McLellan’s Edinburgh: Get Meadowbank revamp going

View of Meadowbank Stadium.  Pic Ian Rutherford
View of Meadowbank Stadium. Pic Ian Rutherford
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A question for sports trivia quiz fans: how many reports have there been on the future of Edinburgh’s sports facilities in the last nine years? Answer: nine. Yes, one report every year tries to plan the future and still we’re arguing about it.

That’s not to say nothing has been done, and winning the National Performance Centre for Sport is a triumph for the city in the face of fierce competition from Stirling and Dundee.

Now comes a new plan to revamp Meadowbank Stadium some seven years after it was first proposed to bulldoze the whole place for flats and use the proceeds to build a new multi-sport complex at Sighthill.

Faced with powerful opposition, that plan was kicked into touch in 2007 and a scheme was devised to keep some sort of sports facility on the site, but it was still all reliant on the sale of some of the land for housing.

The property crash put paid to that and the plans were shelved, but since then about £1.5 million has been spent on improvements to keep the crumbling facilities open to the public. But even with 500,000 visits a year and an annual income of £1.3m, it still needs over £400,000 a year in subsidies.

But now house prices are up and the future of Meadowbank is back on the agenda. A report to next week’s culture and sport committee recommends selling off a parcel of land for housing development and using the proceeds to revamp the complex.

Realistically, the report recognises that in the five years since the slump, so much in the sports landscape has changed. In particular, the impact of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games means that the focus of several major sports is now firmly in the west. Most prominently, cycling now has the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome as its spiritual home and so too has Scottish Hockey quietly flitted to Glasgow Green from its base in Lanark Road.

But the £30m National Performance Centre for Sport on Heriot-Watt University’s Riccarton campus will have just as big an influence on the Meadowbank plans, even though the council’s report plays this down.

The Aberdeen Sports Village, upon which much of the new Meadowbank vision is based, features an indoor 3G football pitch the size of Hampden and a nine-court sports hall, both of which will be part of the Heriot-Watt complex. That makes it much harder to justify duplicates, although sports courts available to the public in the heart of the city are likely to be better used throughout the year than those on the periphery.

Of the three Meadowbank options, the most unlikely is an £85m complex with a 10,000-seater stadium for football and rugby at its heart.

For years, the Scottish Rugby Union has been desperate for a proper home for Edinburgh Rugby, with the proviso that someone else foots most of the bill. Easter Road, Myreside and Meadowbank itself have all been tried and the team is stuck in Murrayfield with its lack of atmosphere. But until such times as the SRU can prove a new home can wash its face there is no way the burden should fall on the public purse.

If the SRU can come up with the extra £27m needed to build a ground for 10,000 spectators then maybe it’s a goer. There are enough rugby followers with deep pockets, that’s for sure; but they don’t go to watch Edinburgh Rugby.

Similarly, a like-for-like replacement of the current athletics facility is pointless because there is simply no audience to fill it.

It is striking that just bringing the current Meadowbank facilities up to scratch will cost an estimated £34m. So with brand new, properly devised amenities deliverable for just £1m more it appears to be a straightforward decision: either spend the money or bulldoze the whole place and set the Capital’s sports facilities back 40 years.

Of course that’s if – and it’s a big if – the numbers are reliable, so it’s a sensible course of action to commission a more detailed feasibility study.

Where this report scores is in its very clear steer away from statement stadia for the elite towards comfortable participation for the majority. Providing accessible, modern facilities for all-year use is essential.

For years sports have failed to come to terms with old-fashioned structures and attitudes, but also with something as basic as the weather. Not too cold or too hot to justify extensive indoor facilities, we have just bumbled on as if nothing has changed.

Look at football and rugby, trudging on through countless winter call-offs and the season coming to an end just when people are more likely to enjoy playing and watching through the late spring and summer.

Or hockey, where for the vast majority of players the season still finishes at Easter even though thousands have been spent installing Astroturf surfaces. Hockey gets it right by having a winter shutdown for two months when the game goes indoors, but there aren’t nearly enough proper-sized indoor courts or indeed teams.

So here’s a radical suggestion; get the indoor facilities built at Meadowbank, Riccarton, the Jack Kane Centre or wherever and let’s go indoors from the end of November till mid-February. And then follow rugby league’s lead and let outdoor sports run through the summer, no matter what the golfers or cricketers might say. They don’t have a monopoly of sunshine.