Football clubs as community assets
Football in the UK has a great many positive features, but one depressingly familiar occurrence is the separation of stadiums and clubs, as well as the disappearance of grounds altogether. Estimates from Supporters Direct indicate 54 incidents of this nature have taken place at clubs in the top five divisions since 1992. In the non-league arena, where the actions of unscrupulous owners are less visible and regulations less stringent, ‘asset-stripping’ of clubs is a constant issue.
Northwich Victoria are now homeless less than a decade after work (partly funded by the Football Stadia Improvement Fund) on a new stadium was completed.
Brighton’s loyal supporters endured a 140-mile round trip to Gillingham for every ‘home’ match for two years, before moving to the suburban Withdean and eventually the Amex. AFC Wimbledon were forced to re-form and start at the foot of the pyramid, a process that began after the club was moved away from Plough Lane (now a block of flats) by owner Sam Hammam in 1992.
In all three cases, supporters and local communities (the people who inevitably remain long after private owners have departed) mounted admirable campaigns to preserve their clubs. But their successes were achieved in spite of the barriers they faced – barriers that should not have been in place.
Stadiums are vital to the sustainability of football clubs. They can help generate revenue, keep running costs down and also provide a hub for the community activities that all clubs, big or small, should have as a key objective. As such, stadiums should be afforded the strongest possible protection, aimed at proactively preventing them from falling into the wrong hands.
Today Supporters Direct is launching two new policy papers, aimed at contributing to the debate over asset protection in football, and proposing practical solutions to the problems:
• Grounds for benefit
• Community right to bid: Implications for supporters’ trusts
We believe supporters have a vital role to play in ensuring football stadiums, in addition to their clubs, are protected and run for the benefit of current and future generations. They can also facilitate the generation of tangible community benefit, working in partnership with clubs, local authorities, and other stakeholders.
SD’s research provides key examples in a number of areas, including the concept of ‘golden share’ protection (Brentford FC Supporters’ Trust), freehold ownership (Chelsea Pitch Owners), and embedded community development (FC United of Manchester).
Another method of ensuring greater protection of stadiums is the Localism Act (2011), under which sports stadiums can be designated as Assets of Community Value, which in turn can trigger a right for supporters and communities to make a bid for the ground if it is put up for sale. We believe that the definition of Assets of Community Value should also be extended to include football clubs and spectator sports clubs (in addition to stadiums).
The event, which will feature contributions from members of all three major parties, follows on from the recent Football Governance Follow-Up report by the select committee for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which issued an ultimatum to football: deliver the necessary reforms within 12 months, or face legislation.
Tom Hall is head of policy and development at Supporters Direct