Plymouth Argyle: James Brent – Licensed To… Do As He Wishes
Whatever Plymouth Argyle chairman and owner James Brent is, and opinions vary passionately among Pilgrims fans on that, he is no “football man.” Nor is he a “philanthropist,” “benefactor” or “particularly nice.” Brent regularly admits to mistakes in his running of the League Two club. So regularly that it was a surprise that BBC Radio Devon’s Gordon Sparks was surprised when Brent told him last month that “every day of the week I make a huge number of errors.” Just as well then that last July Brent appointed Yeovil Town ex-chief executive and, ulp, Wishbone Ash fan Martyn Starnes.
Financially, though, Plymouth ought to be in knowledgeable hands with Brent the businessman, who became a merchant banker (no jokes) straight from school, and became “global head of real estate and lodging” at financial services multi-national Citigroup in 2000. Brent’s desire “to do something entrepreneurial” manifested itself in 2008 in his own business, Akkeron Group, which, he told the Financial News website in June 2011, he formed to “establish three real estate-anchored operating businesses” covering “hotels in the British Isles; urban regeneration in the south and southwest UK; and large-scale agriculture in emerging markets.”
In 2009, he became Plymouth City Development Company chairman, a short-lived stewardship thanks, partly, to the new Coalition government’s distaste for such “quangos” – its closure was announced in August 2010. Brent’s role, however, established his credentials as a “local” entrepreneur, as individual blame went to chief executive Paul Carroll, who Brent generously claimed was “a disappointment.” And he would be a “Mr Plymouth” in the making if he had a genial nature. Unfortunately, he hasn’t, despite a determinedly pleasant media persona. And the supporter-unity which did so much to help the club survive has diminished considerably because of his ruthless treatment of opposition viewpoints, not least those who argue that Brent only wants Argyle as a “real estate-anchor.”
Brent and Akkeron have driven plans through Plymouth City Council for “a £57m commercial development centred on the adjoining privately-owned Higher Home Park,” as “envisaged” in a 2011 agreement by which the council “acquired the freehold of Home Park… and… leased the Stadium” to Argyle. From these grand designs, Argyle will get a 17,700-capacity stadium, after a new grandstand is built to replace the decaying ‘Mayflower’ stand at Home Park. A 45,000-capacity stadium was planned as part of England’s 2018 World Cup bid. But that proved ruinously ambitious. And Plymouth’s descent into administration soon followed. Brent’s plans are not ruinously ambitious. But many fans believe they are not ambitious at all for Argyle.
To the outsider, there was little to choose between Brent’s plans, replete with revenue-generating opportunities for the club and Akkeron, and an alternative proposal from the Argyle Fans’ Trust, which sought greater scope for increasing Home Park’s capacity both now and in the Championship future publicly targeted by all sides. Brent’s plans would increase Home Park’s capacity from its current 16,388 to 17,611, via a 4,800-seat grandstand, with scope to increase capacity to 20,200. The Trust envisaged the grandstand having approximately 7,000 seats at an additional cost to the project of £800,000. Brent’s view was ostensibly pragmatic but hugely patronising. He thanked the Trust as “a group of volunteers who, to my knowledge have no expertise of building similar structures,” even though the Akkeron Group, to everyone else’s knowledge, had no such expertise either. And he claimed that “detailed (safety) regulations” would make the costs “materially greater than the Trust have assumed,” which shamefully implied that the Trust ignored the issue. The Herald quoted figures of “£1,200 per additional seat…not the £364k suggested by the Trust.”
“On current averages, Brent said, “60% of Home Park’s proposed capacity is empty…we do not need additional seats now or in the short-term.” He claimed extra seating could be installed “swiftly and economically” when necessary. And concluded: “Building seats that we can fill regularly makes good economic sense for the club. Building seats that remain empty makes no sense at all.” Or, more colourfully, “putting money into empty seats is voodoo.” He meant “voodoo economics.” Presumably. The Trust believed their proposals’ extra costs would be recouped by the occasional “big” game – a home FA Cup or League Cup tie against a Premier League giant, or even a “promotion six-pointer” at home to major rivals Exeter City.
Brent’s proposals are dependent to an unusual extent on Plymothians’ urge to ice-skate and/or watch ice hockey. The Trust believed the 1,500-seater ice rink limited scope to extend the stadium and proposed that it be built on Cottage Field – adjacent land “allocated for development” by the council – creating space between stadium and rink. Brent countered: “We do not own Cottage Field. Even if I wanted to build on it, I could not, and (the council) would not sell it to me for development.” This raised concerns over Brent’s priorities. He countered these by claiming he holds a greater shareholding in Argyle than Akkeron. But this was disingenuous to the point of misleading. The only other listed Akkeron Group LLP director is Nicola…Brent. And if Brent couldn’t be upfront about such basics, it was little wonder fans were sceptical.
Equally disingenuous was the presentation of the new grandstand as a £10m “gift” to Argyle because costs will be covered by revenue from the Akkeron-owned retail units in the stand. But such revenue which will continue to be Akkeron’s once those costs are covered. As one Brent critic claimed: “(the ground) has had every one of its assets stripped…a number of retail units located in the stand are leased to the Akkeron group (prop: J Brent esq)…none of this revenue goes to the football club.” And Brent’s revenue forecasts went unchallenged. “Argyle chairman forecasts cash bonanza from new grandstand” screamed a local Herald newspaper headline. The story said a “forecasted £1m per year…would pay the players’ wages.” How that money would be made was not detailed. As one Herald reader commented: “The revenues projected are pie-in-the-sky.”
The Herald has backed Brent’s plans to the hilt, sometimes, it has seemed, at the expense of journalistic integrity. Business Editor William Telford produced articles which read as pure Brent/Akkeron PR, rather than proper analysis. Barely a summer week went by without Brent airing his views in print. And un-named Akkeron spokespeople frequently misrepresented opponents. One claimed that the Trust was “not opposed to the development… Andrew Symons, chair of the Trust, has confirmed that.” This was demonstrably untrue. The same statement accused “the acting leadership” of the “Friends of Central Park” group of issuing “misleading and provocative statements after we enjoyed constructive meetings with their predecessors.” As if Akkeron’s critics weren’t the ‘real’ leadership and as if their predecessors supported the development. “Misleading and provocative” indeed.
The Herald used founder Trust board member Lee Jameson to punt the pro-Brent line. “Some may find the argument boring,” Jameson wrote, “but… if it was not for James Brent we would most likely be in the Southern League or even lower.” Jameson was right. The argument was boring. But the Herald’s inability to find anyone more contemporary from the Trust spoke volumes. Plymouth Argyle Supporters Board (PASB) spokesman, Edward Shillibeer, allowed the paper to claim that “New Grandstand plan gets backing from Argyle supporters” by “welcoming the decision to replace the existing grandstand” although even he had to acknowledge that “many fans would have liked a larger stand.” But the PASB remains a Brent-approved and hand-picked body. No PASB spokesperson would be permitted to say otherwise.
The council’s planning committee approved the plans a week after Shillibeer’s rallying cry. And the full Cabinet unanimously approved the proposals on September 3rd. Brent’s speech to cabinet was reportedly lacklustre to the point of complacent, with one lawyer wondering aloud how much Brent had “paid” for council approval – a comment which predictably brought legal threats. The Trust’s focus soon switched to Home Park’s future ownership. Brent/Akkeron obtained an option, exercisable every five years, to buy the stadium for 12 times the annual rent. The Trust noted that when Argyle bought the stadium from the council in 2006, “it was claimed that private ownership would provide an asset against which loans could be secured to take the club forward.” It didn’t. And the Trust were concerned when Brent “hinted he was considering taking up the option.” This, they claimed, would lead to “significant concern about Home Park’s long-term future should he sell the stadium/club to a new owner about whom we may know very little.”
Last month, the Trust surveyed fans on the issue, revealing significant support for keeping the stadium “in public ownership through the council”, for removing the “buyback” option and for Trust plans to “explore registering Home Park as an “asset of community value,” as envisaged by the Localism Act 2011, giving communities extra time to bid for assets proposed for sale. A number of football grounds have been so registered, most famously Old Trafford. Manchester United were not over-pleased and initially requested a review of the decision. One suspects that despite calling the club a “community asset”, Brent would take a similar view. Undermining all efforts to properly assess the development is the lack of clarity on Argyle’s current finances. Brent says he is funding losses to fund a playing budget which, he told the Sunday Telegraph in September, “avoids the nightmare of a relegation dogfight and gives us the prospect of getting promoted.” The extent of those losses is not clear, though.
Figures presented to the PASB last year put Argyle’s liabilities at £6.4m, with £3.6m “legacy debt” from the administration, including the repayment of staff wages deferred when the club was being “run” by Ridsdale, who didn’t entirely lead by example in the remuneration deferment department. Brent said last May that “a club depending on a benefactor to pay wages each year will eventually go wrong. You can’t put the future of a community asset at risk.” But Brent and/or Akkeron have had to cover losses. Whether they have done so via loans, and on what repayment terms if so, needs clarification. James Brent is at Argyle primarily in self-interest, which his responsible owner persona is designed to protect. But that in itself does not condemn him. What does, as a person as much as anything else, is his attitude to criticism and critics. Brent’s litigious reputation preceded him. And tales abound of Brent supporters waging smear campaigns against Argyle opponents, especially from the Trust.
The comments section of my last Argyle article descended into a grisly list of “he said, she said” accusations. The Herald comments section has contained tales of club critics being ignored or vilified, even for constructively highlighting basic errors in club administration. Brent can claim to make errors every day. But woe betide those who confirm it. Before then, I would not have filed Brent in the ‘superego’ column of football club owners, to which Hull’s Assem Allam could claim naming rights and which appears to be lengthening every time a club comes up for grabs. Now, I’m not so sure. I wrote in April 2013 that “at the risk of damning with faint praise, Brent is certainly one of football’s more responsible owners.” An Exeter City-supporting Brent critic disagreed, suggesting “any so-called ‘responsible behaviour’ is a symptom of Brent’s reluctance to fund the playing side any more than he has to.”
That was, sort of, what I meant. But this critic’s overview of Brent’s regime (“his sole interest was in acquiring the development land attached to the ground,” “there is no evidence that he has put a red cent into the club beyond…loans…or that the club will benefit financially in any serious way from the shiny new stand”) has turned out to be a fairer assessment than any praise I may have offered, however faint. As things currently stand, Argyle’s success is in Brent’s interests, its failure is not. But this won’t be the case forever, or for very long. And his development plans have produced a mediocre outcome for the club. Uncertain times lie ahead.
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