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Community Football Clubs

Volume 790: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risks to community football clubs from land development proposals.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so refer the House to my relevant interests and also make clear that I am a member of the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters’ Trust.

Congratulations. My Lords, local authorities should assess the risks posed to sports facilities by development in their areas. We are clear in the National Planning Policy Framework that access to high-quality sports and recreation facilities is important for the health and well-being of communities. Planning policies should be based on robust assessment of what an area needs and should make it clear that facilities should be protected.

My Lords, Dulwich Hamlet is a much-loved non-league football club based in Southwark, where I grew up. It was founded in 1893, which is 125 years ago. Does the Minister agree that the present situation is tragic, with the club locked out of the ground, and that the best way forward is for all interested parties to get around the negotiating table and reach an agreement that gets Dulwich Hamlet playing football again at Champion Hill?

Yes. The noble Lord will be aware that my honourable friend Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Sport, in answering a debate in the other place, indicated that she was minded—indeed, determined—to find and appoint an independent mediator. I would be happy to meet with the noble Lord to discuss how we can carry this forward; I very much support what he is up to.

My noble friend deserves the title he got of “Campaigner of the Week” for this campaign. Will the Minister send a message to Andrew McDaniel, head of the New York hedge fund Meadow Partners, which owns Meadow Residential, to get round the table to resolve this problem? Will he also tell him that treating a much-loved local club like this—putting up a six-foot security fence with a notice saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”—does not help?

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says. Clearly we are hoping for mediation, so perhaps his mediation skills might be brought to bear when we get there—although possibly the approach might be a little more nuanced. I will just add that the situation in Dulwich is by no means unique. There are many other such situations, and the Minister for Sport is determined to look at this in a holistic way to see what we can do.

My Lords, many sports clubs, especially those with established grounds beside urban areas, are under threat from development. Will the Government give us not just an idea that this should be taken into account but a structure where, if somebody provides a community asset—that is, exercise and community involvement—there is a structure that guarantees the ground and that its activity will not be lost unless there can be some form of replacement on a like-for-like basis, within striking distance of that community?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware of the community assets policy, which I think answers some of the points that he has raised. I will make sure that he has a copy of it, showing how it operates. However, I will say once again that the Minister for Sport is looking at the matter. It is partly a question of contractual arrangements—it is not just a planning situation—because clubs sometimes need advice when entering into contractual arrangements with others. I think that that was part of the problem in the Dulwich case. So there are many aspects to this, but we are determined to look at them.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the undesirable effects of the rise in property values, particularly in inner cities, and the introduction of substantial sums of extra money into football at all levels, has been the growth of what one might call less desirable individuals coming in to own and run clubs—and in some cases to close them down, as we have heard this afternoon? Does he feel that the football authorities have sufficient power to implement their fit and proper person test and keep some of these characters out of the game?

The noble Lord raises a very important point in relation to fit and proper persons—and, again, I will make sure that the Minister for Sport is aware of the concerns expressed in this House when looking at this issue. In order to ensure that the House is aware of this, I will simply say that many successful football players of great wealth are helping—I think that Rio Ferdinand is an example in relation to Dulwich. However, the noble Lord makes a valuable point.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the Minister for Sport is trying to rescue the situation. My concern in relation to this Question is the effect, over a number of years, of the loss of playing fields that have been sold off by local authorities, having been encouraged to do so by previous Governments, notwithstanding the commitment to replace them with new provision. What evidence is there of the new provision, and what impact is the loss of playing fields having on young people and their health?

The noble Lord is right to raise that issue. He will be aware that Sport England is a statutory consultee where a playing field or sports facility is threatened with closure. The latest statistics show that 1,138 out of 1,200 planning applications in 2015-16 resulted in improved or safeguarded sports provision. I think that that is about 95%. So it is not 100%, but I hope it will give the noble Lord some comfort, because it is a very high percentage.

My Lords, is it acceptable to develop sites with flat surfaces and playing fields on flat roofs? Will my noble friend look into this?

My Lords, I will certainly ensure that that matter is taken to the relevant Minister so that it is looked at.

The Minister rightly said that this situation is by no means unique. He will recall that Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club—

I declare an interest as a member of the Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters’ Club, Lords branch. Focus DIY, which acquired the club in the 1990s, went bankrupt, and Brighton and Hove Albion is now in the Premiership. The noble Lord is right to point out that this situation is not unique, but I would like to understand what action the Government intend to take to ensure that vulnerable community-based football clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet do not fall prey to developers such as Meadow Residential in the future. There is a serious issue here that needs to be addressed nationally.

I thank the noble Lord and recognise his role in Brighton and Hove Albion. There are a couple of specific points that I can mention following the debate in the Commons. My honourable friend the Minister for Sport said, first, that she would look at helping clubs with support to produce proper contractual arrangements when they sell their grounds, which has often been an issue. The other relevant matter which I think the noble Lord may be pleased to hear is that she is asking the Football Association to speak directly to supporters about a review of clubs that do not own their own stadiums. That is very relevant in the context of the point that the noble Lord has raised.