THE Coventry Observer today joins mounting calls for an independent inquiry into shadowy affairs which resulted in a council deal to sell the Sky Blues’ football stadium to London Wasps.
Amid high emotion, we share widespread concerns about debt and team failures under the football club’s current owners Sisu, who say without a stadium they have nothing to sell with no obvious potential buyer on the horizon.
Yet matters are more important than who owns our historic Coventry City Football Club, which remains close to the hearts of so many people far and wide, beyond hardcore fans.
We have highlighted many misleading public claims by council leader Ann Lucas concerning the secretive deal, which saw £14million of council taxpayers’ money tied up in the loss-making Ricoh firm Arena Coventry Limited, now 100 per owned by London Wasps Holdings Ltd.
The Wasps company’s last accounts revealed £3.2million losses and £10million debt to a parent company in offshore low tax Malta.
Coventry City Council’s Labour leaders, supported by Tory opponents, consistently claimed they would only invest taxpayer-supported loans in viable and sustainable companies, amid unprecedented cuts to council jobs and services. We were misleadingly told ACL was profitable.
Professor of politics Andrew Russell is among many questioning why council leaders should be trusted now over their assurances the Wasps deal is good for the city’s taxpayers and economy.
Many have welcomed Wasps’ arrival in Coventry. But many people believe arrangements should not be at the expense of the city’s proud football and rugby clubs.
Wasps, around the time of the council deal in October, told fans it was at “high risk of going bust”. Their Ricoh attendances are already dwindling and its business case appears to rely on the Sky Blues remaining as their tenants, which is far from secured.
Like Wasps, the Sky Blues say they require full access to commercial stadium revenues to be viable.
There is a wide groundswell of public resentment and despondency, as acknowledged by councillors in October, over the council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity’s private Ricoh deal with Wasps, whatever some one-sided anti-Sisu campaigners claim.
One MP, Jim Cunningham, has called on the council to come clean. At least one official complaint is already going to the Local Government Ombudsman.
Was the public misled? If so, why? How much did councillors know from their officers and other sources when they signed the deal?
What attempts were made at the council to shut down media challenge and the public’s right to know, while a hired London PR firm sought to discredit ordinary fans who questioned the whole agenda?
To what extent was the council – where it was said “hell freezes over” before any deal with the club’s owners – supporting failed attempts at taxpayers’ expense to oust the club’s owners?
One fans’ group, The Sky Blue Trust, is now pursuing a more overt anti-Sisu agenda, and did not protest when the Ricoh was sold to Wasps.
Their agenda does little to accommodate the clear views of the quieter majority who recognise all sides must carry responsibilty for what became an acrimonious and litigous dispute, and welcome the council being held to account.
That knowledgable majority recognises the problems stem from the 1990s under successive owners of the struggling club, and the 2003 council deal which separated the Ricoh Arena’s ownership from the club.
They also know the club laid the groundwork for private investment to build the Ricoh, and made ACL viable with extortionate £1.3million rent payments, until sky high rent was withheld in 2012 and talks over Ricoh ownership broke down.
The Sky Blues fans’ group, the Supporters Consultative group, has joined calls from other fans’ organisations (Nii Lamptey Show, GMKOnline, and Get Cov Back To The Ricoh) for an independent review of the council’s Wasps deal.
They are also rightly calling for a more sensible debate.
What is Coventry City Council prepared to do now to support the football club? Can it help identity land for a new stadium in Coventry for whoever owns the club? If not, why not support building a stadium just over the Coventry border?
What could Wasps as borrowers of Coventry taxpayers’ money – and the council as Ricoh freehold owners and lenders – do now to provide the football club with fair access to all revenues while it remains at the Ricoh?
Beyond sporting affairs, it is clear from social media and elsewhere that there is a wide breakdown in confidence between the council and the electorate.
Only a fully open and independent inquiry could begin to restore faith.