Just how much "community value" is in a football stadium?

Oxford United turns abstract into reality.

The most significant victory of the 2012/13 football season in England may well prove to have been secured by Oxford United. Or, more accurately, the club’s fans, who have succeeded in designating the club’s Kassam Stadium an Asset of Community Value under the Localism Act. The ripples from this decision could travel from League Two to the upper echelons of English football, with applications in the pipeline to designate two of the most iconic stadiums in the world – Manchester United’s Old Trafford and Liverpool’s Anfield – as ACVs.

What is significant about these developments is that football supporters are organising to turn one of the sports enduring but abstract elements of appeal into something tangible. In doing so, they are creating a powerful practical challenge to the direction the sport has taken. Listing these stadiums as ACVs would mean they could not be sold without community groups being informed and given a chance to bid. As Tom Hall, Head of Policy and Development at Supporters Direct, says: “This is the first legislation that recognises clubs as more than just a business.”

Notions of identity and community are key to the complex tribal currents that fuel the football business. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, fans have no influence on or stake in either club or stadium. The clubs themselves love to talk about community, and it should be pointed out that many clubs do much more community work than is commonly acknowledged. But, and this is the important point, that work is dependent on the club having the will and the resource to carry it out.

Clubs can just as easily take the line that they are private businesses whose owners can do what they like. So if they want to sell the stadium to realise the land value, move the club to another community or use the value of the ground to load debt onto their business, there is little to stop them. At which point the noble talk about community and identity is exposed as the opportunist cant it is.

Ask the fans of Wrexham FC, who endured turbulent years as property developers sought to make money out of the club’s Racecourse Ground, the world’s oldest international stadium. Or Brighton and Hove Albion fans, who saw their home of 95 years, the Goldstone Ground, sold to developers with no new home arranged, meaning the club played home games 75 miles away in Gillingham for two years. In 1995 Ken Richardson, the majority shareholder in Doncaster Rovers and a man described by detectives as “the type that would trample a two-year-old child to pick up a 2p bit”, was convicted of hiring three men to torch the club’s Belle Vue stadium and sell the land to developers.

Most famously, the owners of Wimbledon FC were allowed to move the club from south London to Milton Keynes, changing the club’s name to Milton Keynes Dons. The move went against all those concepts of place and identity the idea of a football club stood for, but football’s foolish authorities approved the move. While MK Dons agreed to give up all claim to the history and honours of Wimbledon, the club is still known as “the Franchise” by most fans, and the fan-owned AFC Wimbledon regarded as the real Dons.

Often, as at Wrexham and AFC Wimbledon, the fans have stepped in to run the clubs in the wake of the mess left by those we have always been told know better. What’s interesting about the ACV development is that fans are trying to stop the mess occurring in the first place, and that they are doing so at some of the game’s biggest multinational brands. As Hall points out, designating stadiums as ACVs means “an end to the process of secret sales, making moves public and so opening up the chance to protest”.

The idea of fan ownership was once dismissed as unrealistic before fans showed that it could work, so now we’re told it can only work at “small clubs”. But the Chelsea Pitch Owners group showed that even the mega-billions of Roman Abramovitch could not buy everything. CPO was formed in 1993 after the club nearly went out of business when its property developer owners went into liquidation. CPO owns the freehold on Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground, which it has leased to the football club for a peppercorn rent for 199 years. Conditions of the lease are that Chelsea play first team matches at Stamford Bridge, that the ground may only be used for football purposes – effectively reducing the market value of the land; and that the use of the name Chelsea FC is dependent upon the club playing at the Bridge.

In 2011, Abramovitch-owned Chelsea tried to buy back the freehold. Displaying an astonishing failure to learn the lessons of history, the club assured fans that its home would always be safe because Abramovitch was in charge. The fans did not fall for it and, for once, Abramovitch was unable to buy what he wanted.

Football fans have learned the lessons of the game’s sorry ownership sagas. Paul Martin of the Spirit of Shankley Liverpool supporters union said the ACV application “provides us with an opportunity to influence any future sale of the club by being part of that process. Having been witness to a sales process that left us in a precarious financial position… we know all too well the importance of this”.

Of course, defining "community" can be tricky, especially at the bigger clubs with worldwide support. And London, with its 13 league clubs and complex supporter diaspora, presents unique challenges. This does not stop the clubs themselves from playing the community card when it suits them. Tottenham Hotspur, which got a nasty shock when what it pitched as a short move from north to east London prompted fierce opposition from fans wanting to preserve the club’s character, now positions itself as a potential catalyst for community regeneration in run-down Tottenham. The community work of the club’s Foundation is well-regarded, but its lobbying for financial assistance from public funds for a new stadium sits uncomfortably with the tax-exile status of its multi-millionaire owner and the ultimate objective of the investment company vehicle which controls it. And at neighbours Arsenal, a look at the gap between the promises made to the community by Arsenal as the new Emirates Stadium – there’s that community angle again – was built and the reality is rather sobering.

ACV status gives fans an opportunity make notions of community and identity more than folk ephemera. Details such as asset locks on the use of grounds and defined conditions for the use of club facilities and history help to make the game less attractive to speculative influences. Fans are organising to make the identities upon which clubs have traded for so long have real meaning. And it will not have gone unnoticed that if fierce rivals such as Liverpool and Manchester United can campaign together, the divisions that have allowed the game’s authorities to misrule for so long are being swept aside.

But that is a story for another blog.

Oxford United. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue