Understandably, many of us are horrified at the thought of leaving St. James’. Our resident construction expert Stephen Hodgson (@StephenNUFC1892) is no different, but there are plenty of good reasons for thinking that the club is considering new sites, despite their public backing for an extended capacity at our current home. Below Stephen sets out the issues that would have to be taken into account and talks us through the pros and cons of four possible sites.
Frankly, I’d be amazed if the club aren’t considering a new stadium when making what would be a significant financial commitment to extend St James’. We could be looking at close to £500m for a capacity of 65,000 at SJP. Everton’s new stadium construction cost £500m for a 53,000-seater stadium. It would be good practice to look at the cost and potential locations of a new stadium even if this was just to validate their thinking about staying.
I can hear the ‘this guy is crazy’ comments whilst writing this but think of it this way: if you are planning a big extension to your house, it would be a good idea to look at the cost of moving to a house that offers you the same, or more, as the extension would. Doing this helps you understand the cost of extending vs. moving but also helps you assess how much value your home gives you where you currently live i.e. access to schools, services, main roads, family nearby etc. Flipping this back to SJP, we can assess the value of staying where we are: atmosphere, history, proximity to city centre, transport links and entertainment etc. etc. But will this ultimately be enough for the owners? Your guess is as good as mine.
Working on the assumption that the club will consider a new stadium as part of their decision-making process for an SJP extension, how would they do it? First you need to know how much land you need. The size of the land would be dependent upon a couple of key factors:
1) The combative #nufc twitter question of ‘what capacity do we need’?
2) Is the site in the city centre, suburbs, or a rural area?
1. Capacity and scale
Jumping straight in, what capacity do we need? Personally, there is no point in building a new stadium for a 70,000 capacity even if this drastically improves revenue generation through corporate facilities. For a new stadium the club should be looking at a minimum of a 80,000 capacity, in my opinion.
I know, I know, 80,000+ seats, but consider it this way, generations of young fans are now locked out and that’s just in the NE. We’ve been so bad that they’ve supported other clubs, so the true demand hasn’t even hit us yet. In addition to that, whether we like it or not, due to our eagerly anticipated success, we will get the transient fans. Let’s not forget this already happens, just on a much smaller scale. Regardless of what you think, demand is demand and it will only increase further. Why would you not plan for 80,000+ seats?
The average land needed for a major stadium in the UK is between 65,000 and 70,000 square metres, this allows for the stadium and walkways around the stadium. For context, SJP is 53,000 square metres currently. The shape of the land is also critical, a long thin strip won’t do as it, obviously, needs to reflect the shape of the pitch or an oversized piece of land that it can fit within.
Generally, stadia that have been built for a specific purpose like Wembley and Twickenham, the London Stadium or the Etihad Stadium (national sporting stadiums, Olympics and Commonwealth games respectively) have a larger area pushing above 70,000 square metres with Wembley coming in at 105,000 square metres as people tend to stay longer for specific events. If you look at Old Trafford, out of town on an industrial estate and having to provide parking to support the public transport network, this climbs to 225,000 square metres.
The second key factor has multiple parts to it but can be summarised into stadium facilities and requirements, transport requirements, and utilities requirements.
Each of these will likely increase in need, and cost, the further out of town the stadium is. If out of town, there will be a requirement for larger concourses and facilities as fans will congregate in and around the stadium for longer. Parking and transport links will need to be provided instead of relying on services in the city centre. Critically the further you move away from a city centre the cost of providing utilities could increase exponentially making a site unaffordable. Conversely the cost of land purchase or lease should come down per square metre, but the size of land will increase, like the need at Old Trafford.
Getting people to and from a stadium safely is a priority. The city centre is the hub for public transport, buses, trains, metros and of course car parks. Moving out of the city centre would require transport links to get fans to and from the city centre hub as well as providing car parking.
I’ve worked all over the UK and, what I didn’t really appreciate is that you can walk across Newcastle city centre in 15 minutes, but it’s packed with things to do. I’ve not come across anywhere else like this. Newcastle is a big little city because it serves a wide, at least hour’s drive north south and west, but the population is not very dense. Our North-East transport services reflect a not very densely populated area.
Taking this into account, a stadium out of the city centre will require large amounts of land to enable parking and dedicated transport links. Somewhere like Old Trafford has 11 on-site car parks but also has access to other local venues, like the Cricket Ground and the Trafford Centre, where people can park. Newcastle doesn’t have that, so park and ride arrangements to satisfy congestion concerns would also be required.
The final critical element that runs through every possible permutation of a new stadium’s size or location is planning permission. Ultimately what we are talking about, in my opinion, is one of the world’s best stadia, aka a mega stadium, in the North-East. This is a significant undertaking both financially and physically.
A project of this scale is not something that we’ve ever seen before in the North-East. If a new stadium is proposed by the club, you will see local and national objections, regardless of the location chosen, and ultimately the Secretary of State will need to approve the scheme due to the scale. There could even be a public enquiry into the scheme which would be very expensive and take years. Think of it this way, who wants a mega stadium on their doorstep, and all the disruption that comes with it on an event day and during its construction, and that’s even before you get into environmental impacts, fan concerns and protests.
So, where specifically could a new stadium be? Let’s look at the four most prominent locations that have been proposed on Twitter since the takeover.
a) The Arena site – The site is a good size, 175,000 square metres, and shape, but the topography of the land isn’t when you go all the way down to the river. It is likely to have ground contamination from the old lead works and requires ‘building up’ to make the site level. This could add significant cost but it is an edge of city centre site that wouldn’t need additional transportation links and utilities should be fine. The fact that land has planning permission for houses would not be an issue if the club really wanted it. Housing developers are building houses to make a profit. If somebody is willing to pay upfront a substantial part of their planned profit, a sale would likely be considered.
b) Castle Leazes / Leazes Park – This is a big site but not necessarily the right shape, if you assume the retention of most of Leazes Park. In 1997, this location had a stadium proposed to be built on it but was withdrawn due to local complaints. This proposal could be resurrected and would benefit from the same services that SJP does currently. This would, however, be a tricky negotiation with the various stakeholders as they would need to give permission to build on the land, which was given previously, and the environmental impacts would also need to be considered.
As I understand it one of the reasons the Newcastle freemen agreed was because Newcastle City Council had proposed to transfer Exhibition Park into the control of the freemen to offset the loss of land. Something similar would likely need to happen again.
c) CA Parsons Works on the Fossway – My initial assessment is that the site isn’t big enough to accommodate the need. The site is out of the city centre and would need excess land for additional public transport links and car parking. It should, however, be ok for utilities.
d) Newburn Haugh Industrial Estate – this is a very big site and more than capable of being able to house a large stadium with extensive parking. I also don’t think there would be much problem with utilities. It would however be at the back of an industrial estate, on what, if I recall right, is an old quarry, which may cause its own issues with land stabilisation, and has relatively poor existing transport links.
A bus station could be built on site to supplement parking, but you are broadly limited to buses and cars. I can’t see anybody willing to invest in a direct rail / metro connection as it’s not in a densely populated area. A footbridge and rail alterations from and at Blaydon train station (Carlisle to Newcastle line) could be created to utilise the rail network with specialist match trains from Central Station. This location would also put extreme pressure on the surrounding road network, which would require upgrades even if objections weren’t received from Highways England and the councils Highways department.
Any move away from SJP will be a fundamental change to our match going experience but only the Arena and Castle Leazes / Leazes Park options don’t require additional transport connections as the transport connections are already there. From a cost perspective Castle Leazes / Leazes Park would appear to be the most affordable move as it’s undeveloped land and likely free from contamination. However, the environmental impact of removing park and grazing land cannot be underestimated and would still be a significant challenge even if nobody objected to the proposal, which is extremely unlikely.
Ultimately if a new stadium was to happen it is likely to come down to.whether landowners are willing to sell or lease the land, whether the site can be serviced with transport and utilities and whether there is a likelihood that planning permission will be given. I would also hope fan engagement would be carried out via a consultation process. However, a new stadium is very contentious to everybody, so we need to accept the real possibility that, if a new stadium becomes the preferred solution, consultation won’t happen until a decision on location has been made by the club.
How much could a new stadium cost? It really is difficult to say as it depends on all the things I’ve mentioned in this article, and some that I’ve not, including how PIF would want a new stadium to be viewed. Just a stadium or the best stadium? The best stadium would very likely be more than £1bn. For context, Wembley would cost £1.3bn in today’s economic climate. These costs would exclude the cost of land purchases or costs to lease.
Taking the emotional attachment that we all have out of the decision-making process, this is a highly complex and expensive decision for the club to make. The club is a business, we need not forget that, so any decision they make likely won’t be emotional. We could even end up with an expanded SJP and a new stadium as a new stadium could take 15 years to plan and construct. One thing is for certain: building a new stadium or expanding SJP most certainly won’t happen overnight.
Personally, I think if they don’t reacquire the lease for Strawberry Place, expanding SJP becomes very challenging and possibly not financially viable. Only time will tell if we stay or if we go and if fans will be consulted on any of this.
Stephen Hodgson @StephenNUFC1892