Speakers in this debate:
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to raise the sale of the Hive playing fields and to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), on the Front Bench to respond. I well understand if he has problems in answering the debate, given the mix-up between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government on who should respond, but I am delighted that the right person will do so.
Via your good offices, Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to raise this issue tonight.
This is a tale of mystery, obfuscation and financial mismanagement by both Harrow Council and Camden Council, and of attempts by obscure private organisations to take over a public asset. On repeated occasions I have raised Barnet football club’s abuse of the Hive and its failure to adhere to a single one of the management agreements that have been in place for the playing fields for the past 10 years.
Tonight, my key concern is with the creeping transfer, without any checks or balances, of this essential public asset, over which public authorities have attempted to exert control, to private companies that frankly have a history of abusing the commitments they have made.
I will start with a brief history of the site, which was originally known as the Prince Edward’s and Watson’s playing fields. For some reason that I have not yet been able to fathom, the site was owned by the London Borough of Camden, which took the decision in November 2001 to transfer the asset to the London Borough of Harrow. That was a sensible move, given that the site is wholly in the London Borough of Harrow and always has been, so why it was ever in the hands of the London Borough of Camden is still a mystery to me.
The key point is that the transfer took place, and we can understand why because, obviously, the maintenance of playing fields is a cost to a local authority, and Camden transferred it knowing that Harrow would have to pick up that cost. Under the land transfer, however, the agreement was that the London Borough of Harrow would pay the London Borough of Camden half of the value it received, plus 4 percentage points above the Co-operative bank base rate, if the site were to be sold before 2041. Here we are in 2017 and the site has been sold, but I understand that the London Borough of Camden has not received a penny piece.
If capital were to be generated in excess of what was required to maintain and develop the site, the London Borough of Harrow would have had to pay the London Borough of Camden the money as I have detailed. That agreement was clearly to protect a public asset from falling into private hands and being subject to development as, for example, a housing estate or a commercial development.
When I approached the London Borough of Camden through a freedom of information request, it initially denied ever owning the site or ever transferring it to the London Borough of Harrow, and therefore, of course, it had no consideration on the site, which smacks to me of the London Borough of Camden not seeming to know what has gone on with the assets it has transferred. It responded to the freedom of information request only yesterday by advising that it had no outstanding ownership of the site, but that it owned the freehold until 21 November 2001, when it transferred the site to Harrow for zero consideration.
Basically, the London Borough of Camden has only just woken up to the fact that it had owned the site and that it should be entitled to some funds were the site to be sold, yet it denied owning the site in the first place, so there is some confusion.
When the site was transferred, Harrow Council attempted to maintain it and bring it back into proper use for the public, and there was a part development of a football stadium on the site. That was a disaster; it went to rack and ruin. As a result, an agreement was made with The Hive Foundation Ltd—this goes back to 24 June 2007—when the idea was that these playing fields would be brought back into public use, with youth facilities, educational departments, and schools in Harrow and in Camden having the opportunity to use the facilities on the site. Over the past 10 years that has been outstandingly successful, with youth teams and schools having been able to use the site, which I warmly applaud.
That agreement was projected to run for 50 years, giving the London Borough of Harrow control over what happened on the site. Unfortunately, then comes the unfortunate tale of the involvement of Barnet football club. Originally, the team played in Barnet, at Underhill, which it eventually left following relegation from the Football League. Despite the fact that it was using the Hive as a training ground and despite a strict management agreement that no professional football could be played at the Hive, by Barnet FC or anyone else, that did not stop Barnet FC. When it left Underhill in 2013, it immediately started playing its professional games at the Hive, completely ignoring the management agreement in place with the London Borough of Harrow. A dispute then occurred between Barnet FC and Harrow Council as to what constituted “professional football”. In my view, the football Conference is professional football, and that is where Barnet football club was playing its football, so it was in breach of the management agreement. However, Harrow Council decided not to enforce it, so Barnet FC just carried on doing this.
I took up this issue because in 2013, when Barnet FC started playing its professional matches at the Hive, the impact in the local area was huge. No consultation took place with any of the public or the stadium’s neighbours. What happened then—this continues to happen on match days—was that the whole area became surrounded by traffic, as, funnily enough, most of Barnet FC’s supporters come from Barnet. Our area’s public transport has a radial system of spokes on the tube. Barnet has the Northern Line, and Harrow has the Jubilee, Bakerloo and Metropolitan lines. There is a good service on the Jubilee line, but Barnet FC supporters coming to the stadium from Barnet have to travel into the centre of London and then back out again in order to take the tube. There is a bus service there, but most people do not want to use it and do not do so, which means that they drive. The car park at the Hive charges for the privilege of parking, whereas the streets are free—so guess where the supporters park. Since 2013, the residents around the stadium have been severely impacted as a direct result.
Barnet FC has refused point blank to respond to any of my letters or phone calls for more than four years. I have never had a reply from the club to any of the queries I have raised with it, which demonstrates its complete contempt for democracy and the local residents, whom I seek to protect. Indeed, a resident alerted me to the fact that Barnet FC has now obtained the site’s freehold from the London Borough of Harrow, and not a single member of the public has ever been consulted about the implications of what has happened.
The key point is that I have encountered a litany of problems that have occurred with Barnet FC. Harrow Council has always said that its management agreement allowed it to exert pressure on Barnet FC to do the right things and to make things right, but let me go through one or two of the problems we have faced. Under the agreement Barnet FC had an obligation to plant trees to mitigate against the noise and nuisance it is causing to local residents, but not a single tree has been planted. That agreement goes back five years, yet not a single tree has been planted—Barnet FC refuses to do so and resists all attempts to make it do so.
When Barnet football club was promoted again from the Conference to the Football League after a year, it carried on playing its professional football and Harrow Council took no action whatever. Even though that was without question a breach of the management agreement, the club just carried on. We also had the challenge of Barnet football club applying for a 24-hour liquor licence on the site. I can understand that after football matches and during games there might be a need for hospitality for supporters and for other events to have an alcohol licence—that is perfectly reasonable—but there is absolutely no need for a 24-hour licence for the site. Barnet proceeded to push that, so that it could attempt to increase its income on the site, causing noise and nuisance to all the surrounding residents.
We had other breaches of planning permission, such as the erection of floodlights without planning permission. Residents now do not have to pay for the cost of lighting their homes, because on dark nights their homes are illuminated by the floodlights, although of course a direct result of that is that they and their children cannot go to sleep. Barnet erected a west stand that is twice the size it was permitted to build, and Harrow Council failed to take any action. Originally, the council turned down the subsequent planning application after the stand had been built, but then withdrew the enforcement action under the threat of legal action. Now that Barnet football club has complete control of the site, it has put in a major planning application that has given great concern to residents about the massive stadium that could be built.
The London Borough of Harrow sold the site to Football First Ltd for £2 million and a few extra pounds on 17 March 2017. That referenced the original transfer from the London Borough of Camden to the London Borough of Harrow, but still no action has been taken about whether the London Borough of Camden should receive any compensation. There is a covenant not to build on the site before 21 November 2041 for any purpose other than sports-related activities, but the reality is, can we have trust as to what may happen on the site in the future?
A service level agreement exists between the London Borough of Harrow and Football First Ltd. It is explicit and lasts for 50 years. Indeed, if there are five breaches within the first 24 months, the London Borough of Harrow can cancel the agreement. What is not clear in the legal documentation is what happens if there are breaches and the service level agreement is cancelled. What would happen to this previously public asset? Would it transfer back to the London Borough of Harrow and therefore public ownership, or would there just be no service level agreement on the site for schools and other groups? There is an agreement that children under 12 and living in Harrow should have access to free tickets for Barnet football matches.
We have a position in terms of transparency where the London Borough of Harrow and the London Borough of Camden basically ignored my initial freedom of information requests. They reluctantly then acknowledged that my office was correct and they were wrong. The London Borough of Harrow has not yet responded to my second FOI request, and we are still awaiting the details from that. We have a publicly owned asset that has been transferred to a private enterprise with no consultation with the public, no agreement, no controls on parking and no controls on what happens on the site. We still have the mystery about what happened with the transfer of the land from Camden to Harrow, but Harrow has gradually relinquished the site, year by year. That raises a question about how councils manage public access, which should be for the value and benefit of the public.
The residents in immediate proximity to the stadium are extremely unhappy. Indeed, I think all Harrow residents will be angered by how council tax payers had to stump up to develop the site, only for the council to sell it off at well below the market rate for land like this in Greater London. Local authorities should manage public assets in a professional and transparent manner. Harrow Council has clearly failed to realise its obligation, and by selling the land it has allowed this asset to be transferred to a club and a series of private firms. We do not know what they will do with it or what controls can be exercised over it, and the residents around the site are extremely unhappy.
I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s response to some of the issues I have outlined, although I will completely understand if he is not able to deal with all the points I have raised. If that is the case, I would be happy with an exchange of correspondence or a meeting at an appropriate date to get to the bottom of these issues.
The easiest request for me to respond to that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) made was for a meeting: at the outset, I will commit to having that meeting with him to discuss these important issues at more length.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is clear that there are several ongoing issues relating to the matters he has raised and that they have been causing considerable local concern. I give credit to the efforts he has made to follow-up on these matters and note his having previously mentioned his concerns in the House several times.
We have had a fantastic summer of sport and, indeed, football: England’s women’s team reached the semi-finals of the European championship; we are the FIFA under-20 and under-19 world champions; and the task of World cup qualification continues at some pace for all the home nations. It is therefore somewhat frustrating that we have first convened in the Chamber not to celebrate that success but to come down with a bump and discuss these long-running issues that surround the intersection of council, community and club.
At the heart of the matter is Barnet football club, which saw its 106-year residency at the Underhill ground in Barnet come to a close under a cloud of difficult relations with Barnet Council, particularly with respect to the access conditions on the freehold sale and the expansion potential within the borough. My hon. Friend spoke at length about the various interactions time between Barnet football club and Harrow Council since then, as well as the part played by Camden Council as the previous owner of the site.
It may help if I say a few words about the disposal of public assets. The Local Government Act 1972 that governs the disposal of assets that are owned by local authorities. It gives councils the power to dispose of land in any manner they wish, including by selling their freehold interest, granting a lease or assigning any unexpired term on a lease and granting easements. The only constraint is that a disposal must be for the best consideration reasonably obtainable, unless the Secretary of State consents to the disposal. The provisions of the 1972 Act should be followed when assets such as the topic of this debate are sold and any land in that sense is disposed of.
My hon. Friend can represent better than any of us the frustrations of local residents when he outlines the detail of the development at the Hive site both in terms of how their concerns have been considered and how planning policy has been enforced. Although I am not able to comment on the specific planning cases that have been mentioned, I would agree that, in terms of the approach to planning generally, consideration of, and engagement with, the wider community alongside the local development plan are an important part of the process.
Applications submitted to a planning authority must be determined in accordance with the local development plan for the area unless material considerations indicate otherwise. All planning applications must be considered on their own merits and subject to statutory periods of consultation to allow third parties to view and comment on them. My hon. Friend mentioned consultation a number of times during his comments.
All representations received during the period of consultation must be considered and taken into account in determining any application. That can include the views of local residents. However, local opposition or support will not necessarily result in the local planning authority refusing or granting planning permission; rather the decision maker will determine what weight to give to any material considerations.
Should any construction not abide by the planning permission obtained, the local planning authority has a wide range of discretionary enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised development, with strong penalties for non-compliance. Effective enforcement is extremely important in maintaining public confidence in the planning system.
Local planning authorities have responsibility for taking whatever enforcement action may be necessary, in the public interest, in their particular administrative areas. Other high-profile clubs are in the process of redeveloping, or proposing to redevelop, their grounds, building brand new state-of-the-art facilities or otherwise moving to pastures new. It is of course only natural that clubs will want to bring the live viewing experience to a larger fan base and to benefit from enhanced match day revenues.
There are also other potential benefits around modernisation of facilities and improved infrastructure, but the impact on existing residents in that area should be an important consideration. I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this issue. It should be incumbent on any council in the future—especially in relation to future applications in relation to the subject matter this evening—that those factors are considered around the development of stadiums. We all know that, in addition to enhancing the experience for those people who support a particular football club, there are also the neighbours of that club. Some may well be fans of the club in question, although that is not always the case when a football club moves from one area to another. There are also many people who live by football stadiums who may not be fans. I suspect that, in the situation that my hon. Friend has raised, some of those people may have lived there long before the ownership of the ground changed and the subsequent developments took place.
As I understand it, the current home of Barnet Football Club, the Hive, has abided by all the conditions that the English Football League required of them, but that is not to say that a wholesale move of a club is not contentious. As a long-suffering supporter of Coventry City, I can attest to the fact that ground moves can be extremely contentious, and that certainly has been the case in this instance. Another example is when Wimbledon moved from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes when their ownership changed.
Some lessons have been learned from club relocations in the past, and football has put in place regulations to require planning, consultation and the justification of any plans to sever a club from its local community. The English Football League ratified Barnet’s move to the new home at the Hive, and I understand that the team continues to abide by the conditions required by the Football League.
A football club cannot exist in a bubble, however. It is part of a wider community not just of fans but of neighbours. There have been significant steps recently to promote and protect not just football clubs and the places where they play but other assets with which a community might have some affinity. There would perhaps not have been the opportunity with the Underhill ground, but it might have been possible in the case of Barnet’s current home to register the assets as of community value. That process emanated from the Localism Act 2011, and the community might have had more of an opportunity had those assets been registered when they were disposed of.
Through the work of the Government’s expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement, members of the English Football League have also codified a minimum level of fan engagement that clubs must undertake. This has been in place since 2016-17 and brought a baseline standard of expectation for off-pitch success, but largely targets the engaged communities and supporters clubs. My fellow Ministers in DCMS and I in DCLG are happy to keep the broad issue of football clubs as part of their communities under consideration as we have discussed tonight. That is a conversation that we are willing to have with the relevant football authorities.
I welcome the debate and am more than willing to discuss these matters further. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand as regards the planning aspects and the sale of the ground that I cannot discuss the specifics of particular cases, but there are clearly procedures that need to be followed in both areas. If he wants to discuss these requirements, I am more than happy to do so.
As my hon. Friend knows, in this debate I have covered the requirements for assets that are sold for which the best consideration is not obtained. In this sense, I asked my officials whether any application was made to the Secretary of State in this case and I was informed this afternoon that no such application was made.
On that note, I shall bring my comments to a conclusion and I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend on this matter at a later date.
Question put and agreed to.