8th Dec, 2016

OPINION: Why today must be new dawn in council relations with Coventry City F.C after Butts leak

Les Reid 19th May, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

OPINION PIECE, BY LES REID

TODAY, Coventry City Council officially ushers in a new leader.

If the city is to become more united amid acrimony and deep division, today must be a watershed moment – a new dawn in improved relations between the council, the city’s 133-year-old football club, and many thousands of its supporters and well-wishers.

They include not just the 11,000 or so of us who still regularly attend games, but all who have cared for Coventry City Football Club through the generations, or know someone else who has.

It’s time for the council to recalibrate its approach. It must not seek to strangle at embryonic stage the Sky Blues and Coventry rugby club’s exploratory proposals to groundshare at an expanded Butts Park Arena, the rugby club’s home where the council owns the freehold.

The legitimate and genuine aim – whatever the entrenched naysayers repetitively say – is to ensure that both clubs formed two centuries ago can not just prosper, but survive with value as businesses and great sporting institutions.

Coventry City, whoever owns it, needs much more revenue from stadium commercial activities — on match days and non-matchdays – to be viable and successful.

Yesterday, we revealed a leaked council email to the rugby club in January which sought to place a condition on any Butts redevelopment – in response to the rugby club chairman Jon Sharp’s attempts to acquire the head lease to the Butts stadium to enable any redevelopment and groundshare.

That condition – a proposed restrictive covenant – was that no professional football or associated training activities could be played at the Butts Park Arena for the remainder of a 125-year lease.

Sceptics say today’s change in political leadership of the council is ‘out with old, in with old’, as longstanding councillor George Duggins and a partly new team replaces outgoing leader Ann Lucas, ousted by her own Labour colleagues in a leadership challenge first revealed by this newspaper.

I do not share that view, although many key figures who directed and backed previous actions which worked against the football club’s interests remain. They include council executives Martin Reeves and Chris West, and the outspoken cabinet member and tweeter, Kevin Maton.

As a political journalist, I have known George Duggins for years. I respect him as a more moderate, decent and reasonable figurehead. He is less divisive in style than Lucas. He is a thoughtful figure – somebody who is also academically steeped in political history.

There is no escaping that he, as then deputy leader, and former leader John Mutton in 2012 and 2013 were in charge when decisions were taken which were to severely disadvantage the football club they have long supported.

The club’s owners Sisu had stopped paying exorbitant £1.3million annual Ricoh rent payments and hoped to acquire the part-council owned Ricoh Arena stadium, which only ever existed because of the club’s financial input.

Back then, many Coventry City fans and so-called ‘stakeholders’ including certain editors were persuaded that measures including the council bailing out the Ricoh firm Arena Coventry Limited with a £14million loan in January 2013 would see Sisu driven out of the city within weeks.

It is a matter of public record that one newspaper editor, following a request from council chief executive Martin Reeves, decided to suppress any reporting of the bailout until the deal was signed and sealed in private.

“Gamechanger,” screamed the headline afterwards. Some of us were more doubtful that hedge fund Sisu – who had been dismal owners – would be easily ousted. Attempts to remove them through the administration process in 2013 failed.

Whatever the legal issues, it was abundantly clear to many observers that several parties were working closely together to try to remove the club’s owners. For good or bad, the plan failed. A council ethics committee hearing last December was presented with much documentary evidence of a co-ordinated smear campaign to help win the propaganda war, involving council-hired PR firm Weber Shandwick. If you throw enough mud, it sticks, being the crass guiding principle.

All intelligent observers and CCFC fans knew that the problems pre-dated Sisu and have been faced by successive CCFC owners since the counterproductive sale of the Highfield Road stadium in the late 1990s.

Whatever the legal or financial issues, there were moral concerns too about the Ricoh Arena’s sale in October 2014 to the then Premiership rugby club London Wasps. Was it fair or right for the council to sell the stadium – which only existed because of the football club and its income – to London Wasps? Could full understanding of the complex Ricoh dispute really be reduced to Sisu’s undoubted attempts (I stated so at the time) to acquire a stake in Arena Coventry Limited as cheaply as possible?

It was clear both sides in the Ricoh dispute were seeking to distress each other amid toxic bitterness, while the council was for years quoting fanciful prices for the ACL shares eventually sold at a relative pittance on a give-away 250-year extended lease term.

Some of us warned in 2013 that an intransigent “good guys versus bad guys” misappropriated George W Bush-esque polarised vision of the world would only end in tears for the Sky Blues.

So it proved. The council under Ann Lucas and its then joint Ricoh owners the Alan Edward Higgs Charity approved the sale of the Ricoh Arena to London Wasps on that massively extended and secret 250-year deal not offered to the football club, at a private session of a council meeting in October 2014. A buy back option for CCFC for a half-stake in ACL was lost.

Councillors stood up one-by-one in a small public part of that meeting and effectively repeated a well-rehearsed mantra: “We can’t tell you what we are about to agree in private but ‘TRUST US’, we would not agree this deal if it were to cause harm to Coventry City or Coventry rugby clubs.”

Many onlookers certainly did not trust them, and knew well the damage it would cause.

“Sisu only have themselves to blame”, blurted the newspaper headlines.

This newspaper has ever since uniquely exposed the gulping chasm between what the public was being told by Coun Lucas et al and what was really happening privately.

We also joined calls from high-profile and respected professional Sky Blues fans – including in an Open Letter wittten to government – which  (a) called for an inquiry into the Ricoh deal and (b) called on the council, and Wasps if necessary, to do more to provide a better deal on stadium revenues for the football club, whoever owns the club, and wherever it plays.

That call has commanded widespread support on social media and fans’ forums. A large groundswell of fans had felt their opinion was being under-represented by the mainstream media and drowned out by the drawn-out and destructive ‘Sisu out whatever the cost’ agenda.

We were the first to reveal – six months ago now – the Butts stadium groundshare plan – and other exclusives including the extension for a further two years of the football club’s Ricoh Arena tenancy.

My own struggle in insisting that journalists must hold public bodies to account in their use of taxpayers’ money – and must not be gagged – are well documented.

It is my deeply held view that decisions by public bodies must not only be subject to professional media scrutiny, but also to legal scrutiny.

For this reason, I respectfully disagree with George Duggins’ apparent insistence, in speaking with me yesterday afternoon, that Sisu must first drop all threatened legal action before the council “will see” about “improving the relationship” with the club.

While fellow CCFC fans are divided, some do not oppose a potential second Judicial Review, this time over the Wasps deal. Dropping further appeals against the bailout loan decision would seem sensible to most.

I share the view of most fellow fans that investment in the team must come first; the quest for stadium revenues should come second; and further legal action should only be pursued by the club’s current owners if these two prerequisites are met, as the club insists they are.

The club’s owners could still do more to be open with the public, with better lines of communication.

The Butts Park Arena is in the city centre. The council has long emphasised its ‘City Centre First’ strategy in which the city centre would become the engine for the city’s economic resurgence.

If the Butts groundshare proposal for a redeveloped stadium of up to 25,000 capacity has legs – and early feasibility studies are being conducted – the club will need to persuade fans that it makes more financial sense than staying at the Ricoh.

Consultation when the time is right should set out how it would be financially advantageous to move, once it is clear what may or may not be on offer in terms of any extra revenues from the heavily indebted Wasps. Wasps will need all the revenue they can muster to meet interest payments of more than £2million a year alone, on £35million debts now residing in a five-year retail bond offer also first revealed by us.

Councillors ought to be made fully aware that public and fans’ opinion is not where it was in 2013. This can be seen daily on social media and internet fans’ forums.

That was then, this is now.

I believe the vast majority of sensible people who support or care about the club can unite behind two reasonable positions…

  1. The council must support the club in its quest to acquire much needed stadium revenues, whoever owns the club and wherever it plays its home matches in Coventry, and…
  2. We should support a move to Butts Park Arena if it can be shown to be feasible and in the best financial interests of Coventry City Football Club, as it would appear.

I’ll leave the final words to the eloquent Jonathan Strange, who was among the signatories of that well supported Open Letter, is a concert violinist and biographer of Coventry City’s 1987 FA Cup winning hero Keith Houchen.

The CCFC fans’ group Supporters’ Consultative Committee chairman said yesterday: “What the football club lacks as a great local asset, of course, is a home.

“We at the Ricoh Arena have a sort of Bed and Breakfast arrangement now… without the breakfast, and not even with a bed.”