At the recent AGM of our club Bristol and West AC, which is the only track and field club in the city, widespread concern was expressed by our members, not for the first time I might add, on the continued lack of progress in providing adequate facilities for our sport.
We would remind you of last year’s report of the National Audit Commission that highlighted the poverty of provision for sport in Bristol compared to other cities. In no sport, not even swimming which is frequently quoted, is this poverty so stark as athletics. In our opinion it remains a national scandal that a city of Bristol’s size does not have a certified competition venue and has not had so for the last six years.
Some of my committee colleagues and myself have been engaged periodically in on-going discussions with Council officers since we were presented, more than two years ago now, with a policy decision on the future of athletic facilities by Simon Cook, who was then the Leisure chair. The proposal was that the ailing Whitchurch stadium would be replaced by a 6-lane training track at Packers ground in Whitehall and that alongside this the enhancement of the current 6-lane track at Filton College into a full 8-lane competition venue with spectator facilities would be undertaken in association with South Gloucestershire Council.
Although this did not meet with our own ideals, since we really need a home training and competition venue on one site as used to be the case at Whitchurch, we agreed to accept it as the most economic compromise in the prevailing circumstances.
Unfortunately progress in carrying out this policy decision since has been painfully slow, and in most of our members’ perspective non-existent, which is seriously hampering the development of the sport in Bristol and denying our youngsters the opportunities available to their peers in other cities.
You may have read in the local press recently that the situation has now become so dire that that no Bristol school is able to hold its championships/sports day in the city. They either have to go to Yate, Bath University, or even in the case of Bristol Grammar School this summer to Newport as the Yate venue is already booked. This involves considerable expense in time and money, which is surely educationally indefensible in a city of Bristol’s size and reputation.
Basically there are three questions we need answering:
1. When is the Whitchurch track going to be closed?
2. When is the new facility at Whitehall going to be completed now that planning approval has been granted?
3. What is the timescale for the enhancement of the track at Filton College, without which we shall never be able to stage a track and field match.
1. We have always been led to understand that the Whitchurch track must remain open until an alternative facility is operational. This we understand and remind you is a statutory obligation. The current situation is that a remedial charge of some £250,000 would have to be incurred to meet health and safety standards and to receive official certification. We can appreciate that such expenditure is out of the question from the economic standpoint if the new facilities planned can be completed in the near future.
But for now the statutory obligation remains, while at present our club and any other athletes are only able to use it as a training venue and even then only for those activities where we are satisfied that the ground conditions are safe. If it is just nothing more than wet, it can become unusable. To give you an example, when the Bristol Schools trials were staged there last year in damp conditions, the high jump had to be abandoned as unsafe, the javelin had to be restricted to standing throws, while in the sprint events many of the competitors slipped and fell at the start!
Quite apart from these hazards, the site itself is a blight on the city and not surprisingly we have lost many young athletes and prospective members due to the state of the arena, its surrounds and the accompanying threat of vandalism. Parents for instance often take one look and decide to go elsewhwere, frequently to Yate, which hardly assists our efforts to develop the sport in Bristol. Besides we would also remind you that this is the city that is set to welcome the Kenyan Olympic team in 2012. Where we ask will they do their track training if nothing is done soon? At least it would be like home from home for them, as Bristol itself is at present endowed with nothing much better than third world facilities for athletics.
2. Obviously the construction of the training track at Whitehall will go some way to meeting our needs for a home base, but now that planning approval has been granted we need to know when the funding is likely to be available to give the go-ahead. If this will not be until Phase 2 of the Hengrove Park project becomes operational, we fear this could still be some years away, particularly in view of the current credit crunch.
Even if the project was given the go-ahead tomorrow, we have reservations about its practicability as the present plan stands, so I am asking my club colleague Hilary Nash, who has been our chief spokesman and negotiator for the project, to detail these concerns in greater detail under separate cover.
3. Even when the proposed facility at Packers ground is completed, we will still not be in a position to stage a track and field match as it’ is only going to be a training facility. We feel that it is no coincidence that while as a club we are ranked in the top six in the UK for road and cross-country running and have recently been one of only three clubs in the country offered a 4-year kit sponsorship deal by Ron Hill Sports on the back of our success, we have been unable to replicate the same standard in track and field due to the lack of a true home base. At present many of our athletes have to go to Bath to use the state of the art facilities there, while some go to Yate, others to Filton, and some of course, reluctantly I might add, to Whitchurch. You can appreciate how difficult it is in such circumstances to create a true club environment.
While the new training facility at St George will go some way to alleviating this, it is just as important to have somewhere we can compete! The Filton track is certainly well situated for this, being close to the M4/M5 corridor, but it seems even more uncertain that this part of the deal struck by our policy-makers is ever going to be realised. So again we ask what is the current situation? The plans for the site seem very uncertain, so if it is not going to happen, what alternative plan is in place to provide the city’s athletes with a certified competition facility for track and field? At present Bristol is the only major city in the UK that cannot hold a track and field meeting.
As you will realise from the tenor of this plea, the situation has reached a point where we must have straight answers to our questions. We cannot make any forward plans until we know what the real situation is. Yet whatever your point of view, it does seem a travesty that when the country is set to host the Olympic Games in three years time we do not have a track to compete on in Bristol.
How ironic too that only last weekend Manchester, which already has four tracks of its own, was able to find the wherewithal to install a portable track in the city centre, while Bristol does not even have a single permanent one that can be used for competition! The city recently found £20 million to refurbish the Colston Hall. Surely it can find the fraction of that needed to give our young athletes the chance they deserve. Perhaps some of the profit from the city’s Half marathon and 10K could be channelled back into the sport that generated it, as happens with the London marathon.