Stadium Relocation and Luton Town Football Club

Stadium relocation and regeneration

This letter was e-mailed to the MD of Luton Town FC in the wake of their points deduction and subsequent relegation from the football league in 2009. Luton Town was founded in 1885 and is one of the oldest professional clubs in southern England. The letter is framed in the context of urban regeneration and footballing reform.

Dear Sir,

This issue stretches back over four decades. Luton may face relegation to the Blue Square Premier league but this issue is not going away anytime soon. In fact, the JPT final indicates considerable pent up demand for football amongst the Luton family. The urgency behind relocation must be maintained given the timescales involved and the contribution this can and must make to social and economic regeneration.

Furthermore, the stadium must…

  • Take into account the wider needs of the conurbation, not just the needs of LTFC;
  • Accommodate the diverse entertainment and sporting needs of the area;
  • Meet the aspirations of club and community;
  • Inspire club and community.

With regard to Kenilworth Road, LTFC has been unable to generate profit or sufficient income from that site, both as Owner occupier and Tenant. Consequently, I don’t believe stadium ownership is a critical success factor for the club. Having a multi-sport facility which is available to the whole community is the only way forward as it guarantees regular income.

In fact, it has been the greedy pursuit of profit that has undermined LTFC.  By linking the club’s future to public and private finance, i.e. through a Public Private Partnership, it is unlikely to attract the sort of business people who have previously administered LTFC.If funding is shared, then so should profits and losses. In effect, a hybrid entity that is part business, part social enterprise:

  • The business being responsible to the board of directors and trustees, its fan base and overall membership;
  • The social enterprise being responsible for the club’s contribution to community health, well being and social cohesion.

If the football authorities lack resources, expertise or inclination, the club in this form would be better equipped to manage any financial or operational challenges.

Greater Luton is one of the most multi-cultural cities in Britain and it’s time it started building on these strengths. Luton Borough Council, as the owner and local authority, should start to take a more active role in the club’s operations. History has taught us that planning permission will not be granted unless feasible plans are outlined and trust developed between club and community. If the club is constituted in the public realm, it is compelled to be transparent about its finances and operations under law.

The PPP model is financially sound and has been used increasingly here and overseas. The financial model is so strong in fact, that even the United States is using this approach to re-build its infrastructure. Even in uncertain times, this would help to guarantee the club’s future. A new stadium should provide a multi-sport offering for a multi-cultural area. A modern stadium could be configured for any sport, any time.

One of the problems with football’s financial model is that it largely relies on income from one or two matches a week. If you place football at the heart of the community, alongside other sports, you multiply income streams and you grow membership and participation. As Kenilworth Road is in a deprived ward, it is likely to attract Lottery awards not to mention grants from Central and EU Government. In that respect, it would tick the right boxes.

The Football Authorities
– Sanctions levied against Luton Town Football Club

Regrettably, I am not a lawyer and do not have a full grasp of the technicalities used to penalise LTFC so heavily. However, I do sense along with many others, that these sanctions were excessive, disproportionate and counter-productive, not only to LTFC but the wider footballing world.  In light of your representations made last year to the Sports Minister, I wonder if you could incorporate some of my questions, concerns and suggestions to the relevant stakeholders.

  • The “gagging order”. Can this be challenged in a court of law? If not, can it be escalated through the legal system and the wider European jurisdiction? This order suggests that the footballing authorities are beyond reproach. Is that really the case?
  • There is a sense also that the footballing authorities do not operate on a level playing field and silent rules are applied based on the perceived stature and importance of a football club. Surely, in this litigious age, a competent legal team could challenge (some of) these sanctions and return points (and monies) which are rightfully due to the LTFC and LTFC2020.
  • Can you please press the Information Commissioner to bring the Football League and the Football Associations under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Ideally, this should be part of a wider review to ensure that the relevant footballing authorities develop a stronger sense of accountability and transparency. Clearly, this would expose them to legal challenges but given the effect of their decisions, I suspect this would be in the wider public interest.  I appreciate that football is not a statutory provision but there must be some means of making these so-called authorities accountable.
  • As part of the same review, all football clubs (or franchisees) also become subject to the same regime, in the same way Schools operate as autonomous authorities as far as Freedom of Information is concerned. This will help to dissuade rogue business people (re)entering football and engender greater trust between football fan and football club. If a football club and its parent organisation(s) are constituted in the public realm, their business, accounting and sporting practices are more transparent and cannot avoid or evade scrutiny. As LTFC and other football clubs have learned to their cost, malpractice is an expensive business.
  • The football authorities are mandated to provide a more active and supportive role for football clubs. Rather than meting out poorly executed sanctions, they should lead by example and develop mechanisms that enable clubs to advance best practice. In the 21st century, and in a major recession, clubs need to work harder in engaging local communities and set a good example, particularly to children and young people. Giving football a more public role will also enable it to attract funding through Public Private Partnerships, something that would help to provide more financial stability to community-based clubs. All too frequently, football club chairmen have acted purely in their own self-interest. This needs to change. Many people find the salaries of some footballers distasteful and their worlds seem very remote from the rest of society.
  • With regard to the various sanctions levied against league clubs there has been a deafening silence emanating from the Premiership club boardrooms. They are motivated by self interest and the preservation of their monopoly which guarantees the unequal distribution of wealth. In a different climate, this might sound like a party political broadcast for the Socialist Worker Party. However, we live in strange times. We live in an age when Governments are (re)asserting regulatory powers over the money markets. The huge bailouts give each tax payer a stake hold in a number or large financial institutions. The world of football should not be immune from these changes. We need to see more raw talent developed from our own shores, in a way that will inspire future generations. Britain and Ireland has a combined population in excess of 64 million; does football really need so much overseas talent? The English national team will continue to underachieve until this has been properly addressed.
  • The present system of football governance is not fit for the 21st century and years of tradition should not provide a bar to progress and modernisation. Given the massive contribution our national sport makes economically and socially, it frankly requires a ruling body that is fit for purpose. The manner in which these sanctions have been executed suggest that the present ruling body is dysfunctional and unaccountable.
  • In stark contrast, it is encouraging to see how quickly the LTFC2020 consortium has gained the trust and respect of Luton fans. This suggests that transparency works and I am of the view that this should be mandatory rather than desirable. The footballing authorities do not appear to espouse the same values. This may account for the savage nature of sanctions. In the real world, whisteblowers are protected but LTFC were made an example of. The sanctions are damaging in the wider sense because their deterrents are soft on the crooks and hard on those who have rescued the club and placed it on an even keel. This should be of concern to every football league club.

Yours faithfully etc.

Post script:

The MD was kind enough to repond and was very positive about my comments. However, he pointed out that there was limited scope for reform as the Football League, was and is, in effect, a private members club and members play by THEIR rules. The 2020 consortium does not follow a PPP model, though they do enjoy a very good relationship with the fans, who were instrumental in its founding.

Related links:

Luton to face 30-point deduction, BBC News, July 10, 2008.

Caroline Lucas MP calls for FOI to be extended to major corporations,
UK Freedom of Information blog, March 1, 2011

Lord Sugar Tackles Football, last broadcast on BBC2, May 10, 2011.

Two members of the FIFA Executive Committee provisionally suspended May 29, 2011.