After the most successful season in its history, Faversham's rugby club faces being made homeless by plans to improve Faversham Recreation Ground.
Ironically, Swale Borough Council's ambitious plans to revitalise the park endanger the future of one of the popular sports clubs using it.
Faversham RUFC – nicknamed The Castaways – won both league promotion and a Kent championship last season. But a rent hike threatens to force the club out of its headquarters at the Rec's lodge building.
The Grade II Listed Victorian former groundsman's lodge will be refurbished and part of it turned into a café as part of a Lottery-funded￡1.9 million makeover beginning this Summer. Even if the rugby club could afford increased rents, the scheme will cut the amount of space available to the club.
“If you take away the storage, parking and clubhouse space and increase our rent, those four factors could really kill us as a club,” says club spokesperson Jack Williams.
Faversham Rugby Club began life at the Swan and Harlequin pub, before being offered the recreation ground lodge for a £1-a-year-peppercorn rent in 1994. A neglected, derelict shell, the lodge had suffered several fires after falling into disrepair in the 1970s. But club volunteers brought it back into use, took over maintenance and provided free security.
Financially the club, which has about 100 active members, is dependent on the takings from the clubhouse bar and membership fees to survive.
“No one is paid for their work, being it running the bar or organising match days. It's all done voluntarily by members,” says Jack Williams. “The concern remains that is this not going to be affordable for us. We don't have a large turnover, so to take away the income and increase our expenditure is a double hit that we don't think we can take.”
Swale's Rec revamp promises to restore the park's historical features including a bandstand or performance area and improve facilities. Some ￡1.6m is Lottery-funded and a further £274,000 is from payments from housing developers' to provide local facilities (so-called 'Section 106' contributions).
Conservative coun David Simmons, formerly Swale Borough Council's cabinet member for environment and rural affairs, oversaw the project and lottery money bids.
“The master plan was put together with local people,” he said. “Local people have been involved every step of the way.”
But not local people who are members of the rugby club, it seems.
“The first we knew was an article in the Faversham News saying all relevant parties had been consulted,” says club spokesperson Jack Williams...
“We thought...hang on! We were expecting the council to contact us to say when planning permission was going in. But the next thing we know planning had been approved. We were none the wiser. We were under the impression the council would be notifying us!”
Planning permission was granted in February 2018 for remodelling the lodge to include a refreshment kiosk. The application was fully supported by Faversham Town Council which then included David Simmons among its members.
Yet despite the rugby club's claim it was kept in the dark, a planning report by Swale Borough Council's Design and Conservation Manager Simon Algar claimed: “These applications follow on from lengthy ongoing discussions/liaison users of the Recreation Ground facilities.'
He added: “It has been necessary to retain the rugby club’s use of the building in order to ensure that the overall package of proposals can be seen to be inclusive, from a community use/support perspective.”
Worried about its continued existence, Faversham RUFC issued the following statement in February this year: “Unfortunately assurances from coun David Simmons that the club would not be worse off have proved to have been empty platitudes and the reality is quite different.
Notably, despite reducing the size of the clubhouse, the council are also seeking an increase in rent.”
Swale doesn't own the recreation ground. It rents the park from Faversham United Municipal Charities for £1-a-year on a 50-year lease. The rugby club considered appealing to the Municipal Charities for help, until it discovered that the organisation's chairman was a certain Swale councillor David Simmons.
“As soon as we realised he was signing off on everything there we realised that was a dead end,” says Jack Williams.
We emailed coun Simmons for a comment but he did not respond.
The consultation began in 2014. Swale Borough Council displayed its plans in the Alexander Centre. In 2016, Swale submitted a 'proposed Heritage Master Plan' as part of its Lottery funding bid which shows a kiosk in the pavilion. There was no mention of a café in the lodge, just improving the building and changing rooms. But by July 2018, when the Heritage Lottery Fund grant was made, the planned kiosk had been quietly moved to the lodge.
“It's really affecting morale,” says Jack Williams. “We've got two men's teams and we're looking to develop the ladies team and actively start junior team this year. And we're going into the new league. How are we going to fulfil these fixtures if its not just the lodge affected but the changing rooms as well? We're losing a lot of space in the clubhouse to the new kiosk but we don't know how much space we are going to be left with.”
Uncertainty remains but with Swale Borough Council no longer under Conservative control the club is hoping for a more sympathetic approach. The new council has already promised the team that, despite building work over the Summer, the clubhouse will be available for the new season in September.
“We hope there's an opportunity not just for better terms but for better communication and understanding with the council about what we provide,” says Jack. “There's the community aspect of local people from the town playing in the team and the wider community aspect of the supporters, the social side which is very important to the club and our charitable activities.
New Swale Lib Dem councillor Hannah Perkin believes the rent hike should be dropped and is pressing the new coalition-controlled council to take action.
“The rugby club is a vital and thriving part of our community we will be pushing Swale Borough Council to drop the increase in rent for the lodge,” says the Swale and town councillor for Faversham's Abbey Ward. “The social, health and well-being aspects that the town gains from team sport and community building far outweighs the potential financial gain of rental increase.
“The club have worked hard over the years not only to restore the Lodge to the standard that it is now, but to foster all of these emotional and physical benefits and is an asset to the town.”
Faversham's Castaways have enjoyed a historically successful season. Not only did the team win 13 out of 16 games in the Kent 2 league, securing promotion to Kent 1, they went on to win the final of the Kent Salver cup against established Kent 1 team Southwark Lancers. Faversham's hooker Jack Meadows was man of the match at Kidbrooke's Charlton Park in a victory that featured a spectacular try from the Castaways' Fijian winger Samu Sarate.