THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Some people live football; other people live in what used to be football grounds. Steve Menary reports on the growing relationship between the game and builders

So, goodbye then, Tynecastle, as yet another football stadium falls underneath the bulldozer. Despite the objections of Hearts fans, their ground looks  like being sold to house-builder Cala for £22 mil­lion. Tynecastle will join a line of much loved stadiums, from The Dell to Oxford United’s Manor Ground, in becoming housing.

Nostalgia for an old ground is not the only reason football supporters might have for disliking house builders: many also object to commercial companies making huge profits at their expense. For every £100,000 home they sell, most house builders will pocket a profit of £20,000. Some make far more, especially in a rising market such as we have had recently, building homes on land that was bought at a proportionately cheaper price a few years ago.

Right now – and this is why financially stricken clubs need to be alert – prices have stopped rising. Half of the UK’s new houses are built by a dozen or so companies that are quoted on the Stock Ex­change. These companies can only keep their profits (and their share prices) rising by building more homes and paying as little for that land as possible. One big house builder, Country & Metropolitan, recently sold £14m worth of commercial property to give them the cash to buy out any “distressed” landowners.

The firm was not talking about football, but there are few land owners as financially distressed as some of the Football League clubs that are still suffering from the collapse of ITV Digital. Earlier this season, AFC Bournemouth chairman Peter Phillips made an im­passioned pre-match speech to fans insisting that their club, which owes around £6m, would not fall prey to developers. Phillips’ predecessor, the hugely unpopular Tony Swaisland, proposed selling the Fit­ness First Stadium, which only opened in 2001 after being rebuilt at an estimated cost of £6.6m, to a property group and renting it back. Fans’ backs were immediately put up by Swaisland’s obstinate refusal to disclose the identity of the prospective buyer. Apart from Swaisland being a former Brentford director with no obvious links to Bournemouth, what upset fans even more was a rumour that the mysterious property outfit could – and would – demolish the stadium and redevelop the site. Once the idea was discredited as being financially unsustainable, Swaisland was targeted personally until he stood down as chairman – though he remains on the board.

Bournemouth’s fans had good reason to be wary as a bunch of “businessmen” tried to pull off a similar ruse at York. City’s board agreed to sell the ground for £4.5m to house-builder Persimmon, who have their headquarters in York but are one of the UK’s biggest house builders and wanted to put up 93 homes at Bootham Crescent. After a protracted battle, York fans have since bought back the ground with help from the Football Foundation on the proviso that the club re­locates to a new ground within ten years. Bootham Crescent could still become housing, but not at the club’s expense. Despite initially being cast as the villains, York fans have since realised that Persimmon were also duped. Due to the fans’ pressure, the entire episode was becoming a public-relations disaster for Persimmon but, as the ground was bought back for £2m, the firm has taken a big financial hit.

There is a crucial distinction between York and what could occur to Bournemouth or legions of other clubs. Companies such as Persimmon intensely dislike being described as developers as they do, in fairness, actually build homes themselves – around 12,000 last year. In contrast, developers hire builders to build homes and pass on many of the risks involved to someone else. Some developers form one-off companies that can be folded if the economy turns against them so they can wriggle out of any financial responsibility. These are the people of whom clubs need to be wary.

Since the Taylor Report, a number of grounds have fallen prey to developers, but stadiums such as Brighton’s Goldstone Ground were demolished to make way for offices, warehouses or shops. Developers, many per­fectly respectable, have been attracted by the land clubs sit on, but the economy has changed. In recent years, fewer offices are being built due to an excess of development, while pressure on manufacturers caused by the strength of the pound has seen little appetite for new factories. As a result, many developers, tempted by booming house prices, have moved into housing. And these are the very people that Bournemouth’s Peter Phillips warned fans about.

With the housing market showing as much growth as Norwich’s Premiership points total, these developers are being backed into a corner as they face stiff competition for land from the big house builders. House builders are no angels and often deal with land agents and developers, but they can be affected by fans pressure, as demonstrated at York. In some cases, clubs can also reach a compromise with house buil­­ders, as Leyton Orient did, selling all four corners of Brisbane Road to Bellway in return for enough cash to revamp the rest of their ground. House builders are also more likely to walk through the front door of a club. A fly developer, in contrast, would be more likely to try to unseat a chairman than speak to him.

Unfortunately, the Football Association offers no regulatory protection against these predators. All that prevents developers taking over a club and flattening the ground is the necessary planning permission and fans’ ability to rouse public opinion against any plans for their club’s stadium.

The FA suggest that clubs ensure their stadiums are designated for leisure use within statutory plan­ning frameworks called local plans, but central government is putting huge pressure on councils to build more houses in some areas. In regions where housing re­quirements are high, this can be difficult to achieve. The FA’s other solution is simpler: clubs put ownership of their stadiums into a trust. York’s directors tried to exploit a similar loophole by putting Bootham Cre­scent into a separate holding company, but a trust offers more protection and the assets cannot be liquidated, ie the ground sold off, without the permission of the trustees.

If the trustees are fans, the ground should be safe and clubs already run by trusts have usually achieved this. Many, though, are still run by “businessmen”. So, fans, ask your board to put your stadium into the ownership of a trust. If they say no, then maybe  developers have infiltrated your boardroom, too.

From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month

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