Ideas for change: How football can boost local resilience

Houghton croppedRegeneration-by-football is usually a failure. Here are some other ideas for how clubs can help their communities.

I’m writing this on the way back from Liverpool’s pre-season friendly against Borussia Dortmund. The new-look Liverpool didn’t seem to miss Luis Suarez too much as the Red men harassed and harried their way to a 4-0 victory in the early August sunshine.

After witnessing a demolition job on the pitch, I took a look at the destruction around the ground. After 25 years of uncertainty over whether to re-develop Anfield, the club’s existing home, or move to a new stadium, the owners FSG Sport have opted to stay put and expand. As a result, the streets at the back of the main stand are being razed to make way for additional seating.

I’m usually an opponent of demolition, but in this case the damage has already been done. The club’s indecision, the scratchy relationship between it and Liverpool Council, and the miserable legacy of housing market renewal have left the residents of Anfield in a state of limbo. Many still seethe at the way they have been treated, at the way politicians’ promises of support have disappeared like referees’ vanishing spray.

The re-development of the main stand is the beginning of the end of a sorry saga in Liverpool’s urban history. In that context, the ‘desperate hope’ now is that ‘regeneration will follow the rebuilding’; that the construction of the enlarged stand and associated new homes and facilities will revitalise some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.

As readers of New Start will know better than anyone, this is very rarely the case. A large new physical development, be it a sports stadium or shopping mall, may bring some benefits, particularly in the short term, but won’t in itself tackle the root causes of urban deprivation.

The plans for ‘The Anfield Project’ – the overarching strategy developed by the club, Liverpool Council and Your Housing Group – are pretty sophisticated, encompassing plans for hundreds of new homes, a push to attract employers, a training hotel and a ‘food hub’ centred on Stanley Park.

However, there are also some startling omissions, as I detailed for The Anfield Wrap, most prominently any new transport improvements.

So what else could clubs do? The potential is there for them to be more

than good neighbours to the communities that surround them.

The hard truth is that regeneration-by-football is usually a failure. Look at the mixed fortunes of the Plaine Saint-Denis development in Paris, the controversy over the new stadiums erected in Brazil that have no sustainable legacy and, looking more widely than football, the anger over the redevelopment of the Carpenter’s Estate in Newham, just over the road from the Olympic stadium.

So what else could clubs do? The potential is there for them to be more than good neighbours to the communities that surround them. They could use their infrastructure and status to proactively support and encourage local economic development and community resilience.

Here are some ideas, but I’m sure there are more and would welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

1. Pay the living wage. According to Citizens UK, not a single Premier League team does so. Boris Johnson’s appeal to the top London clubs fell on deaf ears and, as far as I know, Arsenal haven’t acted on Martin Rowe’s excellent open letter appealing to the club he has supported for many years to boost the income of its lowest paid workers.

2. Set up an apprenticeship scheme. The biggest losers from the recession and slow recovery have been young people entering a brutally competitive low-wage, zero-hour labour market. Given the range of jobs at a large ground like Anfield, from catering and hospitality through to grounds management and general maintenance, clubs could open themselves up and offer training and work experience opportunities.


Homebaked, a resident-run bakery opposite Liverpool FC stadium

3. Use purchasing power to boost the local economy. As Neil McInroy of CLES puts it, ‘procurement is the new regeneration‘. With no ‘special funds’ available to re-develop areas like Anfield, the pressure is on local institutions to spend in a way that boosts local economic activity.

To give an example, let’s talk dough. Liverpool recently signed a deal to make Dunkn’ Donuts, their official supplier of baked goods (I can see some of you wincing now at the commercialisation of modern football). Yet over the road from the stadium is Anfield Home Baked; a resident-run bakery, managed on co-operative principles. It was brought to life by local volunteers who re-opened the old Mitchell’s Bakery. Their vision is to ensure that the residents of Anfield, a ‘food desert’ in many ways, can buy quality, affordable food.

A tiny proportion of the club’s catering budget would be a huge boost to Home Baked and help it to achieve its mission. There will be many other examples of how small changes to a club’s procurement strategy could boost local social enterprises.

4. Establish or support existing credit unions. Debt has engulfed many low-income households, often forcing them to resort to modern pay-day lenders and old fashioned loan sharks. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently declared a ‘War on Wonga’. Instead of calling on the government to ban pay-day lenders, he wants to use the church’s status and financial muscle to do them out of business by making credit available at far less punitive rates.

Credit unions also often invest in local community development work. In this article for the Voluntary Action History Society, the historian Pat Starkey gives the example of churches and community groups working together in Toxteth in the 1980s to establish a credit union. The Lodge Lane Credit Union is thriving today, with 5,000 members and £1.7m in savings.

Clubs could play an equally proactive role, directly easing the pressure on their fans. And what an amazing message of solidarity it would send to their supporters if the players and managers also paid in.

So, four ideas. And I’m sure there are more; please let me have yours. Maybe we can even start a conversation with clubs to test the ideas out.

A final note. I know that clubs are money-making institutions, with expectant owners and shareholders, fighting for cash and cups in a brutally neo-liberal game. We romanticise football teams, and our relationship with them, but there is nothing romantic about the business end of the game. And the finances of some clubs, despite their turnover, are often fragile.

That said, clubs are social institutions. With rare exceptions, they are the opposite of foot-loose businesses; they are deeply associated with a place and will be there for decades, if not centuries. They inspire loyalty in a way that few institutions do, and can use their profile and status to aid good causes.

To his credit, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers talks about wanting to bring success back to the club because it will help the city, ‘the taxi drivers and restaurant owners’. He clearly knows that a club is more than just a collection of employees kicking a ball around twice a week.

You could argue that the best thing a club like Liverpool can do is be really good at football. Be better than anyone else and ‘conquer the bloody world’ as Bill Shankly put it. Winning trophies will attract more fans and tourists, as well as investors who want to be associated with a successful ‘brand’ (you’re wincing again aren’t you?). But the last time Liverpool did that was the late seventies and early eighties – hardly a period of economic renaissance for Merseyside.

There is a good chance the club and Liverpool Council can wring some local benefits for the local community out of the redevelopment of the ground. But these will only ever be short-term boosts.

The club could be much more ambitious, as it is on the pitch. It could use its status, its infrastructure, its purchasing power to support local economic development and community resilience over the long haul.



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Paul Bristow
Paul Bristow
9 years ago

Food for thought, and my first thought is to question whether the current economics of football make it amenable to play the role that you set out. It practically can, but whether it wants to is another matter. For some reason I am thinking of what has happened to sport in Welsh life in recent decades.

South Wales’ economy was sustained by coal and steel, and its communities through intermediate institutions such as (stereotypes, I know), chapels, trade unions, male voice choirs (did I really write that?) and rugby union clubs. Domestic rugby in Wales is in one of its periodic crises that have marked its decline, no matter recent grand slams by the national side. Yet last season two Welsh soccer clubs were in the Premiership. Has south Wales been helped or hindered by the decline of its rugby and the rise of its football? Who will be better for south Wales – Barry John or Vincent Tan? I look at the place of these rugby clubs within communities and I wonder if football is well placed to operate as you hope. My contention is that certainly above league one you will be damn lucky to get them to deliver anything meaningful.

That’s not to say that football doesn’t operate for community good in lots of ways. Perhaps the counter to my view above is provided by clubs that collapse – Pompey’s 1914 commemoration shirt shows their civic awareness, but would they have recognised this responsibility and potential when they were in the Premier League? I’m not sure they would, sadly. Similarly Millwall’s contribution to the Lewisham hospital campaign was genuine and noticed – but again an example of civic and community leadership rather than a tangible investment in place of the type envisaged in your blog.

Again, I don’t want to suggest that football clubs are incapable or unwilling to contribute in ways beyond the obvious. I know that the National Literacy Trust has a partnership with the Premiership but often ‘community departments’ smack a little too much of the worthy or the tokenistic. Sometimes they can be shown up a bit by other sports whose governing bodies go above and beyond to get their games to places you might not expect – the ECB and the RFU in the inner cities, or St Helens’ RLFC’s role in the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places programme.

To return to the Welsh example, three years ago I was at Pontypridd to see them play Bristol in the semi of the British and Irish Cup. I had a very strong sense of an institution that had given so much to a place but, like that place, had been somewhat beaten about in the last 40 years and was to a great extent just clinging on in the hope of something turning up from somewhere. Sports clubs like these, often still vital if vulnerable parts of local community infrastructure, are doing and can do good things. I’m just not convinced that the red/blue birds or Brendan Rogers’ proving ground are helping very much.

N.B. I am happy to be proved wrong.

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