Bath Rugby is about to be served with a notice from the council carrying the threat of prosecution after the club announced it would breach a planning rule.
A report to Bath & North East Somerset councillors said officers would make the impending failure to dismantle the East Stand at the Recreation Ground over the summer a top priority, although they had not yet decided whether to take enforcement action.
The authority has already criticised Bath Rugby after bosses admitted on 14th June that they could not comply with the regulations because of “circumstances beyond our control”, blaming staff shortages at its contractor, Arena Group, for the “impending breach of contract”.
B&NES Council released a statement making clear it still expects the stand to be removed and that the failure is a “clear breach of a planning condition”.
It said the council expected all parties, including Bath Rugby, to honour its commitments and was “very concerned by the club’s approach”, adding it was considering its next step.
Now a report to the planning committee has revealed this will be to serve a planning contravention notice (PCN), to which the club must give a full and truthful explanation for the breach within 21 days or face possible criminal action.
It said: “This is an unusual situation because the breach of condition is anticipated but has not yet happened.
“It is important to emphasise that planning enforcement action is discretionary.
“Given the stand’s location within the heart of the World Heritage Site and the unique nature of the situation, officers anticipate giving the breach the highest degree of priority.
“The first step in the process would be to investigate the reasons given by Bath Rugby for failing to comply with the condition.”
The report said officers would serve an immediate PCN requiring the club to “provide detailed information about the circumstances of the breach and the assertion that the breach is beyond the control of the club”.
It said: “The service of a PCN does not affect any other power exercisable in respect of any breach of planning control.
“A person served with a PCN is liable to prosecution if they do not comply with it within 21 days.
“It is also an offence to provide false or misleading information in response to a PCN.
“A PCN therefore obliges the recipient to truthfully answer formal questions about the breach of planning control and there are criminal sanctions for failing to comply.
“It is anticipated that officers will consider the reply to the PCN before moving on to consider whether it is expedient to take enforcement action.
“It is not possible at this stage to provide a view on the merits of any particular enforcement option until the breach has both occurred and been fully investigated.”
The report said the reason for the planning condition was “in the interests of the use, character and appearance of the site as recreational open space within the Conservation Area and World Heritage Site and the setting of listed buildings”.
No members commented and the committee was asked only to note the report because it did not involve a decision.
In its statement on 14th June, Bath Rugby said: “The condition states that in the three weeks following the final fixture at the Rec, the stands must be removed, and that the reconstruction must not commence more than four weeks before the first home game of the new season.”
This means the stand must have been taken down before Sunday 4th July. It is only now that a breach has occurred and a notice can be issued.
The club’s statement said: “Arena Group, the company that owns and leases the east stand structure to the club, has issued an official notice to Bath Rugby informing of an impending breach of contract.
“The notice confirms that it has been impossible to plan, schedule, recruit, and train staff throughout the pandemic causing an extreme shortage of specialist construction teams.
“As a result, Arena Group’s operational capacity is severely limited meaning the east stand can no longer be dismantled and re-erected safely this summer.”
The club said it shared “a number of concerns” earlier this year with the council over the removal of the stand.
“One concern noted the availability of skilled contractors following a year of crisis for the construction industry,” it said.
“Unfortunately, these concerns have now become a very real reality through circumstances beyond the club’s and Arena Group’s control.
“In their communication with the club, Arena Group went on to state that the health and safety of their staff and clients is paramount.
“Furthermore, due to the complex nature of the east stand structure, Arena Group are unable to subcontract this work, always requiring full quotas of experienced crews and approved staff to guarantee a safe working environment.”
Bath Rugby’s chief operating officer Alex Cohen said at the time the club could not “hide our disappointment” over the impact of Arena’s contract breach.
He said: “The club has worked with Arena Group to exhaust all possible avenues to facilitate the dismantling of the east stand this summer.
“However, the company has confirmed that due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic they are unable to meet their commitment in terms of the dismantle and re-rig of the east stand at the Rec during the pending summer months.
“We value our long-standing relationship with Arena Group and understand their position, however, we cannot hide our disappointment of the impact this now has on our club. We would like to offer our sincere apologies to all concerned.”
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter