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 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.
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
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
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
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.