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Certain events are of such poignancy that they come to be a symbol of an epoch. The sale of Wembley Stadium to an American billionaire, and the fact that Tory leader Theresa May, has refused to step in despite £161m of public investment having gone into the stadium’s construction is, perhaps, one of those events.
The white arch of Wembley Stadium, which few realise actually holds up the roof, arcs over the rooftops of North London, preeminent on the skyline and a strident signifier of English football.
The stadium is currently owned by the FA through their subsidiary, Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL). However, Shahid Khan, an American billionaire – the owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars – has been eyeing up the icon for years, and a deal now seems finally to have been agreed for its sale to him.
The billionaire has reportedly made an offer of £800m for the stadium, and the sale would represent the first time that the ground has been owned by a foreign private entity.
Wembley Stadium cost near to £1bn to build once all ancillary expenses and delays have been taken into account. In order to finance it, the FA took out loans totaling around £600m.
£161m of the money to finance the stadium’s construction came from taxpayer-funded public bodies including Sports England.
Despite the huge amount of taxpayer’s money that has gone into the building and upkeep of the stadium, when asked about the proposed sale in PMQs, May said it was a “private matter” – meaning the Tories look set to screw the British taxpayer out of a staggering £161m.
The stadium is something of a financial headache for the FA and its subsidiary, WNSL. Much of the loan used to finance it is still outstanding and, in addition, there are repairs, upgrades and renovations that have to take place.
Nonetheless, the stadium is part-owned by the public. This is the case both financially and symbolically. Wembley is known as the Home of English football, and it was nick-named the Cathedral of Football by Pele.
The government’s refusal to intervene on behalf of fans and Britons is indicative of its attitude towards public assets. The sale of Wembley stadium may not be a burning issue so far as the eradication of inequality is concerned, or the national budget. Nonetheless, if it goes through it will sit in the face of Tory apathy towards public assets atop a pile of formerly national institutions, which the party has flogged at a huge loss to the British taxpayer.
If Wembley stadium is put into private ownership; that is, ownership entirely detached from English football, it will certainly change character. It will no longer be ours – both legally, and symbolically.
It is said that Khan has a “strong understanding” with the FA as to Wembley’s meaning within the capital and the country, and that he intends to keep football at the stadium’s core.
But when it comes to private commercial contracts, though, such whispered sweet nothings mean just that – nothing. The sale of the Green Investment Bank to an Australian bank in 2017 for £1.6bn, and the fact that there have been no guarantees that the vehicle’s green-purpose will be continued in private ownership, shows us this.
On top of this, the sale of Webley stadium has been justified on the grounds that the money generated has been “earmarked” for investment in grassroots football. That is, £500m will go towards the building of new pitches.
What a sorry tale. One supposes in 50 years when grassroots football needs more investment, that we will simply sell off another treasured asset.
In PMQs, Labour MP Justin Madders asked the Prime Minister:
“Now, when Premier League clubs spend hundreds of millions of pounds on wages and transfers, does the Prime Minister agree with me that there is more than enough money in the game for there to be no need to sell off this iconic national asset.”
“It is not a matter for the government”, was the response. Aside from the huge public investment, it is, arguably, one of the greatest peacetime duties of a Government to uphold institutions of national importance; to ensure they are there to be enjoyed by the people and to be handed to the next generation. It is certainly the duty of Government to ensure that the treasures of the country they lead are not sold off to foreign entities.
Yet the sale, and the Thatcherite ideology that informs it and which informs the Tories’ complacency, is nothing if not consistent.
In 2015, the Tories sold off more public assets than they had done before. The Treasury then made £26bn from the sale of Eurostar, Royal Mail and Northern Rock among others.
The asset stripping of this country is endemic within Tory ideology. A continuation of policy set by Thatcher, when £20bn worth of public assets were sold in the 1980s.
Wembley stadium’s sale is not the most burning issue facing this country – that is certain. Nonetheless, it will burn as a torch at the head of the trail of devastation left by the systematic hollowing out of this country’s assets and institutions – the symbols that define it.
Of course the sale of Wembley Stadium is considered by the government not to be a matter for them. It doesn’t affect them. It affects the millions of working class football fans who may see the character and tone of the home of their favourite game changed irreversibly. A bail out of massive investment banks, though; now that is a state matter.
May’s beseeching that the FA bare in mind the views of the fans is the same hollow, ineffective and weak response that she has for all areas of Government policy from which decades of Tory policy has removed the government.
It has the same facile, futile tone as her speech to property developers that they “do their duty”. The Tories have put themselves willingly in hock to massive private interests, and as a result they are reduced to vain sentiments where action is required. The Tories wish everything to be a private matter. So, as with property developers failing to build homes and hoarding land because legislation and policy has created the environment in which it is profitable for them to do so, meaning that the government can do nothing but beg, Wembley stadium is yet another crown jewel for which the Government will offer no help in retaining.
The impending sale of Wembley stadium is a thin strand of the fibrous mat of filth and stupidity that defines this Government’s economic policy, and its social policy towards its citizens. May it be a strand that will break the camel’s back. May it at least be a symbol, and one to which we can point, pointedly, as children going by on the train do towards the white arch, in showing what happens when you elect a Government hell-bent on the tacit acceptance of the dismantling of everything its citizens hold dear.
[Correction: This article previously stated that “Brent Council recently injected £17.8m of public money to refurbish parts of the stadium.” This money was in fact a ‘community infrastructure levy’ which was used for ‘public realm improvements to Olympic Way’ and not Wembley stadium itself.]