London is in the middle of a stadium arms race. Next season, West Ham will join Arsenal in playing at a 60,000 seater venue, while the new White Hart Lane, capacity 61,000, is finally starting to emerge from the ground and will be a world-class home for Spurs.
Not wanting to be left behind, Chelsea late last year announced plans for a 60,000 capacity stadium of their own to replace Stamford Bridge.
I have written extensively about the new Spurs stadium, and will continue to monitor developments through the construction phase. I have also covered the deal that secured West Ham the use of the Olympic Stadium, an agreement that has drawn strong criticism over value for money offered to the taxpayer.
In this post, I am going to examine Chelsea’s plans in some detail. Of all the stadium projects in London, it is arguably the most ambitious.
After years of trying and failing to secure an alternative site in West London, Chelsea in December last year unveiled plans to demolish Stamford Bridge (capacity 41,798) and replace it with a new 60,000 capacity stadium.
To achieve a bigger stadium, Chelsea’s architects have drawn up innovative plans to expand the boundaries of the site, raising all manner of issues that the planners at Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council and other authorities will have to weigh up in their decision-making process.
I have spent several weeks researching the proposals and soliciting information. In this post, I will discuss various aspects of the project including the complications arising from the need to construct over railway lines, matters relating to finance and housing, and potential security concerns.
From my research, it is clear that there are serious hurdles for Chelsea to overcome. I can reveal that certain aspects of the project are now being redesigned, and a further public consultation will be required, raising the possibility of delays.
Before I start, I want to make one thing clear: I have no objection to Chelsea building a new stadium. I am writing this piece as much to educate myself as anything — as regular readers know, I find these projects fascinating.
Football stadiums are our modern-day cathedrals, vast monuments to our devotion and places of congregation. Stamford Bridge had a 99.7% attendance in 2014/15, and if the club feels there is sufficient supporter demand, and local fans in particular are being prevented from attending, then of course they have every right to try to build a bigger stadium.
It makes no difference to me as a Spurs fan if Chelsea build a new stadium — I am sure we will show it due respect when we visit.
I welcome feedback and comments — these are huge documentation bundles and no doubt there are interesting things that I have not covered. If you want to read my previous “deep dives”, you can find them here. Full coverage on the Spurs stadium project can be found here. The planning documents are here.
Railways and delays
When I first looked at these plans in December last year, there was one aspect that immediately jumped out at me as being potentially problematic beyond the more typical planning issues associated with a project of this size. Namely, the need to build over railway lines.
While Spurs had to undergo the torturous process of compulsory purchases orders to acquire the necessary land, much of what Chelsea are attempting will be achieved by knocking down the existing stadium, “Chelsea Village” apartment blocks and the two hotels on site.
The club does not own the freehold of the stadium, which is held by the fan-owned Chelsea Pitch Owners. There is no agreement yet, as far as I am aware, but one assumes that eventually the club reaches a deal that enables them to proceed.
While this makes it easier, the problem Chelsea have is that the site simply isn’t big enough for a 60,000 seater stadium. To create enough space, the project will sprawl out, Blob-like, over both the District Line underground line, and the “Southern Mainline” on the eastern side. These maps show how the boundaries will expand:
Chelsea are planning major changes to Fulham Broadway underground station to create direct access, and will construct decking over the line. On the other side, the club will again construct decking, and trains will run under the East Stand (see image below).
As you can see from the maps, this is a considerable land grab by Chelsea. While the East Stand would go over the railway, the decking stretches out all the way across the “cutting” and up to Brompton Cemetery. It covers the length of the eastern side of the scheme, and connects up with Fulham Road.
While the District Line essentially going “underground” for another hundred metres is one thing, the Southern Mainline is an overground line. If you look along its route, from Clapham to Willesden Junction, nothing is built “over” it, with the notable exception of Earls Court Two (update 14.20pm: which is being demolished — thanks to Twitter user Ross Paul for pointing this out).
The line carries passenger services — London Overground and Southern — and is also the main freight route through the west side of London.
The Chelsea plan struck me as problematic for two reasons. One, this is public infrastructure and there must be limits to what is “allowed” in terms of private development going over the top of it. Two, a long covered section, quite tightly enclosed as the long-section shows, may pose maintenance and “future-proofing” problems.
The authority that will ultimately decide whether Chelsea can build over the Southern Mainline is Network Rail, which also owns the land. I contacted them to get their view.
In addition to answering my questions on various matters, they provided a copy of their correspondence with Hammersmith and Fulham planners. These are public documents that are part of the planning process, but they have not yet been published online by the council, at least as far as I can see.
In its correspondence, Network Rail describes Chelsea’s plan as a “major operational liability” citing maintenance and safety concerns, and says it is yet to give its approval.
“Due to the East Stand sitting directly above the railway the new structure represents a potential major operation liability for us in terms of safeguarding future access for inspection and maintenance requirements and similar (and the ongoing cost implications of this) and also to ensure that the appropriate railway standards are followed in this design to safeguard the safety of the railway and the travelling public.”
The correspondence also reveals that changes are being made to the design of the eastern decking, and these changes will require a further public consultation phase.
“We understand design of the deck is undergoing significant revision due to recent planning objections relating to neighboring properties immediately east of the stadium, and that both the height and the horizontal extent of the deck are likely to change.
“We look forward to reviewing the amendments as they are prepared, via the APA (Asset Protection Agreement), and will write to you again following the further public consultation phase that will take place when these plans are formally submitted to the LPA (local planning authority)”.
Network Rail notes that the redesign, as of the February date of the letter, was at too early a stage for engineers to approve.
As Network Rail makes clear, an “Asset Protection Agreement” would need to be reached between the rail authority and Chelsea before planning permission can be granted. Alternatively, conditions requiring Network Rail’s consent could be inserted into a planning agreement. It warns that as the stadium offers no “operational benefit” for railway users, the taxpayer should not be liable for any increased maintenance obligations or liabilities arising from the project.
Simply put, until Chelsea can come up with a design on the eastern side of the project that satisfies Network Rail in terms of maintenance, safety and cost, the project cannot proceed. The need for a further public consultation will mean delays.
Right to light and other issues
While the railway poses a specific and major headache, a project of this scale inevitably raises a host of more run-of-the-mill planning issues.
In its planning statement, the club identifies issues such as traffic, “right to light”, noise, air quality and so forth, and presents its arguments of how it feels the scheme complies with the many codes and standards in place to control development in London.
For example, Chelsea argue that the construction of a direct access to a rebuilt Fulham Broadway station will reduce congestion on Fulham Road on match days. It may well, but it should be noted that the proposed eastern decking creates a whole new egress onto Fulham Road just a 100 yards or so down the road. These are factors the planners will weigh in their deliberations.
One issue of concern will be “right to light” — the principle that new developments should not tower over other buildings and block out their sunlight. For 60,000 capacity stadiums in residential areas, this is tricky.
In its planning statement, Chelsea note that “moderate (significant) adverse effects as a result of a loss of daylight are limited to only one property.”
Looking at the plans, my best guess is that this is one of the properties immediately north of the site, in the Brompton Park development. As you can see from the comparison below, the new north stand will be much taller, and closer to the houses the other side of the District Line. I am sure the planners would want to scrutinize this assessment closely — the wording strikes me as rather careful.
From my reading of the other maps and drawings, the properties to the south have long been overshadowed by Chelsea Village, and the new stadium won’t be any closer or taller on this side.
On the western side are the Sir Oswald Stoll Mansions, which houses disabled and vulnerable veterans. From my reading of the plans, the West Stand won’t be significantly taller or closer than it already is. However, three years of demolition and reconstruction work, not to mention increased traffic from 19,000 additional supporters, may not be welcomed by residents and managers of this community.
The good news for Chelsea is that there don’t appear to be significant heritage issues. Spurs, by contrast, had to seek consent to demolish three listed buildings, which delayed the project and created risk in securing all of the required approvals.
There is a one conservation issue to overcome. Running parallel to the Southern Mainline is a “cutting”, a sliver of green — so precious in London — called the Billings and Brompton Cutting Conservation Area. The planned decking on the eastern side will cover this.
Chelsea’s planning statement identifies the line of argument that the club may take. It cites a previously consented scheme (since renewed) to construct a railway station for Chelsea Village where the cutting stands. The club will be hoping that no-one has identified any new bat colonies or rare newts in the intervening years.
Blank slate, blank cheque
Having read through Chelsea’s planning statement, nowhere does it mention how much the scheme will cost, or how the club intends to pay for it.
A vague figure of £500 million has been put about, but quite how this was arrived at is not clear. The club has provided no details of how it will secure the funding. The assumption is that Roman Abramovich will ultimately fill in any gaps in the financing, but even for someone worth many billions of pounds, we are talking potentially large amounts of money.
As I have previously mentioned, the Spurs scheme will cost between £675 million and £750 million in total. Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has put the cost of the stadium itself at about £500 million.
For Spurs, the main cost beyond the construction itself was securing the necessary land. For Chelsea, depending on the deal struck with Chelsea Pitch Owners, the biggest cost may come from needing to rebuild Chelsea VIllage.
The two hotels on site will be demolished and not rebuilt — the planning statement notes that “it is assumed a proportion of hotel employees will be redeployed elsewhere in the proposed development” but makes no promises, potentially undermining the arguments that the redevelopment will boost the local economy through creating jobs.
But you can’t simply demolish housing. Chelsea Village has 38 apartments with total floor space of 4,005 square metres, and Chelsea must find an alternative site and rebuild it. This will be both difficult and enormously expensive in Hammersmith and Fulham.
As for the build itself, construction over railways sounds expensive and difficult, but this isn’t my area of expertise. I’d welcome any suggestions.
For Spurs, clear plans on financing the stadium were required to secure compulsory purchase orders, from my understanding of the court documents in the Archway case. The club needed to demonstrate that it had viable plans for completing its planned scheme, and wasn’t merely using the stadium proposals as a pretext to acquire the land.
Chelsea may need to demonstrate a similar viability to reach a deal with Chelsea Pitch Owners, who may be concerned that such a grandiose scheme is a merely a ruse to secure the freehold.
One other area of additional cost will be compensation to Network Rail for building over the Southern Mainline, if maintenance and safety concerns can be assuaged (likewise TFL for construction over the District Line).
A Network Rail spokesman told me that each development that requires construction over a railway is treated on merit. But, if Chelsea are given the go-ahead, Network Rail will surely require significant compensation both to cover any foreseen future costs, and also to extract a sufficient “pound of flesh” to discourage other well-heeled individuals or expanding businesses from seeing a precedent in Chelsea’s plans to build over its land.
As previously mentioned, the Southern Mainline is a major freight route as well as a route for passenger services. Having used West Brompton station frequently, I can attest to how often these massive freight trains rumble through.
There is one particular type of freight that travels along the line which may give the planners pause before giving Chelsea permission to build a stadium over the top of it — nuclear waste.
Trains operated by Direct Rail Services carry nuclear waste on the Southern Mainline, from the defueling work at the Dungeness B nuclear power station in Kent, through west London to Willesden Junction, and then onwards to wherever the hell it goes.
In 2006, Greenpeace published a schedule of these “nuclear trains” — if the same schedule remains in place, the trains rumble through West Brompton at 7.15pm on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday evenings. You don’t have to be Frederick Forsyth to envisage the potential — however microscopic — for Europa League nights Chez Roman to suddenly become a lot more interesting.
Trying to establish whether these trains still run, and whether there is any serious risk here, is pretty hard — after all, the schedule is supposed to be a secret.
I checked in with David Polden, an anti-nuclear campaigner who follows nuclear train issues closely, and he confirmed that the trains do indeed still run, and will continue to do so until Dungeness B is shut down (initial target date 2008, latest target date 2028).
The risk from these trains is threefold: fire, radiation leaks and terrorism.
According to Polden, the design of the decking above the railway — with an opening at one side, rather than a standard tunnel — reduces the risk of an intense fire that would burn above the 800 degrees C that the nuclear “flasks” carrying the spent fuel rods are tested to withstand (an oil fire in a standard tunnel can burn at 2000 degrees C). The risk from radiation is insignificant from passing trains — this is only a problem when nuclear trains, which leak continuously, spend time in sidings.
However, concerns over terrorism have been considered in relation to sporting events in London. Trains carrying spent fuel from the Sizewell A nuclear station in Suffolk, which normally pass through the Olympic park, were stopped a month before the 2012 games, and for its duration, per Polden.
“Having nuclear trains running under a Chelsea grandstand would surely also constitute a tempting target for a terrorist wanting a high-publicity, perhaps high-casualty, target,” Polden said.
I contacted Direct Rail Services, which operates Britain’s nuclear trains. They said they had not yet been notified by Network Rail. In this type of situation, plans first have to be approved by Network Rail, and then train operators get the chance to raise concerns. Network Rail said it doesn’t anticipate any significant issues with operators. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority — and this is a sentence I never envisaged writing as a football blogger — did not respond to requests to comment.
How real a problem is this? I have tried to contact various experts or organisations without success — funnily enough, when you ask people about this sort of thing, more likely than not they think you are nuts.
(Greenpeace, who published the original research, should have been the exception and have proven particularly frustrating to deal with — they have certainly lived up to their reputation as being more interested in celebrity campaigns than answering legitimate questions on environmental issues.)
Evidently, we are talking a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage in likelihood that anything goes wrong. The same trains have been running under Earls Court Two quite safely since it was constructed. Halting nuclear trains, if done from a security perspective, was just one of a number of elaborate security measures taken during the Olympics. Authorities also put surface-to-air missile on top of tower blocks in anticipation of… well, whatever crazy scenario they had gamed out as an excuse to show off their toys and reassure the public.
But, looking at things from another perspective, does running trains carrying nuclear waste under a 60,000 seater stadium seem like a remotely sensible idea?
If this all feels far-fetched, even running standard passenger trains through a tight space under a crowded stadium poses a risk.
The terrorist attacks targeting the Stade de France last year underscore the issue of stadium security. Any new development that creates a security issue of any kind, no matter how microscopic in likelihood and crazy sounding, will draw scrutiny from authorities in the current environment.
The issues I have outlined are just a few of those in play, What Chelsea are attempting is both hugely ambitious, and fraught with risk. Chelsea only need to look at Spurs to see how many obstacles they will need to overcome before they can begin work. If even one link in the chain is weak, that could mean years of delays as legal cases crawl through the courts. There is nothing about building a 60,000 seater stadium in London that is easy — and frankly, it should be hard.
Chelsea originally planned to begin work in the 2017/18 season, but with Spurs close to announcing an agreement with the FA for Wembley and reservations over the ability of the stadium to host two teams at the same time, it would appear likely that Chelsea are already aware that the timetable is slipping.
Per journalist Dan Levene, there are other indications that Chelsea will still be at Stamford Bridge in 2017/18:
The first indications were well-sourced suggestions that corporate hospitality at The Bridge was still being sold on a two and three season basis – suggesting that a move to Wembley, or some other location, may be further off than anticipated. There is also intelligence leaking out that matchday ancillary staff, whose service would almost certainly not be required during any period at Wembley, have been told their jobs will remain safe beyond the end of next season.
I am certain, when Chelsea set out on this plan, they would have done so expecting a detailed back-and-forth with planners and the need to make alterations. Spurs went through the same process in getting approval from the planners in Haringey.
In a club statement in December, Chelsea hinted at exactly this:
“The planning process will last beyond the end of the season; if the application is granted planning permission there will still be a lot of work to do before redevelopment can start, including obtaining various other consents.”
As I said at the top of the story, I have no objections to Chelsea building a bigger stadium — as far as I’m concerned as a Spurs fan, bring it on.
Looking at what is planned, Chelsea appear to be going to quite extraordinary lengths and expense for a significantly smaller capacity increase than Spurs. While Spurs’ capacity will increase by 68 percent, for Chelsea it will increase by 43.5 percent. [Update: I’ve corrected these percentages, maths never my strongest suit…]
Your wonder, if Network Rail is ultimately unwilling to give approval to the plans, whether there are other ways to expand the stadium on the existing site without spilling over above the railway? It may not achieve a 60,000 capacity to match Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham, but Chelsea may be able to get closer.
As Chelsea note though, it isn’t just capacity that necessitates a new stadium, but also inadequate amenities and issues of access and egress that many supporters who travel to the Bridge will have experienced. There may be some alternatives in the new design with a smaller East Stand that doesn’t cover the railway tracks. It may not be quite the monument that Chelsea and Mr Abramovich desire, but it would fulfill the purpose of a new and better stadium.
Whatever happens, Chelsea fans will eagerly await further news of the redevelopment, as will local residents and businesses. In the meantime, as last Monday proved, Stamford Bridge is still a characterful and atmospheric football stadium, at least when Spurs are the opposition.
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Update: 10/05/16 10:00am.
In this piece I quoted journalist Dan Levene, who has covered the Chelsea stadium more closely than anyone . He sent a detailed response to my article — it fills in a number of gaps, and adds valuable perspective. As I said in the piece, there are bound to be things I have missed or misunderstood — the great pleasure of these “deep dives” is the quality of feedback they receive. Below is Dan’s response in full:
This is a very well researched and written article, rightly turning a critical eye to several aspects of Chelsea’s proposed major development.
However, as one who has spent a great deal of time researching and writing about some of the issues you raise, I felt a number of points needed addressing.
Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO)
Chelsea Football Club does not need ownership of the freehold to demolish and rebuild Stamford Bridge. It was the general understanding that its owner did at least want this, hence the battle in 2011 to obtain it. However, the current intelligence is that this desire is cooling: framed, not least, by the knowledge that this may now be an unobtainable goal.
The desire to own the freehold was understood to be linked, in part, to the wish to access external funding streams: ie. a cash for equity swap. In recent weeks, there has been speculation that a major extension of the lease to, say, 999 years may provide the permanence in residence the club would need to attract a venture capital partner.
This article relies heavily upon the ‘major operational liability’ phrase used by Network Rail in its planning submission. Having previously worked in the area of Network Rail’s economic and safety regulation for some years, I have a reasonable understanding of this particular area of the project.
I can say with certainty that, following the Gerrards Cross tunnel collapse in 2005 (where a Tesco superstore was being built over the railway), Network Rail has been pushed to consider pretty much all such proposed development as a ‘major operational liability’. In part, this is because of a drive to re-evaluate it’s risk assessment procedures, biut it is also used as a bargaining tool at the planning stage of developments.
Network Rail is required to extract the maximum potential value from usable land, as a funding stream, at a time when the government is attempting to drive down its direct cost to the taxpayer. Thus, while the terms of any such deal to build over the railway will be a matter of commercial posturing, there will be an expectation there there will be a will to go ahead.
One issue that this article fails to address, and which has presented itself as a huge red flag (at least to me) from day one, is that the plans seem to require construction to take place over a live, working railway. I would be surprised if, with hindsight of the Gerrards Cross case, Network Rail’s risk management procedures would allow that to happen. If they do not, then that will significantly impact on the build times.
While I share the author’s concerns about the freighting of nuclear waste around the country by railway, there is a little context needed here.
This is a practice that has gone on for decades. It is impossible to say that any risk stands at precisely zero, but the extent to which waste in these trains is insulated, and the incredibly high safety bar employed these days in the nuclear industry, mean that the risks here are as close to zero as is practicable.
These trains pass in close proximity to large numbers of people practically every day. Stand on the platform at Willesden Junction from 7.30pm to 8.30pm on a weekday evening and you are almost guaranteed to see one pass by. (I am not raising any security risk by revealing this – timetables are well publicised online). While I have strong personal reservations about the use of nuclear power, and the environmental risks attached to the disposal of its unwanted produce, being aware of the risks I had absolutely no concerns standing by as one of these quarter-mile long trains passed within a yard of my nose last Thursday evening.
While nuclear freight movements were, indeed, halted for the period of the Olympics, they have been permitted to run without incident directly underneath concerts and other major visitor attraction events at Earls Court for many years.
Rebuilding Chelsea Village
While the plans include an undertaking to provide alternative residential accommodation, to the same standard and value, elsewhere within the borough for existing Stamford Bridge residents, they say nothing about ‘building’ these. While I have no particular intelligence in this area, it may be worth noting that the Earls Court Masterplan includes a proposal for 7,500 new homes of a similar style, and to a parallel (or higher) standard, at the other end of Brompton Cemetery. There have been plenty of recent column inches devoted to the saturation of the luxury apartment market caused by this, and the Battersea Power Station development, and the difficulty developers are now having in shifting these units.
I make these points on an entirely personal basis, and don’t seek to represent anyone else in doing so. It is right to scrutinise Chelsea’s plans here, and in my submission there are a number of areas in which they don’t entirely stand up to the most severe testing. However, particularly as I am quoted in your piece, I thought it important to address a number of misapprehensions the piece appears to promote.