Nicola Richards is the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East.
West Bromwich Albion Football Club is at the heart of our local community. It is a source of pride for supporters and local people. Yet, speaking with fans, I am regularly reminded of their worries about the intentions of the club’s owners.
Having loaned themselves millions from the club, while also borrowing heavily against the stadium and other club assets, they have left leaving the club in a precarious financial position.
I believe plans to reform English football must be recognised in law. Partly this is because football clubs are community institutions, not just private businesses. But, more importantly, when financial stability is risked in pursuit of short-term success it is not just the investors who suffer.
Football clubs going bankrupt creates anguish and a long-term social impact that goes far beyond small business status.
24 months have passed since Tracey Crouch, my colleague, published the Fan-Led Review of Football Governance. Informed by supporters, clubs, and influential voices from across the country, the report concluded with ten recommendations.
The most important of these was concerned with the establishment of a new Independent Regulator of English Football (IREF) by an Act of Parliament. It would have a statutory responsibility to ensure clubs are financially stable and resilient.
Clubs up and down the country continue to teeter on the brink of financial collapse. Earlier this year Southend United faced extinction. Unable to pay players and staff amid seven-figure debts, the club continues to face the very real prospect of going out of business due to their perilous financial situation.
This is not a rare case. Here in West Bromwich, supporters’ groups like Action for Albion have organised peaceful demonstrations to highlight the scale of the challenges facing the club. Determined not to see their club go the same way as others in recent years, they are campaigning on all fronts.
From emphasising the fantastic opportunity that owning West Bromwich Albion should be to prospective owners, to campaigning for changes in regulation to stop this happening to other clubs and fans around the country, they are at the forefront of the campaign for change in football. If football truly is for the fans, we must listen and act.
Despite widespread support from groups across the game, a vocal minority, and the Premier League themselves, seeks to dissuade the Government from acting. Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United, and Steve Parish, Co-owner and Chairman of Crystal Palace, made their opposition to an IREF clear in respective pieces for The Sun and The Sunday Times.
The Premier League has also briefed journalists that regulation could dissuade future investors and buyers. However, I would argue that a significant sector of the British economy, such as Premier League football, should not be allowed to regulate itself, according to the whims of its member clubs.
In addition to its economic importance, football has a huge social impact. Football has needed a reset for some time, to ensure that clubs can sustainably serve their communities now, and in the future. The Government is very aware of this and wants to work with clubs to ensure the game’s future in towns across the country.
Ministers have been incredibly helpful in listening to the concerns of supporters’ groups and meeting MPs from around the country whose local teams are in danger. Support for the introduction of an independent regulator, with greater powers to assess prospective owners of clubs, crosses party lines and unites fans.
Members of Parliament for the most part acknowledge that clubs positively respond to the needs of their communities, with Parliament publishing a report at the start of the year stating English Football League (EFL) clubs “generate £865m of social value” for local communities. We see this firsthand in West Bromwich with the fantastic work of The Albion Foundation, West Brom’s official charity arm.
However, as we approach an election, it is more important than ever that colleagues across the Commons are reminded of the importance of establishing the IREF as soon as possible. Doing so will ensure true competitivity and mobility throughout English football, as well as safeguarding against future situations like those we face at West Bromwich Albion.
The story of the mismanaged club is nothing new, and it certainly is not exclusive to West Brom. It is sadly something we see across the country. I firmly believe that by introducing the IREF, the Government can get ahead of irresponsible managers.
However, if MPs frustrate the passing of legislation, or there were to be any other delays, we would simply be scoring an own goal. The IREF must be recognised in law urgently and given the tools to do the job of protecting our historic football clubs.