Hive Stadium

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 5:15 pm, 7th September 2017

The easiest request for me to respond to that my hon. Friend 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.