Turf renovation - Level playing field

The renovation of local-league football pitches in West Sussex has transformed a public space for the community, says Michael Bird.

Southfields Recreation Ground: Arun District Council reports that feedback from local residents has been positive - image: MJ Abbott
Southfields Recreation Ground: Arun District Council reports that feedback from local residents has been positive - image: MJ Abbott
At this time of economic difficulty, it is not often that we hear of local-authority football pitches being improved and upgraded. But in Littlehampton, West Sussex, local-league teams are contesting football matches on a level playing field this season after the successful completion of a major pitch-reconstruction project — thanks, in part, to a nearby housing development going ahead subject to a section 106 agreement that raised funding for sporting and community facilities.

The work was carried out by specialist sports turf contractor MJ Abbott of Salisbury on behalf of Arun District Council and the sports provision, along with a new community centre, was officially opened this summer. Working to detailed specifications prepared by Suffolk-based Agrostis
Turf Consultancy, the contractor has transformed an undulating, uneven and compacted playing surface at Southfields into three consistently level and free-draining football pitches for use by local senior and junior teams competing in their respective West Sussex leagues.

Arun District Council principal landscape officer Rachel Alderson, who oversaw the project, points out that the reconstruction of Southfields Recreation Ground was the first development of its type undertaken by the council.

Getting started

"The ground has been used for local-league football matches for more than 30 years and was in desperate need of renovation and improvement," she explains. "New housing development in the area provided the council with the necessary funding to upgrade the facilities at Southfields, which serves a large and growing local population. In addition to reconstruction of the existing playing fields, the project includes a new community centre with integrated changing rooms for home and visiting teams."

The major part of the five-week pitch-improvement project at Southfields was completed in October 2011. Having been engaged also to carry out initial maintenance of the new pitches, the contractor was able to closely monitor progress of the turf during subsequent mowing, rolling and fertiliser applications, prior to handing over the completed pitches to the council this May.

The appointment of the contractor was made by Agrostis Turf Consultancy, which produced detailed project specifications. The project commenced in September 2011 with the stripping of vegetation from the entire surface area using a Koro Field TopMaker. The machine is used to fraise-mow and strip grass surfaces, plus up to 40mm of the topsoil layer, removing thatch, weaker grass and irregularities.

Ideal for football fields, it consists of a series of adjustable blades that cut the material away, with all material being carried by conveyor to trailers running alongside. With a high work capacity, the machine is a fast pathway to pitch renovation and is capable of quickly bringing turf surfaces into perfect condition.

All of the surface vegetation, together with the soil removed during drainage excavations, was stockpiled for use later to create 1m-high feature mounding to the east of the pitches. The mounding runs alongside a new Tarmac footpath, also constructed by MJ Abbott, that links with existing public paths to either side of the three pitches.

"In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, the mounding makes excellent use of materials that would otherwise have required costly disposal off-site," Agrostis Turf Consultancy’s Dr Tim Lodge points out.

With the surface cleared, topsoil was removed across the field to a depth of around 250mm before laser-guided machinery moved in to cut and fill the subsoil to achieve the required grade levels across the site. The topsoil was then replaced.

Next came the drainage installation. A 160mm-diameter main drain was laid by the contractor at a depth of 1.35m around the outer perimeter of the three pitches, outfalling into a 2.1m-diameter soakaway chamber constructed from pre-formed perforated concrete rings resting on a stone base.

Feeding into the main drain are 80mm-diameter laterals laid across the full width of the playing field plateau at 7.5m spacings and at a minimum depth and fall of 450mm and 1:150 respectively. Because the site had no obvious outfall, Lodge specified that the drains be laid considerably deeper than would be normal.
Finishing the job

With all of the drainage runs tested and approved, the trench lines were backfilled, first with 200mm of gravel followed by 50mm of sand, which was firmed before the application of a surface layer of medium-coarse, lime-free sand.

The final construction involved 335 tonnes of sand being lightly and evenly spread and cultivated into the top 25mm of the playing surface. A further 335 tonnes of sand were then uniformly applied across the pitches and firmed in.

MJ Abbott contracts manager Nathan George reports that the pre-seeding fertiliser and seed mixture selected by the company met Lodge’s specifications. "A 10:15:10 granular fertiliser was broadcast at a rate of 500kg/ha and worked into the surface before seeding in three directions with a bespoke Johnson’s mix of 50 per cent perennial ryegrass, 20 per cent smooth-stalked meadow grass, 15 per cent slender creeping red fescue and 15 per cent strong creeping red fescue," he says. "All of the pitches and the feature mounding were seeded at a rate of 350kg/ha."

Arun District Council is now maintaining the pitches. "Having never been involved previously with a project of this scale, the council was not sure how the process would unfold," says Alderson. "I am happy to report that the final results have exceeded all initial expectations.

"What is equally encouraging is the positive feedback now being received from residents who are delighted with the transformation of a somewhat tired public open space into one that presents Littlehampton and its recreation facilities in a very positive light."

Section 106 and the fight for funding

Section 106 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 allows for local authorities and developers to agree a contribution to funding paid by a developer for offsetting the effects of its development.

Often used for road-improvement schemes and building affordable housing, schools and community centres, the funding can also be earmarked for children’s playgrounds and sports provision.

"It has always been a good source of funds, even more so now," says SGS Environmental & Management Consultancy principal Sidney Sullivan. "I’ve lost count of the number of facilities I’ve seen from 106 developer contributions."

Oddly, not all councils are quick to spend the money. Following a Freedom of Information request, Sullivan was shocked to find how much money was unused. With less money from central Government, it is thought there will be less available for parks and sports grounds simply because there will be too many other demands on the available funds.

The case for sports and amenity facilities should be put forward strongly, Sullivan believes. "I think in future it will be much harder for parks and sports grounds to find the funding. That’s a pity."

Changes in planning regulations may also have an effect. While the concept of section 106 is not believed to be under threat at the moment, there does seem to be a move to encourage councils to reconsider contributions so that developers are not deterred from future work.

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