Tuesday 8 September 2015

The New Stamford Bridge & the CPO: Destiny or Dissolution?

So the stadium plans are out and the planning application will be ready for submission within weeks. We at CFCtruth have not commented on the plans themselves – there is more than enough coverage out there already and we don’t see it as our role. But we have attended the consultations and have formed our own opinions of the design (which we mostly love) and of the prospect of playing for the foreseeable future at our historic home (which we are thrilled about). If that surprises you then, at the risk of repeating ourselves, we are not and have never been a ‘pro-move’ blog despite what our (former?) antagonists suggest. We remain ‘pro-club’ and ‘pro-ambition’ and the plans that we have seen are hugely ambitious and are perfectly fitting for what is a unique club who play at a unique ground. In this context we will continue to provide clear information, attempt to interpret and explain where we can and to keep the activities of LBHF in sharp focus.

That said, some of us are perhaps a little concerned that all this is just a very, very slick PR exercise at present.  We remain hopeful that everything will come to fruition but we have too much knowledge of local politics, especially in relation to the planning process, to believe with any certainty that this will be all smooth sailing. We are also fully aware that, as a business decision, this project makes little sense even if we assume the (we think seriously underestimated) costs are limited to around £500m. The ‘cost per seat’ totals are horrendous. Thankfully, we are no longer looking at a pure business decision - Roman appears to want a permanent legacy for his club and who are we to argue? 

What none of us could really have predicted or accounted for was the genius of Herzog and de Meuron in fitting a stunning quart-sized stadium into a beautifully located but pint-sized pot. This particular concept still remains something of a miraculous one...and we continue to wonder whether, if and when the stadium is built and once detailed work is done, the capacity might have to be reduced. The genuine limitations of the space available also gives us some concern for the eventual layout and comfort of the ground but we shall see, and the solutions to egress that are being proposed may be the answer to the problems. But they are eye-wateringly expensive solutions.

We can speculate all we want about what would have happened if the CPO had voted Yes back in October 2011. Maybe we’d be building a stadium at Old Oak Common. More likely Earls Court given what we know of what was happening at the time. Or the Stamford Bridge project could perhaps be two years ahead of where we are now. We have no wish to remove the wind from the sails of the SayNoers but we would only say that we distinctly recall all their accusations of ‘land-grabbing’ and ‘vote-rigging’ by Roman and of ‘secret plans to move the club to Milton Keynes’. We would argue strongly that the ambition and attention to detail of the current stadium plans are testament to Roman Abramovich’s good faith and good intentions from the start. This was never a get rich quick scheme for Roman – just have we have always argued.

What next for the CPO? The second consultation made it absolutely clear that the club will need to go back to the Pitch Owners to seek permission for the overall development but the precise timing for this decision is not yet confirmed. The project schedule anticipates a planning decision in early 2016 which would suggest that the CPO AGM around the beginning of next year would be a sensible opportunity for the club to approach the Pitch Owners. That said, the club’s planned work on covering the railway lines planned for 2016-2017 does not impinge on the CPO’s freehold (which takes in the pitch and the land the existing stands sit on) so a delay in asking the question is possible if not entirely logical. What will ‘the question’ be though?

Now we at CFCtruth take a relatively neutral and disinterested view of the CPO as a concept. We are Pitch Owners ourselves but we do not consider the CPO sacrosanct as many others do. Despite the myth-making, The CPO never quite 'Saved the Bridge' but it did provide handy protection against property speculators all the way from its founding in 1993 until the Stamford Bridge freehold was acquired by Matthew Harding around two years later. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of 2011, since then the CPO has become somewhat of an anachronism. In a sense, it is now a 'nice to have' rather than an essential protection for the club going forward into the future.  This will become all the more true if the new stadium is built as planned at Stamford Bridge, as we will discuss below.

Going back to the upcoming 'question' though, will Roman ask the CPO to vote itself out of existence?  And what should the CPO's answer be? Dedicated Facebook pages are being set up to ask just that question and there appear to be hints that things might start getting heated once again. Clearly the CPO Board is also starting to consider the issues involved and we welcome that. 

So far, reports have been mixed as to whether Roman will ask the CPO to merely give permission for the development to take place and for the club to play elsewhere for three years, or if he will seek to gain full control of the Stamford Bridge freehold by getting the CPO to disband. A few second-hand reports from the consultations suggest that some people have been reassured that Roman gaining ownership of the freehold is not a pre-requisite for the new stadium to be built while other reports suggest Roman and the consultants have never even got around to discussing the issue. This seems a little unlikely to us.

So what should the CPO's response be if it is simply asked to wind itself up? As a standalone question, we are sure that it would be rejected (especially as a full 75% of votes would have to be in favour of the motion for it to pass). Why throw away a unique protection for the club however unlikely it is to be needed? But we need to consider the likely response of the CPO in the current context. What if, after Roman has raised excitement levels among Chelsea supporters to fever pitch about their shiny new Stamford Bridge, he said to the Pitch Owners that while he would be happy to pay for this amazing new stadium to be built exactly where they want it, in return they will first need to give up the CPO? What would the likely response be then?

There are various reasons Abramovich might want the CPO consigned to history and to full take full ownership of Stamford Bridge. It might be for tax or debt purposes; it might be down to pure vanity, or he may, for practical reasons, need to mortgage the value of the whole Stamford Bridge site in order to finance a development that may well cost the best part of a billion pounds. The point is if the CPO is asked to vote itself out of existence in return for a new stadium, what will its answer be? For those Pitch Owners reading this blog right now, what would your own answer be?

Various Chelsea fans are already starting to make their position clear on the issue in advance of any question:
I have no issues with the stadium expansion personally (never have had, stay or leave) but mortgaging of the freehold is a major issue to me. If the club are prepared to make this statement categoric as a commitment in writing [that is that the CPO will not need to disband and the freehold will not need to be mortgaged for the stadium to be rebuilt], it gets my instant go ahead. But not 1 minute before.  'Sid Celery' on Twitter.

In my opinion the CPO must stay and in its current form! There are no footballing reason for it being disbanded as it's only real function is allowing real fans to protect the long term future of the club we love! Surely no one who cares about the club would be opposed to an organisation that does that!  Vic Locke on Facebook.

Some CPO die-hards would reject the suggestion outright, stadium or no stadium. Many more would consider the pros and cons and would then, we believe, reluctantly vote Yes. Enough to swing the vote behind dissolution? Probably yes because the momentum behind the stadium development is so emphatic now. But every Pitch Owner will have to make their own choice on the matter and we will not seek to influence the debate unless to counter petty grandstanding, misinformation or outright lies. However, we at CFCtruth would caution against the unthinking rejection of an offer to build a world class stadium for the club now in exchange for the loss of an antiquated legal safeguard which may never be required. As we have always said the best protection for the club is to be self-sufficient and the best route to self-sufficiency is our own world-class stadium.

There is one point we would like to make however. If the CPO were to vote itself out of existence, it needs to do so with caution and with a critical awareness of timing issues. Because despite CFCtruth playing down the degree of genuine protection the CPO has provided for the club over its history, it may well be approaching its moment of destiny. With the planned move away from Stamford Bridge looming in the next few years the club will be entering uncharted territory and a period of unprecedented vulnerability at which time the CPO's protection may finally be crucial.

Other clubs do not have the protection of their equivalent of the CPO but are not considered to be under constant threat. However what post-war history has shown is that clubs are in most danger when their home stadiums are sold from under them or if they are moved away from their home ground.  Clubs as diverse as Leeds United, Coventry City, Charlton Athletic and Brighton have suffered from these issues over the years. Some clubs such Hereford United and Scarborough have disappeared completely at least partly due to complications over ground ownership. Chelsea is a huge club compared to the others listed but we are not immune to the dangers.

We at CFCtruth are not going to suddenly start accusing Roman of ulterior motives and we remain convinced of his good faith. But what if, in three years’ time, the CPO is gone, Stamford Bridge has been flattened, the club is happily knocking the ball around at the national stadium and then Roman falls under the proverbial bus...what then? What if the ownership of the club is passed on to someone else who wants the club to play at Wembley permanently and would prefer to scrap redevelopment plans at the Bridge and sell the land for luxury housing instead? What could we Chelsea fans do about it? Without the CPO, nothing.

Once the new stadium has been built (at huge cost) our fears will be assuaged. We just cannot conceive of any situation where it would make financial sense for a future owner of the club to just scrap a world famous, iconic stadium that cost hundreds of millions to build, in order to build flats. The financial costs and benefits of doing this could never make sense and so the building of the stadium would, in itself and in the way it would make the club so much more self-reliant, provide an almost unchallengeable level of ongoing protection for the club. For that period before Chelsea FC move back into the completed ground, however, the club is vulnerable.

For this reason we recommend that if the CPO is asked to wind itself up and the Pitch Owners consider agreeing to this request, that we do so at the right time and with a watertight level of legal protection in place to ensure that the club is absolutely certain to move back to a complete and spectacular new Stamford Bridge in due course. We are reassured by their latest minutes that the CPO Board are also considering these questions seriously.

And so we wait for the next step. For a process that seemed so moribund for such a long period everything now seems to be happening at a lightning-fast pace. The planning application is likely to be submitted in October with a decision promised mere months later. We expect the CPO to be approached by the club sometime in the same timescale and so all Chelsea Pitch Owners will need to be prepared and need to consider how to use their unique influence to best support the long-term future of our club.  At Stamford Bridge.

Monday 22 June 2015

Known Unknowns at the New Stamford Bridge

So now things finally start happening. As has been widely reported, the club has invited local residents, season ticket holders and members to a consultation at Stamford Bridge on 30th June and the 1st and 2nd of July. The club has also distributed a beautifully packed leaflet telling The Story of Stamford Bridge which also starts to make a case, we think mostly directed to residents in the vicinity of Stamford Bridge, about the advantages that an expansion will bring to SW6. So the glacier that is the Chelsea FC stadium saga finally seems ready to lurch forward. Just to note that, for the purposes of this piece, we are taking the process at face value and disregarding the theory that this may be an elaborate exercise in belt-and-braces elimination.

So what do we know about the project? Not so much more than we did before but enough to be worth setting out. As usual it’s useful to analyse the different newspaper articles reporting the latest developments so that we can identify common themes. This is because a collection of simultaneous similar articles tend to stem from an organised club briefing. In this case the common elements are quite clear:

  • The club have concluded that there is no suitable site for a stadium in South West London apart from to build it at Stamford Bridge. This is despite the site, at 12 acres, being much smaller than the ideal 20 acres for a stadium of the planned size.
  • How big is the stadium planned to be? Most of the articles refer to a 60,000 capacity but one mentions ’20,000 extra spectators’ suggesting it might be up to 62,000. Another, in the Express, mentions a planned 67,000 capacity but that may just be a misprint.
  • Intriguingly, along with building over the railway lines in order to meet the planned capacity (as we expected) most of the articles refer to the need to ‘dig down’ in order to build a tier of the stadium below street level like at the Bernabeu. This is by no means an obvious solution and we discuss it further below.
  • All the articles expect the club to need to move away for at least two and probably three years while ‘the site is cleared in order to start again’. They also mention Twickenham or Wembley as temporary homes but they acknowledge difficulties with both options.
  • It is also briefly mentioned that the club has an option to continue to play at Stamford Bridge while building work on the stadium takes place. In this scenario the project would take four years and there would be an understandable impact on the capacity throughout. Just the fact this might be an option may well have implications and these are discussed below.
  • The suggestion in the papers is that the plans for the stadium are not yet finalised and that they won’t be until after the consultation. The fact that it is also stated that the stadium is ‘years from reality’ and some of the articles imply that it may take a decade before the club can play at the new stadium lend further weight to the fact that this will be a long slog. That said, one super-optimistic take on the situation expects a ‘formal [planning] application later this year’
  • The construction cost suggested in all of the stories is consistently quoted as around £500m. Obviously this is a huge amount but it’s interesting for several reasons and we will explore these further below. The estimate offered is that it would take 15 years to pay off the cost which would suggest an additional annual income of around £34m if the £500m figure is correct.
When The Story of Stamford Bridge leaflet arrived out of the blue we assumed, probably like everyone else, that it might offer genuine, detailed insight into the club’s stadium plans for the first time. Unfortunately it did not quite deliver on these hopes despite it being a beautifully packaged potted history of the Bridge. The intended audience was clearly not us stadium obsessives. However it did reveal one further significant element of the plans:
  • A key issue all along with expanding the stadium is getting up to an additional 20,000 fans in and out of the stadium without creating an unacceptable logjam on Fulham Road: the infamous ‘Egress’ problem. As revealed in The Story of Stamford Bridge, this time the club intends to provide a solution by resurrecting the idea of a dedicated pedestrian walkway from the north-east end of Fulham Broadway tube station, over the railway lines and directly into the north end of the stadium. It’s an ingenious and completely logical part-solution – but we’re sure we remember the concept being considered ‘unsafe’ at one point.
All of the above are fascinating glimpses of individual aspects of the likely plan – but there is little to tie everything together at present. That said, a few issues and questions stick out and are worthy of further examination.

  • Will the club and the genius architects Herzog and de Meuron who have reportedly been appointed to the project genuinely be able to find a way to build a superb new 60k+ stadium on an undersized plot without making serious compromises somewhere? It remains a huge challenge to make it work. Just to illustrate the problem the Allianz Arena stadium structure alone is, at around 12.6 acres, bigger than the entire Stamford Bridge site. 
  • Will the development therefore require the purchase of any surrounding land? We already know that the flats in the Shed End development are being bought by the club but will they also seek to buy up other neighbouring properties in order to increase the space for development? To do so would be both extremely tricky and massively expensive but could it be a prerequisite for the stadium development?
  • The idea of ‘digging down’ to create space for additional capacity is an idea which is often put forward by stadium design novices as a solution to the lack of space at Stamford Bridge, but it is really no use at all. This is because it is only a viable solution if a pitch has a lot of space around it (for example a track) otherwise spectators would just see the players playing football in a hole. Obviously this does not apply at the Bridge so we wondered why ‘digging down’ was being cited as part of the plan in all of the papers? Our only explanation is that the plans must involve bringing the level of the whole stadium down – the pitch and all of the stands. Why would the club do this? We can only think that this is not really a solution to the lack of space for a stadium but is instead a way to ensure that the taller stands in the new development do not impact on our neighbours’ ‘right to light’.
  • The newspapers stories all hint at a project which involves clearing the site and starting again and that appears to match the suggestion that the club will have to move elsewhere for up to three years. But the idea that if there are no suitable temporary homes that the club could choose to stay put at the Bridge while the redevelopment takes place around it is genuinely surprising and intriguing. Either there are different development plans depending on whether we can find a temporary home or not, or perhaps more likely, the proposed plans do not involve the realignment of either the pitch or of the stands. If so, perhaps the rumour of a re-clad West Stand remaining in place (perhaps with a steeper and larger lower tier ending below street level) with the other three stands being rebuilt has some substance.
  • The £500m project cost which is mentioned in all the newspapers is interesting on several levels. It is a huge amount of money for us mere mortals but it seems likely to us to be something of an underestimate. As a comparison, the Emirates Stadium cost an estimated £470m and that opened nine years ago. When we consider all the additional costs for the Stamford Bridge development – digging down, building over the railway, constructing walkways from Fulham Broadway and possibly West Brompton too – and the intervening nine years it’s hard to see how the overall cost would be only £30m more than the Ashburton Grove project. In the briefing last November the club estimated it might take 25 years to pay off the cost of the development. This time they estimated that it could take 15 years. Maybe they were closer to the truth the first time. 
  • How will the project be financed? Everyone is assuming that Roman will just dip into his fortune and offer us all his ultimate gift but how realistic is that? Let’s assume for a second that Roman isn’t just going to pick up the bill and that the stadium project will need to be financed some other way. Just what kind of impact is that going to have on the ongoing resources of the club?
  • Finally, where does the CPO fit into the plans? To date there has been no statement from the CPO board since the club announced the public consultation. That is, in itself, interesting and the board may choose not to comment at all until after the consultation has taken place. But we will hear from them in due course because quite simply the development cannot take place without the consent of the CPO. This consent will be required merely for the club to play away from Stamford Bridge for a period let alone for the development itself. And will the club seek to gain control of the freehold again? It’s certainly possible –especially if they might need to mortgage the land in order to raise money for the development. Such a move is certain to be controversial but we are sure the club would succeed this time – given the necessary safeguards of course. It would surely be a price worth paying, for even the most obstinate Chelsea Pitch Owners. 
Looking back at our blog on the subject from last November, what is surprising is how much of the ‘what next’ stuff it looks like we got right. It just took much longer than we expected (which may become a recurring theme in this project). But what should we expect from the next stage of the process? Will all our questions be answered at the consultation? Will the masterplan be laid out and will we get to inspect a shiny model? Of course we don’t know but on balance we suspect not. In fact we think some people may be disappointed with how much, or indeed how little, is revealed.

Looking at the consultation invitation itself, it states that “this stage of the consultation will focus at present on discussing the rationale and technical solutions for expansion with residents and match-going spectators”. Perhaps another little clue to the content can be found in the notes from a recent meeting between the club and Hammersmith & Fulham council which LBHF now helpfully publish on their website. The notes report that the meeting included “an update on progress of potential configuration for spectator accommodation” and it also outlined work “examining the feasibility of capacity expansion within the historic site boundaries”. We believe what we as supporters will get to see will probably be along similar lines. The consultation will surely reveal more than we know now but do we expect it to address all our questions? Highly unlikely we think. So all of us will need to make sure that the right questions and concerns and priorities are voiced and then fed into the consultation process. Because, be under no illusion, this will be one of the few opportunities to make our voices heard in shaping the new stadium of the club we love so do not pass up the opportunity.

The unquestionably vexed issue of how such a massive redevelopment would play out with residents is at the heart of this consultation. We can't imagine there will be silence on the part of locals and it could get very messy and drawn out indeed. As we have suggested, the club will likely make all sorts of expensive gestures towards the local infrastructure but this merely adds to the costs which we repeat, are likely to be significantly underestimated.

One final thought; it is ironic to hear Chelsea fans celebrating this potential development, possibly to involve enormous financial input from Mr Abramovich, even with other sources of finance. We presume that the disgraceful charges of "land-grabbing" and "theft" etc are now put to bed and that apologies will be issued?