Published on March 11th, 2018 | by Bill

Grounds for concern: Football’s hidden land crisis & how Dulwich Hamlet are fighting back.

Proud London non-leaguers Dulwich Hamlet became the latest victim of football’s hidden land crisis this week when forced out of Champion Hill, their home since 1914, by property investment fund Meadow. 

Written for STAND, by Tom Reed

Meadow have been locked in conflict with Southwark Council over their blocked plans for housing on the Champion Hill site with the Council now looking at a Compulsory Purchase Order to take back control of the area.

New York based Meadow then performed an about turn, claiming that Hamlet could return to their home ground in an attempt to get Southwark Council back to the negotiating table, a move widely rejected by fans. The Hamlet have since moved to announce a ground share at Tooting & Mitcham, some 8 miles away, with no sign of an end to the impasse.

Dulwich Hamlet remain one of various clubs in London and beyond, whose communities face losing access to vital sports grounds or that have been adversely affected by stadium land deals. It seems that the housing crisis is not the only damaging symptom of rampant land value inflation in the UK. Football clubs, which commonly sit on large expensive sites, are often considered less valuable than the ground beneath them.

New housing and looming cranes are conventionally seen as symbols of progress but that might not always be the reality. London has been hit hard by football’s land crisis. Only last year, Millwall FC feared having to leave Bermondsey after Lewisham Council’s plans to acquire land around the New Den. Clapton FC supporters are currently boycotting their East London club, concerned for the future of the Old Spotted Dog ground and have moved to attach Asset Of Community Value (ACV) status on London’s oldest senior football stadium.

Over at West Ham, sections of the fanbase are still rueing the decision to sell the historic Boleyn Ground for housing and move to the cavernous Olympic stadium at Stratford.

Not that the community right to bid for ACV protected football grounds was around pre-2011 to safeguard London’s lost stadia from the mania for housing and retail estate builds. Erstwhile Enfield FC’s Southbury Road was sold in 1999 in a controversial deal that saw the club fold with its phoenix relative Enfield 1893 now playing over at Harlow. Edgware Town’s White Lion Ground went for a housing development, ditto Claremont Road, home of Hendon FC from 1926 until 2008.

In a cruel irony, Edgware now groundshare with Hendon at Silver Jubilee Park Kingsbury, two lost clubs trying to put down roots while people scrimp to pay the inflated mortgages in  houses on what used to be pitches.

It seems that whenever football clubs show any signs of distress, property developers circle. Up the M1 at Northampton, this took a near ruinous turn for Northampton Town when a £10.25 million loan for stadium works went missing in 2015 and the noise of excavator buckets was replaced by fans rattling buckets. Property developer David Cardoza had acquired the club after a financial crisis but has since been arrested and questioned over alleged financial irregularities while a huge police investigation into the botched scheme grinds on. Meanwhile, at nearby Kettering Town, the Rockingham Road ground, the Poppies’ base since 1897 has been taken out of football use after being ‘acquired by a developer for a future housing project.’

Indeed, football’s hidden land crisis has and will take a toll all over the country, often obscured by the pressing demand for new housing and by the unaccountability of impenetrable deals.

At Torquay in the West Country, Gulls fans are anxious for the future of their Plainmoor Ground amidst the plans of chairman Clarke Osborne, described by the Guardian’s Barry Glendenning as ‘a wrecking ball with a history of razing stadiums’. Meanwhile Skelmersdale United in Lancashire have been reduced to a Just Giving page to raise £15k for the club’s future after being locked out of the aptly named Stormy Corner stadium by a company called Chequer Properties.

At least Skelmersdale are just about alive and kicking in ground sharing with Prescot Cables. That doesn’t look to be the case for Thurrock FC in Essex whose manager Mark Stimson declared ‘there will be no Thurrock FC next season’ with the club’s stadium up for sale. “We are receiving interest from a wide range of people, some even considering a continuation of a football ground” declared the stadium vendors.

FA Cup winners Coventry City suffer the double ignominy of being a club renting an out of town rugby stadium and owned by a hedge fund after leaving the much loved Highfield Road and their freehold rights behind in the City centre.

But Dulwich Hamlet may yet provide a positive footnote to the story. Meadow have surely bitten off more than they can chew by taking on both Southwark Council and one of the most activist fan-bases in the country.

Now the club are taking the issue to the political arena by securing a debate in Parliament following meetings with Shadow Sports Minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan & Lord Kennedy to solve the Dulwich situation and stop football’s land crisis from claiming any more vital community sports venues.

A ban on any property development companies acquiring stadia or clubs has to be high on the agenda. So too, a supercharged variant of Asset Of Community Value status to properly protect grounds alongside strengthened Compulsory Purchase Order legislation to aid organised supporters’ groups.

Dulwich Hamlet Director Tom Cullen spoke after going to Westminster “This is bigger than Dulwich Hamlet FC. It can happen to any club. It’s not just non-league clubs under threat either, Millwall being a prime example. Legislation needs change to protect a vital part of the social fabric of the country. All football grounds should be protected, no matter how big or small”.

It might come all too late for Newbury FC however, with West Berkshire Council pressing on to develop their Faraday Road ground and move the club on. ‘We want football not flats’ protest the Newbury fans forlornly.

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