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Saturday 10 December 2016

'No need for new fire inquiry'

Former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe says new allegations surrounding the Bradford City fire in 1985 which claimed 56 lives do not justify a new inquiry into the disaster.

A new book claims that the fire at Valley Parade was just one of at least nine fires at businesses owned by or associated with the club's then chairman Stafford Heginbotham, who died in 1995.

Sutcliffe, MP for Bradford South and deputy leader of Bradford City council at the time of the tragedy, says he knew Heginbotham "flew by the seat of his pants" in terms of the finances of the club but remains convinced by the conclusion of the inquiry by high court judge Mr Justice Popplewell that the fire was an accident.

The judge ruled the fire was started by a spectator dropping a cigarette into the rubbish that had accumulated under an old timber stand.

Heginbotham's son, James, 47, said the claims were a "sickening accusation" and "absolutely ridiculous".

Sutcliffe said: "The inquiry by Mr Justice Popplewell concluded that it was caused by a discarded cigarette in what was an old wooden stand and I have not heard anything to convince me that that was not the case.

"Stafford Heginbotham was one of those football club chairmen of which there were many at the time who flew by the seat of his pants. I was deputy leader of the city council at the time and he did fly by the seat of his pants when it came to paying the bill for the police and so on.

"But I think the inquiry was very thorough at the time and I don't think there needs to be another because of this. I do not believe there was any sort of cover-up and in fact the inquiry led to a lot of recommendations on stadiums that together with the Taylor report came up with the right answers for football."

"There will always be speculation but I just think it was a tragedy that cost the lives of 56 people and injured many more, and has scarred the city for many years."

The new claims are contained in the book 'Fifty-Six - The Story of the Bradford Fire' by Martin Fletcher, who was 12 at the time and escaped with his life from the blaze but lost three generations of his family including his father and brother.

The book, published on Thursday and being serialised in The Guardian, does not make any direct allegations but Fletcher says Heginbotham's history with fires, which he claims resulted in payouts totalling around £27million in today's terms, warranted further investigation.

"Could any man really be as unlucky as Heginbotham had been?" he asks.

Fletcher's 11-year-old brother was the fire's youngest victim while his father John, 34, uncle Peter, 32, and grandfather Eddie, 63, also died.

The disaster occurred at a time, according to Fletcher's evidence, when the businessman was in desperate financial trouble - and two days after he discovered it would cost £2million to bring the ground up to safety standards required by Bradford's promotion from the old Third Division.

Yet this did not feature in the Popplewell Inquiry, which held its investigation only three weeks after the fire.

Fletcher is the only survivor to publicly challenge the official inquiry, describing it as inadequate and saying it took place far too close to the event.

The book is released on April 16. Nine days later a minute's silence is due to be held at every Premier League and Football League match to mark the forthcoming 30th anniversary.

Heginbotham's son, James, 47, told the Daily Mirror: "When you actually do your homework and see what he did for Bradford City Football Club it is a sickening accusation. It is just absolutely ridiculous.

"He never recovered from the fire. The stress of it is what killed him eventually.

"It was a shock hearing this today, it was such a long time ago.

"He's no longer here to defend himself. It's a real shame it has come to this.

"He devoted his entire life to that club. He saved the club on two separate occasions.

"I have never seen anybody more passionate about anything than he was about that club."

ends

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