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Dulwich Hamlet Football Club

Volume 637: debated on Friday 16 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the House serious issues that threaten the future of my much loved local football club, Dulwich Hamlet, and which have relevance for local non-league and league clubs throughout the country.

I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to my predecessor as MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, Baroness Jowell of Brixton, whose involvement with Dulwich Hamlet football club goes back a long way and who I know is close to the hearts of Dulwich Hamlet supporters. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), in whose constituency the Champion Hill stadium sits and whose support for this campaign has been invaluable, and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who has raised this issue in the other place and ensured that very few parliamentarians are unaware of the issues facing Dulwich Hamlet and have not been photographed wearing the club’s scarf. Finally, I thank the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters’ Trust, Dulwich Hamlet football club, my many constituents who have written to me about this issue, and the thousands who turn up regularly at Champion Hill to support the team.

I will speak today about community: a local community emblematic of the diversity and cohesion that makes London so great, and a national community that is galvanised by the same ideals as our pocket of south-east London. Dulwich Hamlet FC are not unique in their current struggle. Their cause has received support from around the world, both from the football community and, significantly, from many who are not archetypal fans of the game but recognise the immense community value that the club brings.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the wonderful idea of promoting young people’s access to sport. When we have so much knife and gun crime, it is important that sport can provide a meaningful outlet for young people, and for older people, too.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the role that football can play. I shall address some of those issues a little later in my speech.

There are stories similar to Dulwich Hamlet’s from the football community throughout the country: from Skelmersdale to Merthyr, Torquay, Hereford and Coventry. Communities are fragile and the spaces and institutions that bring people from a diverse range of backgrounds together can be rare. Local football clubs provide this focus and an opportunity for friendships to be developed and bonds strengthened through the sharing of the passion that football inspires.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Many of my constituents have contacted me about Dulwich Hamlet and they have all spoken about their love and affinity for the club. As my hon. Friend says, football clubs are often the linchpin of communities, but they are increasingly threatened by buy-outs, as we have seen in Dulwich. Does she agree that the Government should look into strengthening protections for these community assets?

I do indeed agree that more can be done to protect these powerful institutions. When such institutions are lost they may be gone forever, so we must do all that we can to keep them alive. The Government may argue that they cannot intervene in the commercial or legal affairs of any individual club, but the situation at Dulwich is not individual; it is representative of a much wider problem, in which short-term financial gain seeks to assert itself over an institution valued not just in pounds and pence, but in people, friendship, aspiration and history.

I am really pleased that my hon. Friend has brought this issue to the House. The Hamlet has a lot of affection and a lot of people respect it, but this issue is bigger and wider than that one club. If we do not have grassroots football—if we do not have the small teams such as, in my part of the world, Hayes & Yeading, where players like Les Ferdinand and Paul Merson started—how are we going to channel talent into the higher leagues? Without teams like the Hamlet, we will not have top-tier football. The Minister is a great sportswoman and she supports a team in north London, the name of which escapes me. Does my hon. Friend agree that without teams like the Hamlet, we would not have teams like Spurs?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s remarks.

This year, Dulwich Hamlet celebrated its 125th anniversary. The historic first formal meeting of Hamlet Old Boys and founder Pa Wilson took place on Friday 28 January 1893 at the Dulwich Hamlet Elementary School in Dulwich village. The team eventually settled at Champion Hill in 1902—the same year in which both Manchester United and Real Madrid were founded—and it has been there ever since.

Dulwich Hamlet has a long history and a strong and proud heritage: they are four-time FA Amateur cup winners; two Hamlet players, Edgar Kail and Bert Coleman, earned full England caps; and in 1948 Champion Hill was used for the London Olympics, hosting football just as the neighbouring Herne Hill velodrome hosted cycling.

It has not all been plain sailing over the years. The club faced closure in the 1960s, and in the 1980s it gave up its old ground to ensure that there was a future and a new stadium. But Dulwich Hamlet is far more than just a football club. It is part of the very fabric of the local community through its inclusive and accessible approach to football, its social activity supporting good causes, and the many initiatives that are led by the club and its army of volunteers—from Dulwich to Dunkirk and to Syria.

One fan told of his days as a beat bobby in south-east London and how Dulwich Hamlet and its loyal supporters —the Rabble—came together to engage the local youngsters, providing school competitions, role models, and an alternative to getting into trouble: just one of countless initiatives the club has led in the community. Under current manager Gavin Rose, who is in the Public Gallery today, the Aspire Academy has been developed and works with hundreds more young people every year. Thirty-five players from the academy have moved into the professional game. Aspire is not just about success on the field—although it is certainly that—and it is not just about developing better players; it is also about instilling in our young people the importance of becoming better members of their community.

I am proud of the many young people from Aspire who have not gone on to make a career in football, but who have become outstanding citizens. The academy’s work is not limited to young people. In recent years, it has seen the club host a ground-breaking match against the Stonewall 11 in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; arranged food bank collections; and sent aid to refugees in Calais. I have with me today a special edition scarf to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage. The list of its work goes on.

Dulwich Hamlet has a strong community identity. It is a family club that has brought pleasure—and admittedly some pain—to generations of supporters. It is very often the first club that children attend because it is local, family friendly and has a great community feel.

Dulwich Hamlet FC fans mainly live nearby and are part of our wider local community. They are rightly proud of the way that they have grown to become a central part of that community, and they are recognised for what they are doing. The efforts made by the club and all its volunteers to ensure that the club connects with all parts of its local community were recognised in 2016, when it was awarded the football foundation community club of the year at the National Game Awards in London. Everyone wants to keep the club that way and, given the chance, I know that it can do even more.

Dulwich Hamlet has business sponsors and partners who back the club financially, put up posters and display its scarves because of the positive image the team has in the local community and the benefit that the supporters bring to their businesses. The club is heading in the right direction. As recently as 2008-09, the club saw average attendances of just 180. That has now risen to more than 1,500 this season, proving the sustainability of the club and the impact that it has on the community.

Dulwich Hamlet has much to celebrate, currently sitting third in the league and chasing a promotion to the Conference South, but off the pitch the picture is entirely different. The club was acquired by Meadow Partners with operating partner Hadley in 2014. The company took day-to-day control of the club and paid off a significant number of debts, which had come very close to driving the club into bankruptcy. It made no secret of the fact that it was looking to redevelop some or all of the current ground, with the club being moved to more appropriate facilities nearby. It publicly stated that giving the club a long-term future was an integral part of its plans.

In March 2016, an application to redevelop the ground was submitted to Southwark Council. The plans included provision for 155 new dwellings, as well as a new stadium for the club to be built on metropolitan open land, which would be handed over to Dulwich Hamlet FC for fan ownership. However, there was no planning policy designation for residential use on that site, and of course there was the very strong planning protection of metropolitan open land, which meant that, essentially, there was no clear policy framework against which the council could determine the application.

In December 2017, a planning appeal was lodged by Meadow on the grounds that Southwark Council had failed to reach a decision within the required timescale. Subsequent legal wrangling between the developer and the council over the football club’s lease resulted in costs, thought to be around £320,000, being awarded against the club, which had played no role in the legal case, and ultimately to the developer withdrawing the planning appeal.

Following the withdrawal of the planning appeal, the developer announced that it had withdrawn all financial support and management of the football club as, in its opinion, there was no chance of its being able to build on the part of the site that was the subject of the dispute concerning the lease. In December 2017, Meadow demanded that the football club sign a new lease to continue playing at Champion Hill or face being evicted.

Recently, things have accelerated further. Dulwich Hamlet has been locked out of its ground—including access to club merchandise, historic memorabilia and the war memorial. In a bizarre turn of events, Dulwich Hamlet FC has even had its own name, nickname and initials registered as a trade mark and was told not to use them. Although I understand that there may have been some progress on this in the past few days, it is nevertheless the case that, last week, Dulwich Hamlet found itself without a home and without a name, putting at risk its historic ground and the basis for all the wonderful work that it does.

None of this is necessary. There are a number of alternative options on the table from potential investors who are interested in doing the right thing: safeguarding the club and building much needed social housing. Southwark Council has made a strong commitment to the club, including taking a formal decision this week that it would make capital funding available to acquire the site. But not every club benefits from such a strong and vocal support base, and a strong and committed council.

The situation developing at Champion Hill is unfortunately far from an isolated one. Across the country, we are seeing clubs whose communities face losing access to vital sports grounds or that have been adversely affected by stadium land deals. After all, many football clubs—particularly in London and not only at non-league level—have found themselves homeless, and in some cases merged or out of business, after falling victim to the ambitions of property developers.

I know that time is of the essence, but what exactly would the hon. Lady like the Government to do to help the club?

If the hon. Gentleman bears with me for just a couple of minutes, I will come to exactly those points.

There is a significant housing crisis in London. At least 50,000 new homes a year are needed just to keep up with demand, and the unavoidable fact is that football clubs commonly sit on large, expensive sites and are often considered less valuable than the ground beneath them. This is not an argument against building new homes, which are essential, but as new homes are being built we must also take care of the fabric of communities—the institutions and the places that knit people together. It is this value that is never captured on the developer’s balance sheet.

In London the list of clubs that are under pressure is depressingly long. In recent years Enfield Town, Edgware Town, Hendon and Thurrock football clubs have all lost their historical homes. Away from London and the south-east, where the pressure on housing and the value of land is not always so acute, the story continues. Northampton Town, Kettering Town, Torquay United, Skelmersdale United, Coventry City and Merthyr Town—to name just a few—are all facing battles to survive as the property developers circle. As with Dulwich Hamlet, these teams are very much a part of their communities.

As a symbol of the solidarity and community that exist across the world of local football, Dulwich Hamlet will play out its remaining games this season at arch rival Tooting and Mitcham United’s ground. The club has had messages of support from countless teams across the country. More can be done to stop the situation at Dulwich Hamlet happening to other clubs, and I will end by making a number of asks of the Minister.

First, will the Minister commit to an urgent audit of the premises of league and non-league football grounds and stadiums across the country, and quantify the extent and nature of the threat that is exemplified by the situation at Dulwich Hamlet? Secondly, will she use that information to make the case to her colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for greater protection to be afforded to league and non-league football grounds, perhaps using the protections introduced by Labour to safeguard school playing fields as a model?

Thirdly, will the Minister review how it could possibly come to pass that a developer was able to register the trademark of a 125-year-old football club, seemingly without regard to the live and continuous use of the club’s name? How could this decision possibly have been approved by the Intellectual Property Office? Will she take steps to ensure that no other football clubs can be threatened with the loss of their identity in this way? Fourthly, will she look at the redistribution of funding within the football world from the premier league to grassroots football, without which the premier league will be starved of the talent it needs to be sustained?

I did not want to interrupt my hon. Friend because she has made an incredibly powerful case, and I know that the Minister will be very keen to respond, but I hope that she will pay tribute to the Football Foundation, which is doing a great deal of work in redistributing money. I appreciate that one of the problems with British football is that there is a lot of money at the top and not a lot at the feeder clubs, but the Football Foundation—in my opinion and, I think, in that of many of our colleagues—is doing a really good job for grassroots football.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point.

Finally, will the Minister progress reforms to ensure that the fit and proper persons test must apply to non-league ownership and that some form of bond be attached to any acquisition, and explore how fans can play a greater protective role in the ownership and governance of league and non-league football clubs?

For Dulwich Hamlet the immediate solution is simply for the club to be given its home back. The current breakdown of trust and relationship between Meadow, the council and the club is of grave concern. It would be better for everyone, including Meadow, for the land to be sold at fair market value on terms that guarantee a sustainable future for the club. I hope that the Minister will also join me in calling on Meadow to re-engage with the council and the club, and to negotiate a way forward that places a secure future for Dulwich Hamlet football club at its historical home, Champion Hill, as the highest priority. Forward the Hamlet!

I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing time for this debate. I pay tribute to the efforts that she and others have made to bring to our attention the issues at Dulwich Hamlet which are rightly causing considerable local concern. I am not sure that there was anything in her passionate speech and the interventions of colleagues that I disagreed with.

Dulwich Hamlet football club has been part of the local community for 125 years. It started life, just like my two teams of Chatham Town and Tottenham Hotspur, in the Southern league. When I lived in Herne Hill, I was in fact an occasional visitor myself to Champion Hill. While the club may not have gone on to the dizzy heights of the Lilywhites, its standing in non-league football today cannot be overerestimated. It currently sits near the top of the Bostik league, with a dedicated home following of nearly 2,000. This is relatively unheard of for a team that resides in the seventh tier of English football. There is also all the brilliant academy work that the hon. Lady mentioned.

It is a massive shame, therefore, that at a time when we should be celebrating the achievements of this unique club, we are here because of deep concerns for its immediate future. What is disappointing is that those concerns operate almost entirely outside of the club’s management control and its on-field performance. Instead, they involve the intersection of land ownership, planning consent and community regeneration. Quite frankly, it has turned into an utter mess. On the one side, we have Meadow Partners, the owners of Champion Hill, and their plans to redevelop the site; and on the other, Southwark Council, which has not accepted the planning application, for reasons that are best explained by the council itself. It is not for me to take sides in the planning dispute, but I will say that it is hugely disappointing that in this instance the football club is stuck in the middle, and that it and the fans are the victims in all this. That is not right. Football clubs remain a matter of great importance to their local communities, and we should never underestimate their value. Every care must be taken by their owners and stakeholders to safeguard their long-term future.

Indeed, it is the special place that football clubs hold in our communities, and the need to preserve that at all costs, that I want to focus my attention on today. With regard to Dulwich Hamlet, I understand that Southwark Council has asked its director of regeneration to start negotiations with Meadow over the sale of the site. Those negotiations must ensure that the needs of the club are protected. Should the negotiations fail—it is clear that there remains something of an impasse—I will look to find and appoint an independent mediator who can facilitate the constructive talks needed between all parties and, in the process, help to secure a future for this well-supported community club for many years to come.

I appreciate that Dulwich Hamlet is not the only football club to have suffered as a result of a land or stadium development dispute. We need to learn lessons from this dispute, where there is a separation between the ownership of the club and that of the stadium. Without pre-empting this, one lesson may be that clubs must be supported to insist on proper contractual agreements with ground owners that make the terms of residence, roles and responsibilities transparent and sustainable.

I will be sitting down with the Football Association to ascertain what further steps it can take to help its member clubs engaged in similar situations, and to prevent further breakdowns between clubs and landowners. I will recommend that the FA begin by speaking to the fan organisation Supporters Direct, which has shown an interest in carrying out a review of the extent to which football stadiums in the English league system are separated from the ownership of their clubs, who are the primary users. Further awareness of ground ownership will help to provide clarity for fans around the ownership structures of their club and an understanding of the potential risk of stadium disposal. With better information on the risks, fans can ask the right questions of the right people at regular intervals.

This approach fits with the Government’s work with fan organisations and the football authorities in recent years to help strengthen football supporter ownership and engagement. With regard to the ask by the hon. Lady, this will almost certainly throw up considerations around the local planning process and role of the local council in protecting football stadiums. I will take further action by speaking to colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to see how they can engage in this process. I will also follow up her point about trademarks, and write to her subsequently.

The football authorities have done much work on regulations around owners and directors. Regulations in place for football ground ownership may also need to be strengthened, as undeveloped land increasingly becomes a financial asset.

Members will remember Wimbledon’s controversial move to Milton Keynes all those years ago. Wimbledon stands as a reminder of what can happen when a dispute over a football stadium results in the loss of a club to its community. The Wimbledon case did, however, lead to the football authorities strengthening their rules, which now ensure that plans are in place for clubs to remain in the towns and cities that bear their name.

The current frustrating events at Dulwich Hamlet are a prompt for proper consideration of the regulations that exist in relation to stadium ownership and encompass the better protection of all clubs. The immediate priority is for Dulwich Hamlet to fulfil its fixtures for the remainder of the season, and I thank Tooting and Mitcham for their offer to ground-share.

I fully expect all parties to sit down and try to find a solution that works and, importantly, has the football club as its primary consideration. I urge all parties to work to a solution now, and, as I said, if they need someone to mediate and adjudicate, I will find someone. However, I hope that it does not come to that and that a solution can be found by the start of next season. In the meantime, I wish the club and its supporters the very best for the rest of this season and thank the hon. Lady for her excellent advocacy on behalf of her local club and its fans.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.