[REVEALED: Key details of Chelsea's brand new stadium]
With the preliminary machinations of the planning system already in motion, following the submission of the Environmental Impact Assessment in August, Roman Abramovich is expected to put forward a full planning application in early October.
Timing is of the essence, and it is likely a deal will be brokered with Hammersmith and Fulham Council to get the plans to the decision-making stage inside six months. The project team have worked closely with planners, and the intention has always been to produce a plan that raises minimal objections and gets through first time.
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But even at a time when development control is the loosest it has ever been, with the coalition government having reduced planning guidance (and the grounds for objection) from 1,000 pages to just 50, any major development is likely to go to appeal. And there is part of the reason for urgency. Mayor of London Boris Johnson, known for being particularly pro-development, is to step down on May 5, 2016.
It is he who will be the ultimate appeal authority on the plans up to that point and it is an open secret that developers all over London are trying to get their plans passed before he goes. That is because whoever replaces him - be it Tory favourite Zac Goldsmith, or the winner out of Labour frontrunners Tessa Jowell and Sadiq Khan - the likelihood is they will be more reserved on planning appeal matters.
With the intention for plans to pass appeal stage by the time Chelsea play their last Premier League match of this season, at home to Leicester City on May 15, it is hoped work can start as soon as possible afterwards. It is around this time that the administrative matter of the freehold will be addressed, with Abramovich expected to go to Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) with a revised bid. This is perhaps the most contentious part of the whole process, and nobody seems quite sure how it will play out.
Though he doesn't strictly need the freehold of the pitch and adjoining areas to pull down and then rebuild the stadium, having it would help attract investors should the plan involve funding the project through mortgaging the site. It would also offer greater certainties to commercial outlets keen to get involved on long leases.
There is a strong feeling among many that any new stadium should continue to involve CPO, however there is also the possibility Abramovich will make a stark offer – no freehold, no rebuild. Both timing and wording for any bid will be crucial, with the development set out to a tight schedule, but with the club surely wanting to avoid the ill will that surrounded the last CPO bid in 2011.
It is hoped the development itself will get underway in summer 2017 with the covering over the railways on either side of the site - enabling the spreading out of the stadium footprint. This is complex work, both structurally and legally, and negotiations with Transport for London and Network Rail are well advanced.
One issue raised by those who know the rail industry is that of the challenges of building over an active railway. Network Rail is particularly reticent about such matters following the collapse of a tunnel being built to accommodate a new branch of Tesco over the railway at Gerrards Cross 10 years ago.
The Stamford Bridge plans are very different to those which went wrong for the supermarket, and in the past decade the technology around structural engineering has changed much. Those close to the stadium development seem confident this will not be a significant issue, though it seems likely the first stages of work will be painfully slow – with the health and safety requirements of working over an active electrified railway being onerous.
Chelsea intend the 2016-17 season to be their last at their old home, before bringing in the bulldozers immediately after that campaign comes to a close. There is speculation, not officially confirmed, that Wembley has already been booked with the FA for the three seasons from 2017 to 2020 – in order to get it before Tottenham do.
The ambitious plan would be for the new Stamford Bridge to be ready on the opening day of the 2020-21 season. Though, of course, it would not be called that – with the naming rights up for grabs as part of the rebuild. This, itself, will cause much debate among fans – as Newcastle United found when they tried to rebrand St James' Park.
The next half a decade should be a very interesting period for Chelsea Football Club – off the pitch, even more than on it.
Dan Levene - @danlevene
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