In 2013, Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium became an asset of community value (ACV), the first football ground to become so. Since then, many have followed, including our very own Bolton Wanderers in February of this year. An ACV is considered “land or property of importance to a local community which is subject to additional protection from development under the Localism Act of 2011”. Most commonly used to protect the status of historic pubs (over 1,200 pubs nationwide are listed as ACVs), a recent trend has emerged to protect football stadia. Upon the 2013 decision, Oxford United Supporters’ Trust chair, Mark Sennett, said that “(Oxford) United supports will now never wake up one morning to read in the paper that the stadium has been sold, with no recourse”. Then-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles said that this measure allowed football fans “to keep the beautiful game at their club’s spiritual home by protecting their stadium’s future”.
Many football grounds have since been granted ACV status: Ewood Park, Anfield, Old Trafford, St Andrews, Bloomfield Rd, The Valley, and Portman Rd to name a few. In many cases, a turbulent situation off the pitch (Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, and Charlton Athletic) has led fans to take action to protect their ground. It seems as though our very own Supporters’ Trust has merely followed suit.
Other clubs have taken comparable, though different, action: in 1993, the Chelsea Pitch Owners Group acquired the freehold at Stamford Bridge, and leased the land back to the club for a nominal fee, with some notable conditions. The pitch must be used for footballing purposes only, and it must be used for first team action. Further to this, the name Chelsea FC can only be used for a team that plays at Stamford Bridge. The decision of fans to attain control over the future of their playing location is not new.
It isn’t surprising – one only has to look at the sale and relocation of Wimbledon and the subsequent manufacture of MK Dons to fear the worst case scenario. By making the ground an ACV, a Supporters’ Trust, or any other community group, would be given six weeks’ notice of a potential sale of any assets, before deciding whether they wish to bid for the asset in question. Once this had been confirmed, said community group would have four and a half months to raise funds. Note here that the community group is not forced to act. What it means is that any proposed sale would be public and transparent.
In December 2016, the Bolton Wanderers Supporters’ Trust applied to make the Macron Stadium and surrounding land an ACV. It’s hardly unexpected: in order to frantically raise funds during the club’s recent ownership crisis, the training ground, offices and car park land was sold off to the tune of £11m. Though crucial at the time, some fans, including many within the BWST, were concerned that more vital assets, namely the very pitch we play on, could be at risk next. Bolton Council granted the Supporters’ Trust request in February, and all appeared well until this week.
Like anything in the world of Bolton Wanderers, it doesn’t have a simple or happy ending. On 2nd
This is a very different picture to the one painted by Mark Sennett of OxVox and former government minister Eric Pickles. Rather than securing the future of a club’s location, the ACV appears to complicate the matter of buying back assets. How that is so, I am unsure.
An ACV merely guarantees the right of community groups to be made aware of the potential sale of existing assets. One way in which the removal of an ACV may be used to secure “necessary future funding” is if the ground was used as a guarantee against further loans. Another way of ensuring “future funding” would be to sell the ground and lease it back. Either way, the football club would be compromising existing assets to buy back former (and arguably less essential) ones.
Another argument in favour of removing the ACV would be if it gave a potential investor “cold feet” over a possible takeover. Think of a Malcolm Glazer style of investor. If a potential buyer wished to leverage the club’s assets to complete a takeover, an ACV would be an inconvenience indeed: not only because it would give community groups the opportunity to fund their own buyout, but also that it would make the process of the sale transparent to the public.
In 2005, Manchester United were the richest club in world football, and completely debt free. After a leveraged buyout by the Glazer family, the club was plunged into £558.9m of debt, despite the personal net worth of Malcolm Glazer standing at $4.4bn. It proved to be the most controversial takeover in English footballing history: the completion of the buyout saw many fans break off and create FC United of Manchester, and many others whose loyalty to the club was bent yet did not break joined the “Green and Gold” campaign to protest against the sale of their team. To finance the takeover, ticket prices rocketed: immediately, the price of a season ticket in the East Stand Upper Tier rose by 30%. Over time, Manchester United Football Club has survived rather handsomely (it is now worth a reported $3.7bn), but the cost imposed on an ordinary fan to follow their side has increased significantly. Further to this, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust has claimed that the Glazer family have “drained” £1bn from the club in 12 years of ownership.
Though the fortunes of Manchester United are astronomically different to a club like ours, a pertinent message can still be taken from their experience. If an ACV discourages a would-be Glazer-esque takeover, would that be such a terrible thing? Despite our financial woes, to surrender the club to a buyer who desires to remove the right of the fans to secure the future of their ground would be an incredibly dangerous move. I know beggars can’t be choosers, but paupers can be picky.
At worst, it appears as though an ACV would merely complicate the already complex proposition of a future sale. As far as the law is concerned, the existence, or removal of, an ACV, does not affect the ability of Bolton Wanderers Football Club to buy back assets that have been sold, unless the protected assets are used as a method of refinancing the club’s debts. Due to recent turbulence regarding articles written, I’m unwilling to comment or pass judgement on whether this is indeed the objective of our current hierarchy.
However, I will say this. I am just shy of begging Bolton Council to reject the appeal against the decision to make the Macron Stadium and surrounding land an asset of community value. It is “land or property of importance to a local community” and it desperately needs “additional protection from development”. There ends my case for the council’s decision to be upheld. But what do I know? I’m just an amateur journalist at an unauthorised website. As you were.