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Coventry City Football Club

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Coventry City Football Club.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for attending this important debate. I also thank a Coventry City supporter exiled in Torbay—my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson).

It is clear from the number of MPs here today that there is significant strength of feeling in the Coventry and Warwickshire community and the wider area about the issues relating to Coventry City football club. Before I proceed, I must declare that I am a lifelong supporter of Coventry City football club. That is among my reasons for securing this debate, in addition to the fact that many of my constituents support the club.

My hon. Friend the Minister is no stranger to this issue. When she received notification for this debate, she will be forgiven for having thought, “Here we go again”—such is the importance of this issue. To set the scene for the Minister, the football club started as a factory team at the Coventry-based Singer bicycle factory in 1883. It has a proud 135-year history. It has played in every division of English professional football, and has a proud record of a continuous 34-year run in the top flight of English football. It is an FA cup winner, and it recently won the English Football League trophy.

Sadly, after a demise in the club’s fortune since its relegation from the premier league in 2001, it now occupies a place in the bottom tier of English league football. Despite that, 43,000 Sky Blues fans followed the club to Wembley when it won the FL trophy last year; just two weeks ago a reported 28,000 fans attended a match against Accrington Stanley at the Ricoh Arena; and last week 4,500 fans took the long trip to Brighton for the FA cup.

Football clubs are clearly businesses, but they would not exist, particularly if they do not get premier league television money, if it were not for the ordinary—I should say extraordinary—fans who make huge sacrifices to follow their team. Those people deserve a voice.

A lot has been said about the Coventry City saga. The hon. Member for Coventry South has secured several debates to discuss the dire state of the football club’s ownership and its tenure as custodian of Coventry City. A lot has been said about the legal disputes between the football club ownership, Coventry City Council and the Wasps rugby club, which now owns Coventry’s home ground, the Ricoh Arena, on a long lease.

I will not go over old ground or go into the rights and wrongs of where we are today. My intention is not to be political or to favour one organisation over another, but to focus on the football club’s future in the city of Coventry. This debate is the result of fan groups speaking to local MPs. Many of my comments and questions have been endorsed by seven supporters’ groups, which have also issued a unified statement.

At the point of securing this debate, the football club had until May this year before its agreement with the owners of the Ricoh Arena expired. In the intervening period, the owners of the stadium, the Wasps, granted the football club an extension of a further year, which is extremely welcome news. That said, ongoing legal matters between the football club owners and the Wasps mean that the long-term future of Coventry City’s ability to play at the Ricoh Arena is far from clear, which is worrying because there is no other obvious place for it to play within the city of Coventry.

Supporters’ groups are anxious about the future, and want to ensure there is no repeat of the situation in 2013, when Coventry City played its home fixtures more than 30 miles away in Northampton. I give way to my hon. Friend, who is on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on his championing of local supporters’ groups. The supporters’ groups unity and their willingness to work together to come to a solution is in sharp contrast to the behaviour of many of the other parties involved. The loud message we must send today is that those parties must come together to sort out this situation for the benefit of the sport and the people of Coventry.

I completely agree. That brings me to the four issues I want to raise: the current mediation process, at the direction of Court of Appeal judge Mr Justice Irwin; the role of the English Football League; the informal mediation process instigated by my hon. Friend the sports Minister; and future cases of crisis in the management of football clubs.

On the mediation process, Court of Appeal judge Mr Justice Irwin was quoted by the Coventry Telegraph on 28 November last year as saying:

“There is a long standing relationship between the parties, there needs to be working relationships in the future, it seems to me desirable that all parties go into mediation seeking to resolve all of those disputes relating to those relationships.

That would include any future civil proceedings. It would be futile to enter meditation without considering that.

By the end of the mediation process, if it is successful, all parties should be able to walk away with all issues resolved…This is a case crying out for an honest attempt at mediation.”

I could not agree more. All parties involved have an obligation to their own organisations, but they also have a significant moral responsibility to mediate in the spirit that Mr Justice Irwin advocated. They must realise that that famous club’s 135 years of history and its future are at stake, as is what the club means to the community and the economy of the city of Coventry and the surrounding areas. I wish the parties well, and I urge them all to heed that advice.

My hon. Friend is making a typically thoughtful and passionate speech of great importance. As the co-chair of the all-party group for sport, I want to highlight just how important this issue is. Lessons need to be learned from what happened to Wimbledon. Nothing was resolved, and now that football club has been moved to Milton Keynes Dons and its history has been robbed.

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for all sports, and he certainly knows his football. I thank him for his support.

We must not prejudge the formal mediation process, but if it fails to clarify where Coventry City will play its home games, I want the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee to ask the parties, including the English Football League, to attend a hearing of the Committee to explain how the issue of the football club’s future can be resolved.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate, which is of interest to many of my constituents, who are naturally Coventry City supporters. He is talking about the parties involved, one of which is Wasps rugby club, which acquired the stadium a while ago. Does he agree that it is incumbent on Wasps to do what it can, as it is doing, to provide a home for Coventry City to ensure that the football club can continue to play in the city that bears its name? Elsewhere in the world, two sports operate out of one venue. So far, Wasps has been sympathetic and has allowed a further year. Does he agree that it needs to be encouraged to continue its very generous offer?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I set out at the start of the debate that I would not favour any particular organisation or relive old battles, because a solution to the situation is needed.

Returning to the role of the English Football League, I would like the EFL to explain its earlier role in the club moving to Northampton and to explain to Coventry City supporters its view of the future. In my view, the EFL should not again allow the club to move outside the city of Coventry.

I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull in his intervention by raising the issue of the start of an informal mediation process. The Minister has been very helpful in that, and I would be grateful if she will explain the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) in that regard.

Finally on the approach of the EFL, we need to look at situations similar to that of Coventry’s—clubs like Blackpool and Charlton, which are recent notable examples. Coventry City supporter groups have felt that the EFL should in such circumstances be able to appoint someone independent to make recommendations to the league on how to proceed and on the parties.

I will conclude, because I am splitting the speaking time to allow two Coventry Members of Parliament the opportunity to speak in the debate. I appreciate entirely that the Minister will not have all the answers for us today, but I ask her to consider our points seriously and to work with the football authorities to ensure that we do all that we can to secure a future for Coventry City in the city of Coventry. Football and its authorities must send a message to owners of football clubs that where a club is embedded in a community we must ensure that it stays in that community. The issue is important not only for fans of Coventry City football club, but as a marker to be put down because we do not want other football clubs and other groups of supporters to be in this situation in the future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing the debate. As he rightly said, we have had many debates on the subject over the past six or seven years. I agree with near enough everything he has said, so I do not intend to cover that, but I have some other points to make, the first of which is to thank the sports Minister for her help. She appointed a mediator—for want of a better term—and the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) did a very difficult job to the best of his ability. I can find no fault in that.

Another interesting point is that, as I have been arguing for a long time, we should have as a mediator someone from outside football—possibly a judge, if need be—to adjudicate. It has to be someone of substance to take the heat out of the situation. I am glad to see that the Court has now finally come to that conclusion, rightly or wrongly.

I have one or two other observations. I have met successive sports Ministers over the years and I have had no doubt that they have a difficult job dealing with the football league. In my view, that is because of the absence of strong regulation of it. In the Bundesliga, for example, very few clubs have gone bankrupt or out of business. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from that—although others in the Chamber probably know more about the Bundesliga than I do.

I have had a number of discussions with the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). Incidentally, he came to one of our debates and he was very helpful, so in fairness I pay tribute to him for that.

To reiterate the hon. Gentleman’s point, I am a member of that Select Committee—its second longest serving Conservative member—and in our discussions we have considered what has happened to Coventry to be a stain on football. It needs to be resolved.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. All of us, including different sports Ministers, have been trying to do that for the past six or seven years.

The Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has agreed to meet the interested MPs, as I am sure the hon. Member for Nuneaton knows. Subject to us getting a date—[Interruption.] I can see you signalling for me to finish, Mr Sharma, so I will emphasise the point that the club has to stay in Coventry. It has another 12 months at the Ricoh, so let us hope that in a shorter period we will resolve the problem.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.

I commend the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this timely debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), I would reiterate most of what has already been said today.

The ongoing saga at CCFC raises many pertinent questions. How should a football club be run? For whom should it be run? Who should be allowed to own a football club? How can responsible and transparent club ownership be ensured? When should the footballing authorities intervene in poorly run or failing clubs? Those are all extremely important questions that need to be answered. But the most pressing question of all for Sky Blues supporters—the one that would have had the greatest immediate impact on the club’s future—was: where would the team play their home games once the Ricoh Arena deal expired at the end of the season?

We now have confirmation that an agreement has been reached to extend the Ricoh deal by a year, until May 2019, which gives supporters certainty about where they will be watching their team play, at least in the short term. Any agreement that provides a degree of certainty for the supporters while ensuring that the club remains in its home city is, of course, most welcome. Ultimately, however, all the club’s owners have done is to kick the can down the road. The club still has neither a permanent home nor any tangible long-term stability, and it is likely once again to face the prospect of homelessness in 12 months’ time.

To my mind, there are two ways to avoid a repeat of the situation: the club’s owners sell up and leave; or they fundamentally change the way they do their business. The latter would require them to use the next 12 months to repair the relationships that they have systematically dismantled over the past decade; to make a commitment to the club and its traditions; to provide decent investment on and off the pitch; to engage in frank and open communication with the fans; and to acquire a social conscience by considering the impacts of their actions on supporters and the wider local community in Coventry.

Either way, we need to see a step change in the way the club is run in order to ensure greater long-term stability and an improvement in the club’s fortunes on and off the pitch. I, too, know that the Minister has been following the situation for some time, and I look forward to some answers from her today.

As always, Mr Sharma, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for securing the debate and for the passionate and insightful contributions he and others have made—although I shall breeze over any reference to Coventry’s FA cup success. That aside, I sympathise with the points made by colleagues. They have re-emphasised the case that football clubs up and down the country remain of great importance to their local communities. Coventry City is no exception. Without question, every care should be taken by club owners and stakeholders to respect their club’s history, and they should seek to preserve their club’s long-term status.

The issue surrounding the Ricoh Arena and where Coventry City plays its home games is familiar to us all—in fact, it seems like only yesterday that I was stood in this very place responding to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on this very subject. It was in October 2016; Members present might recall that I urged the various parties with a vested interest in Coventry’s future to come together and to provide that much—needed stability to the club and its loyal supporters. Since then, it has been a rather anxious wait to hear what progress has been made.

I want to take a moment to say how extremely grateful I am for the efforts made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) to bring the relevant parties together. I am also grateful to the EFL for keeping me abreast of the situation at regular intervals. It was a time-consuming and on occasions frustrating process for my hon. Friend, but I am in no doubt that his efforts while refereeing between the two parties delivered some progress in mediation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton pointed out, the clock was ticking for the club to come up with a solution. I can only imagine how those associated with the club—the players, the staff and the fans—were feeling given the uncertainty hanging over them. It came as some relief when, earlier this month, news emerged that a new one-year agreement had been concluded with Wasps Group for the club to continue to play its home games at the Ricoh Arena until May 2019, providing immediate stability for everyone at the club. However, I recognise what the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) said—that is a short-term solution and we need to find a long-term one.

Although I recognise that those longer-term plans were not outlined, the deal demonstrates that there is a mutual interest in the two clubs working together, which will hopefully stretch much further into the future, for the good of the city of Coventry. At the same time, I want to be clear that future arrangements at the Ricoh Arena between Wasps and Coventry City remain a commercial negotiation between private parties. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton and the hon. Members for Coventry South and for Coventry North East will fully understand that it is not a matter in which the Government can—or should, in my opinion—intervene. That said, I am always willing to try to help facilitate. I care passionately about the future of football clubs and their importance in local communities and I am willing to support and help where I can, although the actual intervention is slightly beyond the remit of a Minister.

Will the Minister urge the Football League to meet Members of Parliament for Coventry and Warwickshire to discuss this issue? The League seems elusive when it comes to trying to get meetings with it.

I do not need to ask the EFL to meet Members from Coventry and those who have an interest in the future of Coventry City football club, but I am willing to try to facilitate that meeting if Members are finding it difficult to do so. Yes is the direct answer to that question; that invitation should be extended not just to Members for Coventry, but Coventry City supporters and those in the wider Warwickshire area who have a vested interest in the future of the club.

The ongoing dispute between the owners of the football club and Coventry City Council is rightfully a matter for the courts. Given the protracted history between the parties, the Court of Appeal has taken the sensible decision to begin a period of mediation. I hope that it will result in all parties resolving their issues once and for all. It is sometimes easy to forget that the majority of football fans in this country follow clubs outside the premier league, and that those clubs operate on a completely different financial scale.

The reality for clubs such as City is that they cannot rely on huge sums of money from broadcasters or sponsors; they must rely on private investment from owners and the support of local businesses. They need the watchful eye of the English Football League to ensure that owners abide by the rules and that clubs are living within their financial means. Clubs need the help of their local councils for the use of stadiums, and of course they need the fans as a regular source of income and ongoing appeal.

Football clubs need to be run as businesses, but if a company cannot guarantee a product, its customers go elsewhere. Clubs are not like that. They are built on fan loyalty passed through families and generations; they are wedded to their local communities and they have a social heartbeat.

What is exceptional about the Coventry situation is how there has been a falling out between the club and its supporters. Coventry is a big city, with 300,000 residents. A lot of people are excited by football, but the football club under its current ownership does not seem to have motivated those people. They are more motivated to support the club when it plays away than when it plays at home. That is the bit that needs to be worked on.

A bit later in my speech I will come to the importance and the value of fans. The fan base across the whole of English football is growing. In fact, attendance at the English game is the highest it has been for a very long time. Fans have not lost that local connection. All-important revenues are coming into clubs and helping to keep them financially viable. Ensuring long-term financial sustainability must remain the primary responsibility of all club owners. They are the custodians of that club and wherever possible they should aim to leave the club in a better state than how they found it. That is relevant no just to Coventry City but to a whole host of clubs across English football.

Working with clubs, the football authorities must continue to set the parameters for financial sustainability. Through the owners’ and directors’ test, the EFL—and, indeed, the premier league—must keep under review the framework governing the conduct of club owners and directors, engaging with supporter groups in the process. Where there are breaches of the ODT, they take action, and I would expect them to continue do so.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) just pointed out, supporters have a crucial role in the fortunes of their football club, and club owners must remember that. From time to time, there may be a breakdown in the relationship for a variety of reasons, but if or when that happens, it is imperative that club owners engage openly with fans. Through the work of the Government expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement, rules are in place that require open dialogue between senior club executives or owners and fans on the most important issues for the club. These rules are not prescriptive, but they will usually include its financial standing, the identity of its owners and future plans. In the case of Coventry, without question that should include plans for where the club plays its football.

Last December, I reported on the progress being made by the vast majority of clubs to engage with fans, but I am well aware that this needs to be a continuous process. My hope and expectation is that the relationship will grow over time as trust builds; clubs feel more at ease sharing information and fans realise the many facets involved in running a club. As this progresses, as I believe it will, fans will become much more involved in the running of their clubs, and that can only be a good thing.

In conclusion, it is my belief that the Government should not involve themselves in the commercial or legal affairs of any individual club, including Coventry City. The responsibility for ensuring the future of a football club sits with the incumbent owner. As outlined, the football authorities have a role to play, too, and I encourage them to work with supporters as well as owners to ensure their ownership rules remain robust. It goes without saying that those with a direct say or influence over the club’s future must continue to work together to provide the clarity needed.

In the case of Coventry City and the city of Coventry, I remain hopeful that through the mediation process the long-running disputes off the pitch can be resolved quickly, so that this proud club with a wide and varied fan base can concentrate solely on matters on the pitch. I wish them the best for the rest of the season.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.