Local Election Matters Part 2
So we woke up on this dull, overcast day in London, and the ground has indeed shifted following yesterday's local elections. The London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham is now controlled by Labour after they took 26 seats against the incumbent Conservatives' 20 seats. In a prescient blog back in December, we set out the potential consequences for Chelsea FC of a Labour victory (and also, we humbly note, predicted the election result precisely, but that's another matter). Does that blog still stand five months later, or are there other potential consequences to consider?
The blog noted that Labour were vehemently opposed to the Earls Court development in its current form. They have repeatedly spoken out against the demolition of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre and of uprooting of the communities from the Gibbs Green and West Kensington estates. Nothing has changed here in terms of the views of the local Labour Party but the project has progressed procedurally since December and some Reserved Matters (i.e. detailed planning applications) have already been approved. Specifically, the area that the Exhibition Centre itself is built on (or 'Earls Court Village' as the developers would have us call it) has had approval. Does that mean the demolition of the Centre is now a fait accompli? Not quite. The newly elected council will surely not give up their fight for Earls Court Exhibition Centre just yet and the relationship between the developers, Capco, and the previous administration was so opaque that legal challenges may well be possible. We believe the fight has some distance to go yet.
Regarding the rest of the project, other Reserved Matters related to the rest of the site have still to be submitted let alone approved by the council. Although planning permission for the overall scheme has already been approved, the new complexion of council could force Capco to compromise on certain elements of the scheme. Certainly, it is hard to believe the residents of Gibbs Green and West Ken wouldn't – at the very least – be getting a much more advantageous package from the developers. And at most, their estates could remain untouched which, from Capco's point of view would change the economics of the scheme dramatically.
In that situation could Capco be tempted to return to the table to discuss alternative options with Chelsea? Certainly, as noted before, Capco have never been opposed in principle to the idea of a stadium on the site. The problem was always the Tory council. Would a Labour council view the situation differently – perhaps along the lines of Chelsea's plan to incorporate exhibition and conference facilities into a new stadium? Possibly, although the number of 'ifs' and 'maybes'in this scenario start to get unfeasibly long. Our strong suspicion is that Earls Court remains a ship that has sailed for Chelsea FC but watch this space just in case.
The other situation to consider is the potential for Stamford Bridge to be redeveloped and whether the election may have impacted on the club's options. It is certainly true that, despite the former council's many (albeit insubstantial) protestations, they have never supported the club's ambitions. Indeed, it would not take a huge leap of imagination to think that they would be happy to see the back of the club and instead to see our prime piece of real estate being used for luxury housing instead. But that is the previous administration, what of the new one?
Well, little or nothing has been said publically by local Labour figures regarding the club and its ambitions for a bigger stadium. But it is a simple fact of history that every major development of Stamford Bridge up to and including Chelsea Village and the new West Stand has been approved and completed under a local Labour council. Counterintuitively, under the Conservative councils the club has just encountered obstructiveness and sometimes antagonism. We should also look at the support that both Arsenal and Spurs have had from their respective non-Conservative councils in recent years over their stadium ambitions and draw our own conclusions.
In our view, it is highly likely that the club have been in discussions with local Labour politicians for some time after coming to the obvious conclusion that they would never be able to negotiate with the local Tories. It would also explain why the club has been so quiet on the stadium front for the past couple of years. They were waiting for a council to be elected who they could talk constructively with. And now they have one.
So what now? Can we expect a rebuilt 60,000 Stamford Bridge to be announced within weeks (with the club decanted to Wembley for two years) as various rumours suggest? Obviously, we hope so but we are not holding our breath. Can we expect a more constructive relationship with the council and a more flexible approach to the question of compulsory purchase orders for properties around the existing site (with a consequent increased potential capacity)? Perhaps we now can.
If a redeveloped Stamford Bridge is the option the club now wishes to pursue then that does not remove all the deeply problematic obstacles in the way of that ambition (egress, the limited size of the site, the residents, neighbouring property owners, CPOs etc). But this morning we have woken up to find that one of the intractable problems the club faced in planning to expand the Bridge (an uncooperative local council) seems to have been removed and, as a result, some of those other obstacles listed above may be a little easier to resolve.
What happens next? There is still so much that we don't know but today has surely been a good day for the stadium ambitions of the club and, politically neutral though we are, we at CFCtruth welcome that.