Self development

The full story of Wimbledon's proposed move to Milton Keynes has been masked by the refusal of the scheme's backers to reveal themselves. Ian Pollock reports

A special commission of the FA started meeting on May 14 to decide whether the owners of Wimbledon FC should be allowed to move the club to Milton Keynes. But while the club’s chairman Charles Koppel has become the main figure attracting antagonism from Wimbledon fans, it has been much less clear who is driving the deal from the other end.

The group that has been trying to lure the Dons to Buckinghamshire is known as the Milton Keynes Sta­dium Consortium. The word “consortium” con­jures up images of experienced businessmen, sub­stantial companies and even more substantial sums of money. But so far it has been impossible to tell who exactly is trying to move Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, apart from the club’s owners.

Since it first made its existence public two years ago, the consortium has been fronted by Pete Winkelman, who owns a recording studio at Great Linford Manor near Milton Keynes. He is the only person in the town publicly associated with the project and all calls are referred to him. Although he is always happy to talk at length to anyone who calls, he declines to reveal who else is involved: “It’s not for me to comment. It’s still pri­vate. They are major business people in MK and some developers. A number of major international par­tners who’ve done this sort of thing before.”

It’s not just inquisitive Dons fans who are in the dark. The local council gave the consortium “most fav­oured bidder” status two years ago and will have to grant planning permission, when it is eventually ap­plied for. But the council press office told me that no one among the council’s officials knows the identity of those in the consortium.

Another major player is English Partnerships, for­merly the Commission for the New Towns. It owns some of the land on which Winkelman hopes to build a football stadium along with a hotel, conference cen­tre and retail park – all costing more than £100 million. Peter Springett, an area director of English Partnerships, revealed that lots of discussions have been going on. These have involved a variety of professional advisers to Pete Winkelman. Among them are Fennemores, a local firm of solicitors, the large surveying firm Lam­bert Smith Hampton and RPS, a big planning consultancy with experience in advising clubs on get­ting per­- mission for new stadiums. Wimbledon have employed HOK Sport, the international firm of stad­ium architects, to advise them on building the ground.

The presence of these firms has assured Spring­ett that he is dealing with a credible outfit. But as for the identity of the people who are paying them, he says: “I don’t know who the financial backers are.” Nor does the news editor of the local paper the MK Citizen, nor the head of Invest in MK, the local organisation that tries to attract new business to the area.

In one sense, this doesn’t matter. The FA hasn’t ap­proved the move (at the time of going to press), the coun­cil hasn’t been asked for planning con­sent and no one has been asked to write big cheques for building contractors. But isn’t it odd that the FA and the League are being asked to tear up their rules on where clubs can play, for the benefit of a con­sortium which is, for the moment, secret; which has no offices or phone; no publicly identifiable financial backing; and no pub­lished plans apart from a com­puter generated video?

Pete Winkelman claims that £30 million needed just for the stadium is already “fully funded” and says the identity of the consortium’s members will be re­vealed as the project makes progress and a planning application is lodged this summer. But Dons fans are increasingly wondering about the consortium’s links to the club’s owners themselves, led by Kjell Inge Rokke, a Norwegian fishing millionaire.

Pete Winkelman hinted that the Dons’ owners are not just the pas­sive beneficiaries of his consortium’s desire to provide a home for the football club. When asked if the club’s owners were part of the consortium or just existed in parallel to it he said: “A bit of both, they have a huge influence on the plans. It’s a sort of joint venture [with the club].” He also confirmed previous reports that the club would share ownership of the stadium and own three quarters of the total project.

So what does the club say about all this? Its PR firm Brunswick could only say: “WFC’s position on the mat­ter is in the public domain and available via the club’s website.” The website contains nothing on the subject. But the club’s expensive London lawyers Olswang have kindly spelled out their view of the relationship on their own website. They think they have been: “Advising Wim­bledon Football Club on proposed takeover of QPR (aborted) and its joint ven­ture arrangements with Milton Keynes consortium.”

I hope the FA’s commission press the club on this point. After all, they surely wouldn’t want to let a club be uprooted, just so that it could be used as a lever for a multi-million pound property development many miles away, for the profit of its owners. Would they?

From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month