A PR own goal? Developer and local football team lock horns over ground

6 January 2021 | Investment

In recent decades, property developers and local football clubs have regularly locked horns over historic grounds – and it’s rarely been a pretty sight.

The latest case is that of Berkhamsted Football Club – the Hertfordshire side currently competing in the Southern League Division One Central.

In December 2020, the club’s landlord, the Berkhamsted Sports Ground Charitable Association Limited (BSGCA), outlined its plan to sell the club’s​ Broadwater ​ground​ for housing development ‘in order to partially finance a new sports hub as part of a property development proposal in Bourne End’.

A change.org petition – #SaveBroadwater – aimed at Dacorum Borough Council has been launched by the club, and at the time of writing has more than 3,100 signatures.

The club says BSGCA is working with a property development company from Sussex called Thakeham, with leaflets describing the above proposal already being sent to homes in Berkhamsted. 

​In short, the petition’s blurb says, the football club’s landlord wants to relocate the team to an out-of-town facility to be built on the green belt, ‘which would only be accessible by car’.  

The football club has been empathic in its response, strongly outlining its wish to stay at its historic home ground.  

The stadium that is now known as the Broadwater ground has seen more than 100 years of football, with the ‘Berkhamsted Comrades’ formed in 1919 by servicemen returning from the First World War. 

The description accompanying the petition adds: “The football club remains an important part of the Berkhamsted community, ​with our teams, the majority of which play youth football, playing in different leagues and all using Broadwater as their sole home ground for home fixtures.”  

It continues: “The historic town centre location of the beloved Broadwater ground is in walking distance for the majority of spectators and also handy for away fans to come via train, which allows people to use the lively social facilities of the clubhouse without worrying about driving.” ​ 

It also says that successful darts and pool teams are based at the ground, while it hosts parties, weddings and music events, ‘as well as being home to a local nursery and the largest taxi company in Hertfordshire’.

Berkhamsted FC – also often known as Berko – are a famous old club with a long and distinguished history. They currently play at Step 4 of the football pyramid, but when the 2019/20 season was ended by coronavirus, the club were sitting top of the league, all set for promotion to Step 3 (or Level 7 in the football pyramid).

This season, they currently sit in 8th place, but only four points off top spot with games in hand. The current squad ​follow ​in the footsteps of the likes of Frank Broome, who scored 53 goals in the 1933 season, before being transferred to Aston Villa, where he then won seven England caps. In more recent history, the team of 2001 – who reached the final of the FA Vase, played in front of 8,500 fans at Villa Park – live long in the memory. ​ 

“We believe football and society has suffered enough in 2020, and when life gets back to normal, sports clubs like ours will be key to rebuilding a sense of community, allowing people to socialise once again, and revitalising our town centre,” the petition description adds. ​

“We are a local community club, run entirely by volunteers, and have over the years worked with a host of different charities, as well as hosting charity football matches and supporting women’s football as the former home base of Watford Ladies. As a committee, we are determined to #SaveBroadwater and ensure​ ​the Comrades continue to play football in their historic location for another hundred years.”

They are calling for help with their cause to #SaveBroadwater by asking people to sign the petition and post their ‘Reasons for Signing’ in the comments section. The club will use this in their discussions with their landlord and the local council.

A regularly occurring battle

The situation at Berkhamsted is far from unique. Redeveloping local football grounds is a particularly sensitive and emotive subject – and often becomes highly charged and political – because of what they mean to the fans and the local community at large.

To the developers, they provide lucrative land in prime locations, perfect for housing, retail and other uses. But to football clubs themselves, and their passionate fans, grounds hold years of history, emotion, tradition, memories and family connections.

Sometimes a redevelopment is welcome or necessary – if a club has fallen on very hard times, or if a team is moving to a brand-new modern facility – but often, in cases like the above, the wishes of the landlord and developer don’t match up with that of the club or their fans.

The iconic former homes of a host of Premier League clubs – including Arsenal (Highbury), Southampton (The Dell) and Leicester (Filbert Street) – are now housing estates or developments, while Tottenham’s former White Hart Lane ground is in the process of being converted into new homes and a hotel as part of a major regeneration project.

In all these cases, the clubs have moved to new and improved – if perhaps less atmospheric – stadiums. However, in non-league, clubs are much more at risk of a land grab by developers with deep pockets and political clout.

The appeal is obvious – local football clubs are often in the heart of town, in prime locations close to train stations, shops and retail facilities, and for the landlords a housing development would represent an easier revenue stream than a costly-to-run football ground, that can spend big chunks of the year not being used.

But the way developers – and others involved in the redevelopment of former football grounds – go about it has often been criticised.

National League side Wealdstone – the first ever winners of the non-league double in 1985, and the club where Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones launched their careers – were homeless for seventeen seasons after the sale of their Lower Mead ground at the end of the 1990/91 season.   

While financial mismanagement of the club meant it had to sell its home of 68 years in order to stay in existence, the sale left a sour taste in the mouth for the club’s loyal fanbase. The company handling the sale of Lower Mead went into liquidation and, after lengthy court proceedings, Wealdstone received only a fraction of the sum supermarket giant Tesco had paid for the ground.

Fortunately, Wealdstone – having dropped right to the bottom of the football pyramid – have since bounced back to non-league’s top table, but it was a long, hard road after a complicated and controversial ground sale.

If Berkhamsted are looking for something to cling to, they could do worse than taking inspiration from the story of Dulwich Hamlet FC (DHFC) – another famous old non-league club, which has received national fame in recent years for its young, left-wing, hipster fanbase, and a high-profile battle to keep hold of its Champion Hill ground.

The club’s future at the stadium was secured in July 2020 after plans for its new stadium were approved by Southwark Council’s planning committee.

“The club are delighted to announce that the Southwark Council planning committee has approved our joint planning application with Meadow Residential,” a statement after the meeting said. “The result secures the club’s home and future in East Dulwich for the next 125 years.”

The green light for the new stadium came after a rollercoaster few years for DHFC, which saw it banished from its own ground for eight months – and told it could no longer use its own logo – after a dispute with developer Meadow Residential over alleged debts.

The exile after 125 years of playing history led to high-profile support from local MPs, national politicians and ex footballers such as Rio Ferdinand, as well as a debate in parliament.

It eventually took an intervention from then Sports Minister Tracey Crouch to get Meadow and DHFC to finally reach an agreement before the planning documents were submitted in 2019.

“We’d like to thank Tracey Crouch and our local MPs Helen Hayes and Harriet Harman for facilitating and attending the meeting which led to this positive outcome,” Dulwich director Ben Clasper said at the time, while club director Tom Cullen tweeted: “I honestly couldn’t be prouder of everyone that fought for this club. We won.”

Berkhamsted will be hoping for a similarly happy ending, to ensure they can stay at their Broadwater home long into the future.

While developers will insist they are not the bad guys in all this – and are simply doing what is right for them and their businesses – the passion and emotion at play with local football clubs makes it a very tricky thing to handle well, and very different from, say, a retail to residential conversion.

The Berkhamsted dispute certainly won’t be the last of its kind – that much is for certain.

<!– LinkedIn –> This post has originally been featured in Property Investor Today.