UK’s small foot­ball clubs fight evic­tions in race for city land

Arab News - - BUSINESS -

trend for sites of com­mu­nity value — our cul­tural as­sets — to be judged as hav­ing no value, in the face of the jug­ger­naut of global prop­erty spec­u­la­tion,” said au­thor and Univer­sity of East Lon­don aca­demic Anna Min­ton.

“Cul­tural as­sets like small foot­ball clubs cre­ate vi­able com­mu­ni­ties and th­ese as­sets are be­ing lost through­out Lon­don and in other Bri­tish cities,” said Min­ton, who lives in the area.

Other Lon­don clubs from sec­ond-tier Mill­wall to ninth-tier Clap­ton FC have faced threats to their grounds in re­cent years, and other ex­am­ples can be found across the coun­try.

Truro City FC in Corn­wall will be evicted to make way for a re­tail park, while New­bury FC in Berk­shire is fight­ing to main­tain its venue, in use for over a cen­tury, which the lo­cal coun­cil wants to turn into an in­dus­trial es­tate.

“We’re not the first club this has hap­pened to and we cer­tainly won’t be the last,” said Neil Cole, who runs the Twelfth Man, Dul­wich Ham­let’s fundrais­ing cam­paign.

“Com­mu­ni­ties in Lon­don need things like Dul­wich Ham­let; they need things to gather round and bring the com­mu­nity to­gether.”

Meadow Res­i­den­tial, an af­fil­i­ate of US real es­tate firm Meadow Part­ners and own­ers of ground since 2016, has pro­posed an £80 mil­lion project to de­liver 155 apart­ments, while build­ing a new sta­dium on ad­ja­cent pub­lic land.

The club’s fans voted for the orig­i­nal de­vel­op­ment, but the lo­cal coun­cil re­peat­edly re­fused plan­ning per­mis­sion, be­cause it fell well short of its re­quire­ment for 35 per­cent af­ford­able hous­ing, and it re­quired the re­zon­ing of pro­tected green space.

In Oc­to­ber, with re­la­tions wors­en­ing, Meadow cut its fi­nan­cial sup­port for the club, leav­ing it reliant on fan do­na­tions, raf­fles and bucket col­lec­tions at games.

Last month, it evicted Dul­wich Ham­let from Cham­pion Hill, and de­manded £121,000 ($170,000) in back­dated rent. Meadow also claimed own­er­ship of the club’s name and trade­marks, but back­tracked on that af­ter wide­spread out­rage.

South­wark Coun­cil, the lo­cal au­thor­ity, took the un­prece­dented step of re­leas­ing funds to pur­chase Cham­pion Hill at its cur­rent mar­ket value. It also dis­cussed is­su­ing a com­pul­sory pur­chase or­der on the site if no deal is reached.

The coun­cil plans to build at least 60 units of so­cial hous­ing next to the sta­dium, while seek­ing ex­ter­nal fund­ing for ren­o­va­tions to the ex­ist­ing grounds.

“The con­cept of a new sta­dium is quite wel­come,” said South­wark Coun­cil leader Peter John. “The way in which it was be­ing de­liv­ered is not.”

Meadow Res­i­den­tial said it stood by its de­ci­sion not to sell the ground and to con­tinue its bid to de­velop the site for hous­ing, a spokesper­son said.

“Meadow have noted the coun­cil dis­cus­sion and de­ci­sion and won’t be mak­ing any com­ment on dis­cus­sions with the coun­cil go­ing for­ward,” the com­pany told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

At a time when Bri­tish foot­ball has be­come a rich man’s game, Dul­wich Ham­let, play­ing in the sev­enth tier, is a no­table ex­cep­tion.

One of the few non-league teams left in Lon­don, sup­port­ers can buy a match day ticket for only £10 ($14), a frac­tion of what Premier League clubs charge.

The club’s at­ten­dance has risen dra­mat­i­cally over the last decade, and it is not un­usual for a Saturday game to draw 2,500 peo­ple, num­bers the envy of teams sev­eral leagues above it.

Dul­wich Ham­let prides it­self on its out­sized char­ac­ter, and draws a vi­brant mix of fam­i­lies, life-long sea­son-tick­ethold­ers and new sup­port­ers from nearby hip­ster­friendly Peck­ham.

The club has re­ceived pub­lic sup­port from Lon­don mayor Sadiq Khan and other foot­ball clubs, in­clud­ing Mill­wall, which re­cently fended off a com­pul­sory pur­chase or­der from an­other Lon­don coun­cil on its ground.

Back on un­fa­mil­iar ter­races, as the team strug­gles to a late de­feat against Metropoli­tan Po­lice Foot­ball Club, fans chant and bang on the steel hoard­ings, re­main­ing ever san­guine.

“The club has been around for 125 years, a lot longer than Meadow Part­ners,” said sup­porter Laird, eyes fix­ated as Dul­wich Ham­let break with the ball. “And we’ll be around for an­other 125 years ... ”

The Cham­pion Hill ground of Dul­wich Ham­let is the sub­ject of a pro­tracted le­gal bat­tle. (Photo cour­tesy of dul­wich­ham­let.org)

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