Developer set to make millions from stadium fiasco

Part of the stadium terracing still remains at the eyesore Hattonrigg site.
Part of the stadium terracing still remains at the eyesore Hattonrigg site.

North Lanarkshire Council is being pressed for answers after it emerged a developer stands to make millions from the sale of former public land.

Bellshill Athletic were allowed to buy a 30-acre site in the town’s Hattonrigg Road to build a new football stadium.

However, promised community facilities never materialised and the stadium itself was closed after only six years, then demolished.

The area is now lying derelict and is up for sale with a price tag of £2.5 million. Potential buyers will be looking to get planning permission for housing.

However, the Times & Speaker has seen documents which show that the developer behind the stadium project has already made a tidy profit on adjacent land.

Back in 2002 the council agreed to sell ground including the Hattonrigg public football park, to the club for £800,000.

The driving force behind Athletic at that time was businessman Stephen McGhee and papers show his company, Avonmill, acquired the land but agreed to sell a portion of it immediately to housebuilders Wimpey for £2 million.

Wimpey then built houses on that ground.

The council accepted that Mr McGhee’s company wanted to sell some of the land to finance the stadium project.

However, the authority made clear repeatedly that the only reason it was giving up the public land was so the football club could move to a new home.

Paul Jukes, who last month took over as the council’s chief executive, was director of community services when the deal was agreed nearly 14 years ago.

At that time he stressed: “Should the development fall at any stage of the project, the existing site would return under the control of community services.”

That has not happened and Bellshill Community Council member John Devlin says the new chief executive must provide some answers.

He said: “Everything that was in the agreement to protect and benefit the community was ignored. This was formerly a public park and protected open space. It cannot be right that, after everything the council promised, we are left with nothing while a developer makes millions.

“The council must answer for all the promises that haven’t been kept. I believe there was never any intention to complete the project.”

Apart from the stadium, Mr McGhee’s company had agreed to construct facilities for the public – a new full size football pitch and a floodlit synthetic training area as compensation for the loss of the Hattonrigg park, with changing accommodation to be available within the stadium.

A new indoor bowling club was also on the cards as was an upgrade of the nearby Carnbroe Road pitch and pavilion used by Bellshill Boys’ Club.

None of this happened, with the council instead diverting £300,000 from the stadium site sale to improve the football pitch at Sir Matt Busby Sports Complex.

Back in 2001, the long-established club were struggling at their rundown Brandon Park home, but investor Mr McGhee promised a new 1,000 capacity ground just along the road at Hattonrigg if the council could be persuaded to give up the public pitch there and adjoining open space.

In a report to councillors Mr Jukes stressed Hattonrigg’s pitch and pavilion was a ‘well-used facility’ and Athletic had been ‘clearly advised’ the land would be sold only ‘for the purpose of a new football stadium and associated car parking’.

Recommending approval of the sale, Mr Jukes pointed out: “In return for the loss of the pitch and pavilion, a new full size grass football pitch and a floodit synthetic grass training area with associated changing accommodation within the new stadium (will be provided) for use by the community.”

At first all appeared well with Mr McGhee’s project. Top players were attracted and former Celtic and Motherwell striker Tommy Coyne was installed as manager. Athletic were transformed from a run of the mill outfit to one of the leading junior clubs, winning a clutch of trophies.

It didn’t last. There were tensions behind the scenes and it was clear that income from attendances could never cover the cost of running the club.

Eventually Athletic were forced to move out. They have since played home matches outside Bellshill, but this season are back in the town after the council granted them use of Rockburn Park.

For a spell after Athletic’s departure, Mr McGhee leased the stadium to other clubs, including Motherwell FC, for training sessions. However, it was demolished six years ago.

The Times & Speaker understands that despite Mr Jukes’s stance at the time, no legal agreement was ever in place for the ground to revert to the council should the stadium project fail.

Council minutes stress such a condition was to be imposed, but a source said: “Clearly that did not happen. What went wrong? That’s the $64,000 question.”

A spokesman for North Lanarkshire Council said: “This was a land sale which required a number of council approvals at various stages.

“The community services committee’s consideration was an early-stage decision to declare the land surplus to requirements which allowed negotiations to proceed.

“The stadium went ahead and Bellshill Athletic played competitive football at Hattonrigg for a number of seasons.”