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Coventry City Football Club

Volume 652: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Coventry City football club and football stadium ownership.

I think this is the first time I have introduced a Westminster Hall debate with you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I may be wrong—if I am, you have my apologies. I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate, which is very important to the people of Coventry, and to the people of Warwickshire in general. This is the fourth debate in recent years about the future of Coventry City football club. The previous debate took place last February, and the threat to the club’s future has only worsened since. Its immediate future is now at risk, and urgent action must be taken.

I thank the Sky Blue Trust, which has worked tirelessly for the sake of the club and the city, and all the other Coventry City supporters both in the city and outside it. I also thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for the hard work she put in to help our club when she was Sports Minister. I am very sorry that she had to resign because of Brexit, but that is another matter. That is no reflection on the new Minister, who will be judged on her record.

The background to this issue is the club’s 12-year ownership by Sisu, during which time it has faced many difficulties. Under Sisu’s stewardship, the club has fallen from the championship to league two, faced administration and received repeated points deductions. Despite its promotion to league one last season, instability off the pitch overshadows any success. The worst moment in the club’s recent history was its year-long exile in Northampton in 2013-14. Although an agreement was eventually struck by the English Football League, the club’s issues have only deepened since.

Since moving back to the Ricoh arena, the club has become a tenant of Wasps rugby football club. Wasps’ decision to buy the Ricoh arena from Coventry City Council was a success for it, and it has become a welcome and growing part of sporting life in the city. However, relations between Wasps and Coventry City have become increasingly sour. Sisu’s decision to challenge the sale of the Ricoh arena led to years of legal disputes, which culminated in the rejection of its case by the Court of Appeal last October. However, we must now wait to see whether the Supreme Court will hear a fresh appeal.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing a debate about this proud club, which, as he says, is important not just for the people of Coventry but for many people in and around Warwickshire. Although I agree with him and welcome the work of Wasps in the city, does he agree, in looking at all this and at the court case, that there is also a role for the Football League and the Football Association? This is not just about Coventry City, because other clubs face similar situations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and I have both written to the Football League to ask for a meeting, and that is pending. Obviously this matter is sub judice, so I do not want to go too far into the court case. Suffice it to say that, in the interest of progress, Sisu perhaps should set aside its application to go to the courts until we have tried to resolve the issue in another way. That would show a lot of good will on both sides.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the role that Sisu has played over the past five years. The hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and I actually voted for the financial restructuring that stopped it bankrupting the company that then operated the stadium. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the blame for where the club is must fall four-square with Sisu, and that continuing to mess around in the courts is not going to move the club forward in any way, shape or form?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has contributed to our debates on this issue since coming to the House—I might disagree with him on other matters, but I give credit where credit is due. Sisu should sit back and reflect. It certainly has to get away from trying to distance itself from the club and saying that the club is a separate entity. We all know that it is not, and that must be made clear. I am certainly doing so in this debate.

While Sisu has spent huge sums on legal action, the real consequences have been felt by the club. There are huge doubts about Coventry City’s future at the Ricoh arena. Wasps is refusing to keep the tenancy going, while Sisu continues its legal action. Regardless of the validity of Sisu’s claim, it has again left the fans suffering as a result. As I said, the club’s short-term future must be the priority. Coventry City must stay at the Ricoh arena next season. No other option is acceptable. To achieve that, all parties need to get back around the negotiating table.

There are currently too many red lines preventing talks. I understand the concerns of Wasps, but I ask it to reconsider for the sake of the city. For its part, Sisu must consider what it might gain from continued legal action. All fans agree that no judicial win would outweigh the risks the club faces. At some point the legal battle will end, either in the Supreme Court or before that stage, but that could still take many months—time the club simply does not have.

I have long argued that a mediator from outside football should adjudicate the dispute. Mediation has been attempted, with an apparent lack of success, but if the parties will not get back around the table, a mediator must bring them back. I want to talk to the Secretary of State about exactly how we take that forward, but that is another matter. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether the Secretary of State will meet us, along with the other local Members, to discuss the matter.

Too many football clubs have faced similar problems. In the Football League, those include Charlton, Portsmouth, Blackpool, Bolton and many others. In Scotland, of course, the famous Glasgow Rangers suffered a massive fall from grace due to liquidation. All those clubs have faced slightly different issues, but the common factor is poor stewardship by owners. Football club owners own something far more important than just a business. They owe it to the local community to run the club carefully and responsibly.

The fit and proper persons test is failing. It simply allows too many football clubs to fall into the hands of inappropriate people. I back Labour’s pledge to empower fans. A perfect fit and proper persons test is impossible, so we must limit the damage that owners can cause. We could learn from the protection that football stadiums receive through the Localism Act 2011. If grounds can be protected as assets of community value, then clubs should be as well. Owners who mistreat their community clubs cannot be allowed to get away with it. The Government must consider ways to definitely give power back to the fans. Along with other MPs, I will now look to meet the Government and the English Football League as soon as possible. I have already indicated that and the Minister is aware.

Coventry City has enjoyed some notable successes on the pitch in recent seasons. However, with huge questions over the future of the club, the city has been left in the lurch. It is a terrible irony that this is happening in the year in which Coventry is the European City of Sport. A continuation of the tenancy at the Ricoh must now be agreed immediately. Discussions over the club’s long-term ownership are needed, but the focus at the moment must be on the club’s survival.

There is a strong sense of déjà vu surrounding these proceedings. Around this time last year we stood in this Chamber and debated exactly the same subject: Coventry City football club’s long-term future in its home city. At that time, the club’s deal to play its home games at the Ricoh arena had been due to expire at the end of the 2017-18 season. Negotiations to extend the deal had long since stalled, due to Sisu’s “batter them in the courts” approach, but ultimately an agreement to extend the deal until May 2019 was reached between the club, its owners and the landlords, Wasps.

That extension ensured that the club remained in its home city for another season. However, as I warned during last year’s debate, the club was still likely to face the prospect of homelessness after May 2019, unless Sisu changed the way it did business. Wasps issued a similar warning to Sisu, stating that its pursuit of protracted litigation was a barrier to extending the deal further. With those warnings ringing in its ears, Sisu should have used the next 12 months to rebuild relationships, demonstrate a clear commitment to the club and its supporters, and overcome the barriers that could prevent the team playing at the Ricoh during the 2019-20 season and beyond. Instead, its actions over that period were just as divisive and toxic as they had been throughout the rest of its time in charge of the club. For Sisu, it was business as usual.

Consequently, here we are again, a year on, and the club is once more on the countdown to homelessness. That has left many fans again fearful that the club may leave Coventry or, worse still, cease to exist. Both scenarios would be disastrous for our city and for the club’s loyal supporters; neither must be allowed to happen under any circumstances. Time and again, Sisu’s actions have called into question its suitability, capability and fitness to own and run a football club. It has repeatedly acted contrary to the best interests of the club and has shown, at best, indifference and, at worst, disdain for the loyal fans, the wider local community and the city of Coventry as a whole.

Our football club has a proud history and fantastic supporters, and we deserve—no, we demand—better. We want long-term stability, a permanent home in Coventry and owners we can trust. Sisu seems incapable of delivering this, and on that basis it should sell up and go. In the meantime, I would encourage all parties to get around the negotiating table and thrash out a deal that will see Coventry City football club playing in Coventry next season. Achieving such a deal is in everyone’s best interests.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate. It is disappointing, to say the least, that we are here yet again. I say that because thousands and thousands of loyal fans, including myself, are now starting to think the unthinkable, which is that in just a few months, at the end of this season, a football club with 136 years of proud history could cease to exist, if it cannot extend its deal with Wasps at the Ricoh arena.

There are alternatives, but that would require the English Football League. I do not advocate the alternatives. Coventry City should be playing in Coventry. I certainly do not support the rumours I have heard that Coventry City might try to play at the Nuneaton Borough ground. Nuneaton is clearly not Coventry. Coventry City is a big club and Nuneaton does not have the infrastructure to support it, in terms of the roads or the policing, because Warwickshire Police is not set up to deal with such large crowds. We are not set up for it.

I will ask a few simple questions today. The Minister will be able to respond to some of them and other organisations can answer the others. We need clarity on what the English Football League is willing or unwilling to accept, and what pressure it can put on Coventry City. We need the owners to look at their moral obligations to a city, a community and fans who have supported this proud club, with its 136 year history, for decades; they have not done that, as Members have said. We also need to ask questions of Wasps. I do not blame Wasps for its view—I would possibly take the same view myself—but we need to ask if it is willing to allow what has been the biggest sporting club in Coventry to be in a situation where it might cease to exist.

We need to look at the roles of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and my hon. Friend the Minister. We need to be realistic, because they, like organisations such as the Football League, do not have any direct levers in the dispute, but they can play a valuable part in bringing all parties together around a table, to discuss what can be brokered between them. I do not think it will be a utopian situation, where my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to direct anybody, but I think it will focus minds. It will be an opportunity for us, as Members of Parliament representing Coventry and Warwickshire, and for my right hon. and learned Friend, as the Secretary of State responsible for sport in this country, to make it clear to these organisations that Coventry City must stay in Coventry and must stay playing at the Ricoh arena.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for securing the debate and for the important, insightful and passionate contributions from Members from Coventry and Warwickshire. I commend the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) for her passionate speech, in which she implored that communication and negotiation on behalf of the fans should be at the heart of the discussion. I am afraid that we are in an ongoing Catch-22 situation and time is running out. It seems to be appropriate on this Brexit negotiation day that nothing seems to be changing and there is something of an impasse.

It is hugely satisfying to hear why football clubs up and down the country rightly mean so much to local communities. I could not agree more with the impassioned pleas about the care that should be taken with our local football clubs by stakeholders and owners, and that that should be focused on their long-term futures. Football clubs do not belong to anybody. They are not pawns to be used in property disputes, across the boardroom table or in legal disputes. Football clubs should be fuelled and supported by their local communities, achieving a special place in towns and cities. Their existence and continual purpose is to bring fans together to support the game that they love, which is vital in good and bad times.

I am afraid that in this situation, we are in a bad time. The sorry saga of Coventry City and the Ricoh arena is familiar to us all, but it remains disappointing that, just as my predecessors have done, I find myself debating this very subject as we see the clock running down. We must look at who is responsible for the club and has the best interests of the community and fans at heart. I am afraid it feels as if nobody can currently put that to the fore.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), who is no longer in his place, rightly asked about football authorities and the need to look at the broader issue of leadership and the protection of clubs. We await a review finding, but it is fundamentally right that the FA look at this. It is vital that we provide clarity for fans and local communities. The processes must be in place to protect our local clubs and see them as community assets and, as I said, not pawns in a broader scheme.

I am not taking sides in any dispute, but it is a monumental shame that we continue to find ourselves in this situation, especially with a club of this size that means so much across Warwickshire and the city of Coventry. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) about the proud history of the club, so it is right that we focus on the fact that in nine months’ time an important football club could be homeless and sadly might end up out of the league altogether. That is the reality of the situation.

In terms of immediate action for Coventry City, I will work with the Secretary of State to convene an urgent meeting with the various parties to see if a solution can be found to ensure that the club has a stadium to call home for next season. That is an imperative for loyal fans, who want answers. As my hon. Friend said, I can give no guarantees, but I hope that that meeting can bring about a meeting of minds, press together those interested parties beyond the courtroom, and emphasise the importance that Coventry as a whole places on its football club. No club should be forced to leave its historical home and local fan base. We have seen that in the past in football, and it is wrong that that might be the case.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who has a history of fighting for the city of Coventry in his previous incumbency, that we need to stand ready to act as the clock ticks down. I will try not to do any more Brexit notes here, but the long-term plans must be put to the fore. I would be delighted for all hon. Members in this room to come and meet me to ensure that the football club, its future and what should be happening are put forward.

There must be a demonstration that people are ready to set aside their differences and act to ensure that the ongoing legal arguments can be pushed away, so that the football club can get a clear direction for what will happen in the future. I reiterate that it is not the Government’s direct responsibility to be the custodians of one particular football club, but it is our responsibility to hold to account those club owners who sign up to be custodians of a club but do not show that to be in their hearts.

It is right that we work with the FA and local community; while there has been no better time to be involved in football club ownership, we must do it right. The administration of the game and what is around it matter. As broadcasters continue to be interested in our wonderful game, there are side issues that we must look at. Attendances throughout the English game are at their highest, but people must not go on losing their local connections. Those revenues are vital and we must keep the link between fans and revenues.

I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Secretary of State are going to get together not only the MPs, but all interested parties. We would not expect the Secretary of State, or the Minister for that matter, to resolve this, but they can act as a catalyst to remind the parties of their responsibilities to the broader community in Coventry as well as to the fans.

I absolutely agree; it is a chance to remind the parties of the broader responsibilities that our owners have in football, and to hold them to account. It is also a broader lesson for football as a whole. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton, there are particular questions from across the realm here, but it is valuable to have a meeting of minds and show that, as I say, football clubs are not pawns to be bought and used while neglecting local links and forgetting where the fan base, the revenue and the local pride and heart come from.

My Department has a responsibility, which the Secretary of State in particular sees absolutely clearly, to ensure the sustainability of our clubs. We must ensure that our club owners who come in bring the positives and leave the clubs in a better state than they found them, rather than decimating them and disconnecting them from local communities. As I have already said, responsibility also lies with the football authorities. They govern the sport and set the rules and regulations that club owners should comply with. It is vital that those who are fans of their local club feel that that process is in place and that people cannot ride roughshod over it.

Our football authorities simply must look again at ways to protect their clubs in the long term. It is vital to ensure that owners go beyond merely abiding by the rules and that there are long-term business plans and proper assurances about the protection of the club and, for this football club in particular, a permanent home where it plays its matches. We must provide clarity to the fans and ensure that lessons are learned from the situation we are in. If football’s current rules are not good enough, new rules may need to be brought in. If that is not sufficient, we need to look at the case for Government to help football and remind it of this situation. I stand ready to act.

I will meet the Football Association next week to discuss the many challenges in football at present, and I will continue to work closely with it and the professional leagues to drive through changes that are needed in the sport. I will remind them of the crucial responsibility they have to supporters, to the fortunes of football and to their clubs. It is imperative that those clubs continue to engage openly with and listen to their fans on all the important issues. Without question, in Coventry City’s case, that should include prioritising an open dialogue and making plans for its future home stadium.

To sum up, it is my belief that the Government should not involve themselves directly in the fortunes of any individual club, but more and more we are being dragged into these types of disputes. This cannot become the norm. It suggests that perhaps football is not able to govern itself—something we need to be ready to tackle. I believe in this case we can take steps to disprove that suggestion, but we are on a precipice in terms of timescales. The Government are prepared to champion the game, but the authorities that govern it must ensure that we all get the outcomes that fans, above all, want and expect. In the case of Coventry, I remain hopeful that interventions locally by Members of Parliament and the Government, with local assistance, can help to find a suitable future for the club. It rests in the hands of the club and the stadium owner, but if I, this Department or the Secretary of State can help them to realise that sooner, all the better. We stand ready.

Question put and agreed to.