovers are able to reduce the debt to the chairman, then new potential buyers could emerge from the shadows to challenge them.