Part 3: Public Inquiry Justice but still no End in Sight
The Heathens were now completely homeless. The scenario which everyone wanted to avoid and which the club directors staved off at great financial cost to themselves had finally become reality. Despite the depressing situation though, the fans’ enthusiasm was still going strong and the next hurdle was the public inquiry. This was a time when an independent Government appointed inspector would listen to the case from both sides and any other interested parties before coming to a decision as to whether to uphold Barratt’s appeal against the refusal of their planning application. The inquiry lasted four days and then still had to be resumed for one more day, several weeks later. On each occasion there were numerous supporters present, including myself.
Dudley council were defending their decision to refuse the application whilst Barratts were appealing against the judgement. Both sides were represented by planning, noise and sports experts who gave several hours of evidence each. Speedway was effectively a third party in the proceedings but was nevertheless represented both by the directors of the club and the supporters organisation, CRASH, as well as an appearance from SCB manager, David Hughes. Tremendous amounts of detail was recorded by the inspector who then took just a few weeks after the end of the inquiry to consider and conclude a decision. Once again, the battle was won by the Speedway and in a convincing fashion. Justice prevailed again and the lengthy report by the inspector couldn’t have been clearer: the site should remain as a stadium.
As Barratts pondered their future involvement with the site, CRASH (Cradley Raising Aid Saving Heathens), in alliance with the council set about the next battle. It is, after all, one thing to stop the development of housing and another thing to acquire the site against the persistence of the land owners. The idea was a possible Compulsory Purchase Order, whereby the club would fund the purchase according to an independent valuation and plans were set in motion to make this a reality. However, as things once more began to look up for the Heathens faithful fans, another ‘blow’ came. The CPO was put on the back burner as the announcement was made that Dudley Wood was suddenly up for sale and bids were invited from any interested parties. Though somewhat fishy at the time, as Barratts were mysteriously relinquishing their legal hold on the land, it was seen as a potential life-line for the return of Speedway racing. The news came at a time when supporters had received little to cheer whilst watching the likes of Hamill and Hancock elsewhere in the league, as Cradley had again failed to make it to the tapes for 1998.
After an extended March ’98 deadline passed for reasonable bids, it emerged that four interested parties had made separate offers for the land, still valued at roughly one million ukp (despite being valued two years previously at less than one third that price!). The directors of the club had not put in an offer of their own after talks with the Bristol-Scott Group, who I understand are the second largest greyhound stadium operators in the country. The BS Group, promoters and owners of Swindon Speedway had made an offer and also earmarked sufficient funds to redevelop the site into a quality sports venue. Of the other three offers, another is believed to be from an interested Speedway party. However, with a feeling of inevitability about the whole scam, all bids were rejected and unsurprisingly, Barratts then resumed their interest in the site. It now seems clearer to me than ever, that the whole process of offering the land ‘for sale’ was a marketing exercise with only one purpose in mind. It stopped the CPO in its tracks and simultaneously addressed an issue of the public inquiry that no attempt had been made to sell the site on the open market.
Another issue of the inquiry has been addressed by the owners by their demolition of the remains of the stadium and all its features. The site now resembles an overgrown field more than a Speedway stadium but the shape of the track - which produced some of the best racing in the country and where some of the greatest Champions of the last few decades learnt their trade - is still clearly visible amongst the weeds.
There are more battles ahead for the Heathens, see latest news for current update, but every previous battle has been fought and won, and the club is still in existence waiting to resume racing. The saga has continued for far, far too long already though.
I am continually amazed at the persistence, arrogance and downright stubbornness of both Barratt West Midlands and the owners of the Dudley Wood site, but I can assure you that it is nothing in comparison to the spirit of all connected with Cradley Heath Speedway club. Eternally optimistic and as determined as ever (more so after the research that has led to this article), I still eagerly anticipate the day when the most famous Speedway club in the world can return to action. May it be sooner, rather than later.
Words by Steve Johnson, 1999; sources include various press cuttings ranging from 1994 to 1998