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HomeRUGBYKnole Paddock: The Tenant and the Landlord

Knole Paddock: The Tenant and the Landlord

On St. Georges Day in April, Sevenoaks Rugby Club (SRFC) beat Hertford 37-17 at Knole Paddock to record an historic win guaranteeing them the London & South East Premier title and furthermore a place in club history, as they would now be playing the much-loved game at National Level 4.

Changes ensued throughout the club during the summer, with Head Coach Adam Bowman taking on more responsibility as Sevenoaks’ Director of Rugby and a fulltime position at the club as Commercial Director.

With the promise of Level 4 rugby confirmed at Knole Paddock for the 2022/23 season, drainage work started on the pitch to meet the RFU’s high standards, whilst every other part of the club was already adhering to the governing bodies rules.

Sevenoaks then started life in England Rugby’s National 2 East Division with an away match at Westcliff in Essex, a game which they won 12-29. However, their much anticipated first home fixture of the season against Blackheath was then labelled as postponed on their social media channels, a few hours before the news that Queen Elizabeth II had sadly passed away.

Whilst football’s governing body, The FA, had decided a clean sweep across all competitive football in the country, the RFU and rugby in general was allowed to continue, thereby giving clubs and their supporters an outlet to pay their respects to Her Majesty.

Unfortunately not at Knole Paddock though. The reason for this untimely announcement from SRFC was due to the pitch not being fit for purpose, as assessed in person by inspectors of the RFU.

The summer drainage work at the ground had led to this unsatisfactory decision, and the club were not only heartbroken that they couldn’t fulfil their obligations to their opponents and their supporters but were also aggrieved at the loss of revenue the club would have taken on such a prestigious occasion.

Two weeks later and the pitch is still not at a standard that the RFU find acceptable despite 80 tonnes of sand being laid in the past week. This figure is now up to over 500 tonnes of sand since the summer.

In a statement from SRFC they announced: “Regretfully we have no choice but to change the venue for our 1st XV game on Saturday 24th September against Dorking RFC. Again our pitch has failed an RFU inspection and been deemed not fit for purpose.

“We have been able to secure an alternative venue through the ongoing support of Sevenoaks School, so whilst the pre- and post-match elements will be at the club, the game itself will be played five minutes up the road.”

It is at this point we should note that the rugby club do not own or lease the land on which they play, and have played on since around 1925, but rather rent it from Sevenoaks Town Council (STC).

Knole Paddock is marked as an Open Space area of the town and was handed down from Lord Sackville, via Sevenoaks District Council, and eventually into the hands of the Town Council, for recreational use by the Sevenoaks community. The Vine Cricket Pitch has an identical status to Knole Paddock, having been bequeathed to the local community, meaning that the land cannot be sold on for development.

In communications seen by Sevenoaks Sport and Wellbeing between STC and the rugby club, Trevor Nicholson, Sevenoaks Rugby Club’s Chairman said: “The 1st XV pitch desperately needed watering during the recent drought following slit drainage/sand work that was done too late – this was allowed during the hosepipe ban if you applied to the water company for a licence to use a sprinkler.

“STC failed to do this so the club applied for a licence and we did it ourselves using our own metered water. I think anyone would agree that this is not acceptable both in terms of our costs, time and your [STC’s] unwillingness to explore all possibilities.

“We are almost your only customer at the paddock, spending around £30,000 per annum on rental for our seniors on Saturdays and the 800 plus juniors on Sundays.

“We are one of the largest providers of community sport in the area, yet nobody seems to care whether or not we play- we’d like to think the town would be proud of what we do rather than hinder it.”

Linda Larter, CEO and Clerk to STC responded to our request for a response and said: “I think it would be helpful to first establish that the Knole Paddock is a Public Open Space which is used on a Pay and Play basis by sports clubs.

“With this in mind STC has to be mindful of the public open space being available to all its users – general public, cricket, football, and rugby.

“STC have committed to investing a lot in the grounds with additional drainage and new floodlights.

“The drainage works to Knole Paddock agreed in consultation with SRFC have been extensive. Ideally STC would have liked to have started the work much earlier in the year but SRFC did not want to lose any of its fixtures. This meant that unfortunately cricket fixtures had to be cancelled to enable the work to take place.  The long drought did not help with the process of the grounds recovering from the drainage work and delays to grass germinating and preventing weed killing.

“The Town Council has used a well-respected professional contractor for these works, who we used for similar works in the past and who is used on other grounds, e.g. at Greatness Recreation Ground for football pitches, and we are following their recommendations for works to restore the ground to meet the level required by SRFC for its league matches and other uses of the public open space.”

Sign of the times: The entrance sign to Knole Paddock is quite uninviting for the public.

What happened then and what happens now?
Sevenoaks Sport and Wellbeing did some research which included watching a recent STC Open Spaces and Leisure Committee meeting on YouTube, which was held on July 4th, 2022. In the meeting were a number of articles from SRFC that had been brought to the attention of the town councillors, asking for permission for certain things including additional ambulance access to the pitch, new road signage, sponsorship boards and an additional point of sale for an outdoor hot food facility (a BBQ).

After debating for near an hour, the councillors were unable to reach a decision on any of the above matters, citing that they did not have enough information to decide, which is their right of course, as elected members of the town council.

However, it was surprising to hear the way in which it was debated, it was not from the point of view that they now have a first class, National Level 4 rugby club in the town, but more that their tenants were asking for a lot of upgrades.

This half glass empty approach to SRFC’s plight was only lifted briefly by Cllr. Merilyn Canet who had nothing but praise for the Knole Paddock club, saying it was a fantastic community club and that other councillors should pay a visit on a match day. Most declined to comment on this, however it was even more surprising to hear one councillor admitting that he had never been to a match in all his years on the town council.

It was also at this meeting that the Open Spaces Manager, Nicholas Cave, announced that the Additional drainage works at Knole Paddock had been completed. Again, this meeting took place at the start of July, so why wasn’t the pitch ready in September? Sure the drought didn’t help, but if the rugby club had been in charge of maintaining their own pitch, then they would have ensured it was ready in time for the start of the new season.

We understand that council have concerns surrounding Knole Paddock and its purpose as a public open space and also it’s use for football and cricket. There are currently two rugby pitches, two cricket squares and a football pitch.

However after investigating, it seems that just three clubs currently rent and use the ground; SRFC, Wilderpark Football Club; and Orpington Ocelots Cricket Club. Yes that’s right, an Orpington cricket club, who have actually just been granted permission to erect two outdoor practice nets on the ground. Simply why a sports club from outside the town, and even outside the district, has use of the ground is quite baffling.

We do not disagree with the council’s response that they spend a lot of money on the ground, but it is not mentioned here that they do so at a loss each year

And it remains unclear why SRFC are being treated differently when they are actually in the same situation as Sevenoaks Vine Cricket Club. The rugby club would simply like to move to a situation whereby they have the same agreements and rights as other clubs who lease other open spaces in the town.

The outstanding question is Should Sevenoaks Town Council actually be acting as a sports facilities operator, with tax payers’ money?

We hope that both parties can come to a sensible agreement moving forward so this situation doesn’t happen again in the future. SRFC have been at the centre of the town since 1925, it would be great if they were still there in 2125.

FACT CHECKS
Sevenoaks Sport & Wellbeing always likes to fact check their articles before they are published. Below is a summary of information which is free to obtain from the STC website:

Both Sevenoaks Town FC and Sevenoaks Vine Cricket Club lease their pitches for just one peppercorn per annum1. Sevenoaks Town then rent their other pitch at a cost of £520 per annum. They both pay separately for the use of the buildings. In Sevenoaks Town FC’s case, it’s just £1 per annum plus their own in-house maintenance charges. Sevenoaks Vine is £3,500 per annum, again with their own in-house maintenance charges.

All the document states regarding Sevenoaks Rugby Club at Knole Paddock, is that the club pay £3,750.00 (it does not state the occurrence of this payment and what it is actually for) and that they commenced an agreement in 2020 for 5 years which expires in December 2025.

Both the football club and the cricket club pay for their own maintenance of their respective grounds, and with machinery involved this can run into thousands of pounds.

There is also the Sevenoaks District Council Play Pitch Strategy document2 from 2017 before they passed it on to STC, which clearly states how Sevenoaks Rugby Club would benefit from longer leases and assistance from the council going forward.

References:

  1. https://www.sevenoakstown.gov.uk/_UserFiles/Files/_Minutes/147550-Minutes_Open_Spaces_Committee_2022_07_04.pdf
  2. https://www.sevenoaks.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/1533/os004_playing_pitch_strategy_-_main_report_april_2018.pdf
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