SWANSEA Council may face legal action after it awarded a lease to a football club for playing fields by a housing estate and allowed the club to enclose the fields with a fence.
Barristers representing residents in Waunarlwydd who are unhappy with the situation have sent a “pre-action protocol” letter to the authority for a judicial review of the lease decision.
The council said it followed the correct process and that the football club, Waunarlwydd Galaxy, secured the necessary permission to erect the fence to counter vandalism and dog fouling. The football club, which has 350 junior players alone, said everything it had done had been lawful.
The legal letter came to light at a meeting of full council after Suzanne Jeffreys, of Waunarlwydd Playing Fields Action Group, presented a petition signed by more than 500 people opposing the fence.
Miss Jeffreys, of The Firs housing estate, said the recreation area had its 75th anniversary last year, and that the council’s open space strategy recognised the importance of being able to connect with nature, exercise and socialise.
“Yet residents of Waunarlwydd are now excluded from using a much-loved, designated recreation area simply because they do not belong to any organised sporting activity,” she said.
Miss Jeffreys said the fence had also disrupted children’s walk to their local primary and secondary school. She claimed that Waunarlwydd Galaxy football club, which was granted the lease and carried out drainage works, still used facilities at the Elba playing fields in nearby Gowerton.
The petition said many flats near the enclosed land did not have gardens and that residents now had no access to open spaces.
Miss Jeffreys said: “We do not oppose the leasing of the playing fields if was to benefit the whole of the community.”
Cllr Robert Francis-Davies, cabinet member for investment, regeneration and tourism, said he had to be cautious with his reply due to the barristers’ letter.
A report before full council looked into the concerns raised and said the process for granting a lease to the football club was followed in line with the authority’s formal land transaction rules and relevant legislation.
Citing this, Cllr Francis-Davies said: “Therefore the grant of the lease was perfectly lawful, as was the erection of the fence as the leaseholder sought the necessary permissions under the terms of the lease to make the changes to the leased land.” Those changes, he said, were then “considered appropriately” and permitted.
Cllr Francis-Davies also said the club provided community as well as sporting activities in a safe and suitable environment, and that the fence did not interfere with any public rights of way. However, he said the lead petitioners had submitted an application for a modification order for a right of way, which would be assessed by council officers.
Cllr Francis-Davies proposed that no action was taken about the petition, but three councillors – Stuart Rice, Chris Evans and Lyndon Jones – felt that further investigation of the matter was warranted.
Cllr Rice said it was “quite unusual” for land which had been used for decades to be fenced off, while Cllr Jones said there was “clearly a lot of anger” about what had happened.
Cllr Francis-Davies said he stuck to his no further action proposal, arguing that the transfer of the asset to the football club had been no different to transfers of land at Underhill Park, Mumbles, and Ynystawe Park, Ynystawe, among others. His proposal was carried.
The council report said the football club had expressed an interest in leasing the playing fields, which it had been managing since September 2016. The authority then published the required public notice about a potential land disposal, and no objections were received. A 25-year lease was then agreed in April 2021.
The report said: “The council were aware of the football club’s aspiration to invest in and improve the area, including the intention to address poor drainage and ongoing vandalism, including issues with motorbikes and dog fouling. It was agreed addressing these issues would allow a much needed investment in the area, to create safe, well managed sports and recreation facilities.”
The football club sought permission via the lease to erect a fence round the area, which encompasses two football pitches. The report said there was support from all consultees and approval was granted.
The report said: “There was no requirement to consult more widely as the terms of the lease, which allow for changes that are reasonable and backed up with evidence, were not affected. On balance, it was acknowledged that whilst the fence restricted access for general open space use, it unlocked investment in sports facilities for the community and protected the space from further damage and hostile behaviours.”
The report added that the council acknowledged the impact on the walking short cut for pupils to Ysgol Y Login Fach but, on balance, the compensation was facilities that could be enjoyed by the community.
The report said the football club had numerous teams, from youth to senior to veterans, that a free “Park Lives” session was held on the fields last August – with more planned – and that Ysgol Y Login Fach still had access to the fields. It added that there were alternative green spaces in the vicinity for informal use.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, petitioner Miss Jeffreys, who has lived at The Firs all her life, said residents received a shock when the fence was constructed.
“It was heart-breaking,” she said. “None of us knew about it.”
Miss Jeffreys said that in her view dog mess had not been an issue, and that other green spaces in the area were not appropriate, such as one right by the busy main road from Cockett to Gowerton.
She said: “We’re not trying to stop the football. We just want access.”
South West Wales MS Altaf Hussain said he had visited the site and that the previously open land had been crucial for residents of The Firs because of a lack of amenity space within the estate.
“It is also important that local children are able to carry on walking through these fields in order to reach their schools,” he said.
Dr Hussain said he has contacted the leader of Swansea Council, Cllr Rob Stewart, and would press the authority to allow the fields to be opened up.
Waunarlwydd Galaxy – a community interest club – crowd-funded to raise money for the fence, which is lower than two metres. It secured £6,000 from donations and received a further £6,000 from Sport Wales.
Keith Price, director at Waunarlwydd Galaxy, said: “The petition is something that the petitioners and the council need to sort out. Everything we have done has been legal. The fence was the only way we felt we could protect the asset.”