Democratic challenges facing mutual football trusts

Supporters Direct (SD), the organisation representing over 180 supporters’ trusts, discussed the challenges of mutuals at a hearing of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mutuals at Parliament...

Supporters Direct (SD), the organisation representing over 180 supporters’ trusts, discussed the challenges of mutuals at a hearing of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mutuals at Parliament last month.

The debate, part of a series of sessions designed to look at issues within the mutual sector, gathered MPs from across the political spectrum, as well as representatives from the Football Authority (FA), the Premier League (PL), the Football League and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), European Football’s governing body.

Speaking at the mutuals hearing, David Lampitt, CEO of SD, said he was disappointed with progress on reform within the English football, and particularly the issue of supporter-representation, which he claimed was neither representative, nor democratic.

Kevin Jacquiss from DWF, Supporters Direct’s lawyer and an expert in co-operative and mutual law, said talking about fan ownership, as a means to overcome a crisis, was not “good enough”. He argued that the advancement of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommendations on football reform and supporter-involvement was central to promoting mutualism in the game.

Introducing the hearing, Conservative MP for Cardiff North, Jonathan Evans, asked how mutualism in football could be encouraged through better regulation. He added that reform was needed and the Culture Media and Sports Committee backed the hearings.

David Lampitt said one measure that would boost mutualism would be tax relief for 50+1 per cent takeovers. He argued the government should intervene. Labour/Co-op MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West Tom Greatrex also called on the government to step up progress on establishing the promised expert working group to assess the legislative changes needed to remove barriers that add difficulty to mutual takeovers of clubs,

William Gaillard from UEFA said that Premier League used to be the best football league in Europe eight years ago, but that its place had been taken by the German Bundesliga. In Germany football clubs abide by the principle '50+1 ownership', which means that fans own at least 51 per cent of the club and no one group or investor can take control of the club.

Mr Gaillard argued that ownership was a crucial aspect of football and said the EPL needed to open up ownership. He also said that supporters’ trusts bring this type of stability to clubs.

Speaking of supporters’ trusts, Mr Greatrex said that they existed as a model of ensuring supporters had long-term influence within their club. “Fans are always there longer than owners, players and managers.

“Whenever clubs have been taken over by supporters it has been after the crisis when there was no one else left to pick up the pieces.” He said the best way to prevent this was to ensure there was a structured relationship between a supporters’ trust and the club.

He added that supporters’ trusts have been the ones pushing for more engagement, not Premier League. Former Chair of Fulham Supporters Trust, Mr Greatrex said that when clubs aren’t willing to engage fans it is up to supporters’ trusts to do it.

“It’s disingenuous of PL to suggest they have been trying to make engagement happen. It’s been supporters’ trusts pushing to open up football. Premier League showed no interest in trying to sort this out,” he said.

David Lampitt also said that engagement for many Premier League and football league clubs was about commercial benefit, rather than the benefit of the fans.

According to Tom Greatrex, although the Football Association should be the one in charge of overall football governance, the Premier League continues to exercise a lot of influence.

The Premier League currently comprises of 20 member clubs and the Football Authority, with Swansea City being the only club in which supporters have a say. Swansea is 20 per cent owned by a supporters’ trust.

However, Bill Bush, Director of Communications and Public Policy at Premier League said rules did not favour one form of ownership, but rather they were ownership neutral.

Supporters Direct believes rules favour private companies and not mutual ownership because of an inbuilt bias where a lack of transparency and sustainability is the norm, characteristics against the ethos of mutuals and co-operatives.

At the hearing Supporters Direct also called for a long-term sustainable source of funding the organisation, one of the recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. David Lampitt also thanked the Co-operative Group for supporting the organisation. Some participants in the debate also suggested that funding should be coming as independently as possible, from other sources outside of football.

Following the Mutuals hearing, SD launched the report “Supporter Share Ownership: Recommendations on how to increase supporter ownership in football”.

The paper aims to address some of the major challenges to increasing the involvement of supporters’ trusts in the ownership of football clubs, including the removal of the £20,000 cap on an individual’s Community Shares purchase, and the reduction of the threshold of EIS on mutualisation of companies to 50 per cent+1.

In the long-term, the report suggests developing a Community Football Fund, which would be established as a Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI) capable of securing various forms of social investment to assist supporter ownership. 

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