By David Lampitt
Chief Executive of Supporters Direct
Co-operatives and community are two words that are at the heart of what our organisations do and which we rarely question. However, it’s fascinating to see all the major parties attempting to define what this means in the 21st Century in all sorts of areas of public life – local services (traditionally provided by local government), financial services, and of course sport.
Sport is the one of vital importance to us at Supporters Direct. Promoting the role of community and co-operatives in the life of sport – principally in football but also in rugby league, rugby union and ice hockey – is an area of our work that many Co-op Party members will be very familiar with since our creation in 2000.
Now, with the ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACV) legislation under the Localism Act, we’re seeing some exciting results in football. For the first time this has provided a legislative basis for football clubs to be seen as something belonging to the community, not just as ordinary commercial organisations. This reflects some of the great work undertaken by Plunkett Foundation in protecting shops for rural communities.
The legislation itself provides community groups the opportunity to request a ‘listing’ of a site or facility of ‘Community Value’. The assessment – made by the local authority – is a very simple process established under law. When successfully applied, the result is that any sale of the asset from its existing owner ends up being made public, and the community group concerned is offered a ‘right to bid’ window lasting about six months in total.
Given the issues of asset stripping and ground sales in football, we’ve been keen to promote this scheme to supporters’ trusts, and the take up has been very impressive so far. OxVox – the Oxford United Supporters Trust – were the first group to succeed in listing their Kassam Stadium, followed by Nuneaton Borough Supporters Co-operative. More recently, the Manchester United Supporters Trust were also successful in their application to Trafford Borough Council – an outcome that looks like it will be appealed by Manchester United FC, owned by US investors the Glazer Family, despite the fact that they profess to having no intention of moving ground.
In arguing against the listing, clubs are forced to argue against football stadia– and by extension, football clubs – as community assets. This is a remarkable position to adopt given just how much football has traded on the language of the Trust Movement and the co-operative sector in recent years.
Now, with the help of the Co-op Party, we are looking to extend this ‘Right to Bid’ protection beyond the stadia to the clubs themselves. In simple terms, if a club is about to be sold – whether as a going concern or as a result of financial collapse and administration as is all too frequent – then a supporters’ trust would have a right to bid for ownership and a period of time to raise the funds to do so.
This would replace the current arrangements where collective fan-and-community ownership is hamstrung by a legal and financial regulatory infrastructure that makes it incredibly difficult to mount a successful ownership bid for the community. Indeed, this is why we haven’t had more Portsmouths or Exeters, because the barriers are often too great. We want to change that and make Portsmouth the rule rather than the exception.
We welcome the support for this proposal to Labour’s policy review from Gareth Thomas. If any were needed, this is further evidence of the huge potential for the co-operative movement (of which we’re proud to be part) to reshape the debate around sport, and football in particular, in a way that furthers our shared values and aims.
The Co-op Party is proud to have been instrumental in the establishment of Supporters Direct.