MP Helen Hayes has called for major changes in the way football clubs – both at league and non-league level – are treated.
Her call follows Dulwich Hamlet FC being locked out of their Champion Hill ground – and having their own name, nickname and initials registered as a trade mark and being told not to use them.
In the House of Commons on Friday the Dulwich and West Norwood MP asked sports minister Tracey Crouch (a Spurs and Chatham Town supporter):
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?
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?
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 – and will she take steps to ensure that no other football clubs can be threatened with the loss of their identity in this way?
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?
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?
Helen Hayes continued: “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!”
Responding sports minister Tracey Crouch thanked Helen Hayes for securing time for the 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 underestimated. “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 have 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 have asked their 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 are 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. “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.”
Source: TheyWorkForYou (Adjournment debate during the Forensic Science Regulator Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 16th March 2018.