With Oxford United locked in negotiations with the county council over a move away from the Kassam Stadium, councillors have accused the council of attempting to “gag” their voices and “stifle” debate.

The League One club are in talks with the county council over a proposal to build a new stadium at ‘The Triangle’, east of Frieze Way and south of Kidlington Roundabout.

With the licence agreement at the Kassam Stadium set to run out in 2026, the cabinet’s decision on whether the club can acquire the land will be given at a meeting on September 19.

Oxford Mail: Oxford United is looking to move away from the Kassam StadiumOxford United is looking to move away from the Kassam Stadium

In what has been seen as an attempt to “silence” their voices and as an attack on freedom of speech, councillors were “surprised” to receive an email on Friday, sent on behalf of the council’s chief executive Martin Reeves, which called for “public comments” by the council to “only be made by the leader, the cabinet member for finance, or the cabinet member for corporate services”.

Furthermore, the email even went as far to advising councillors to exercise “caution” when considering liking or sharing content on social media related to the club’s move away from the stadium.

Oxfordshire County Council has confirmed individual councillors were reminded that public comments by the authority "should only be made by the leader or relevant cabinet colleagues". 

A spokesman said the guidance issued around the subject was from the chief executive but councillors can choose to follow it or not.

Oxford Mail: The club is looking to move to a site called 'The Triangle'The club is looking to move to a site called 'The Triangle' (Image: Photo: Oxford Mail)

Conservative county councillor Arash Fatemian told the Oxford Times that receiving this email which felt “chilling” and was a “heavy-handed” attempt to prevent open discussion.

Oxford Mail: Councillor Arash FatemianCouncillor Arash Fatemian (Image: Arash Fatemian)

He said: “The ability to speak out is a fundamental democratic right.

“It is quite chilling to get an email which attempts to restrict us speaking out.

“I understand the council needs to be seen to be acting fairly but surely cabinet members can’t be given special treatment?”

Mr Fatemian said limiting councillors’ freedom to speak about the proposal was “ridiculous” and he said the council’s communications team was consistently making “missteps”.

He said: “If they are trying to be so restrictive and gag councillors on what is such a positive story, what happens when less positive stories such as low traffic neighbourhoods come up.”

Mr Fatemian has been a supporter of Oxford United for a long time and said he was in favour of moving to ‘The Triangle’ as it would be an opportunity to “reintegrate the club as part of the city” and lead to better facilities which could then be used for conferences and music events.

Conservative county councillor Liam Walker and Green party county councillor Ian Middleton told the Oxford Times they would not give in to “unreasonable restrictions” on their ability to speak out and will continue to represent constituents’ views.

Oxford Mail: Oxfordshire councillor Liam WalkerOxfordshire councillor Liam Walker

Mr Walker said: “It is not for any council officer to tell us what we can and can’t say.

“We our perfectly in our own right to support Oxford United and when you live in a democracy you are entitled to make these decisions yourself.

“The council wishes to promote this perception that it is in listening mode when it is in fact all too willing to shut members down.”

Oxford Mail: County councillor Ian MiddletonCounty councillor Ian Middleton (Image: Cherwell District Council)

Mr Middleton said: “I’m sure the advice was offered with the best of intentions, but I can see how it could be interpreted by some as an attempt to stifle debate.

“For my part, as the county, district and parish councillor for the area involved, I have a responsibility to represent residents’ views and interests, both privately and publicly, without unreasonable restrictions.

“I will continue to do that whenever and wherever I see fit." 

The county council has so far agreed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ and council officers are still engaged in talks on ‘outline and commercial terms’, with regard to ‘The Triangle’.

The council has also launched an online survey which invites members of the public to give their views about the proposal until July 23.

Oxford Mail: Fans will be given an opportunity to fill out the surveyFans will be given an opportunity to fill out the survey (Image: David Fleming)

Paul Peros, chairman of the Oxford United supporters trust OxVox, said it was “disappointing” to learn councillors were not able to speak openly.

He said: “It is a shame because a lot of councillors are supportive of the project and it would be nice to hear from them, as they’ve had to keep fairly quiet about the project.”

Mr Peros acknowledged the move had provoked a very “emotive” reaction and he said the club needed a chance to put more information out about the stadium move.

Criticising the council’s public survey, Mr Peros questioned why it was necessary to ask respondents if they were Oxford United fans.

He said: “This survey is massively important but one thing which we found disappointing is that it asks if you’re a supporter of the club.

“We are Oxford United supporters, but we are also Oxfordshire residents.

“Supporters can be anything from doctors, nurses to vicars.

“The fact we are Oxford United fans shouldn’t diminish our vote.”

The council spokesman responded by saying it is "standard practice" for people to be asked to identify themselves as part of any specific groups when engagement exercises are taking place. 

Mr Peros, who owns a fish and chip shop in Kidlington, said the move to ‘The Triangle’ would be fantastic news as it was a chance to “secure the club’s future for the next 50 to 100 years”.

He said: “There is massive excitement because we have owners who can take this club forward.

“Last season went badly on the pitch but with the foreign investment it went better off the pitch.”

Friends of Stratfield Brake, a group opposed to the proposed move, has raised concerns about how the decisions and consultations are being handled.

Victoria Campbell and Suzanne Mclvor, representatives of the group, said: “We are surprised the chief executive of the council has suggested its members shouldn’t make public comments on a proposal, particularly one as important and divisive as this.

“We are unclear as to why the council would wish to restrict discussion on this important topic unless the outcome of the negotiations have already been decided.”

Ms Campbell and Ms Mclvor questioned why only the cabinet would make the final decision regarding the leasing of the land.

The group has raised concerns that issues such as parking, traffic and the loss of the Green Belt have not been handled in a “meaningful way” as part of the consultation.

It fears that a 16,000 capacity stadium will only make traffic worse on an already congested route and is at “odds with the requirement to maintain a green barrier between Kidlington and Oxford”.

The group, which formed in May 2022, believes the proposal is not sustainable and instead the council should be working to help the club stay at the Kassam Stadium.

If the cabinet gives the green light to the new stadium in September, then the lease or sale of ‘The Triangle’ will still only go ahead if the club receives planning permission from Cherwell District Council as the local planning authority.

A county council spokesman said: "The council has engaged thoroughly with a wide range of people and organisations in both 2022 and 2023 and a further period of engagement is currently underway.

"Councillors were advised to exercise caution in terms of commenting in public so that they do not fetter their own individual discretion in future debates when decisions are to be made.

"Councillors were also reminded that public comments by the council should only be made by the leader or relevant cabinet colleagues.

"We are asking members of the public to share their views about the club’s response.

"Ultimately these are matters for the football club. Should the council ultimately decide to allow land to be used for a stadium it would also become a matter for Cherwell District Council’s planning process."

Oxford United has declined to comment.