Since reforming in 2008 Halifax Town have been making strong progress towards returning to the Football League, but a bid to take the club’s into private ownership may yet come to threaten the club’s future, as Rob White reports.
Recent history has treated the Halifax Town AFC very well. Following the heartbreak of The Shaymen’s demise and a shaky maiden season as F.C. Halifax Town, the West Yorkshire side have recorded three promotions in four seasons. Having reformed in the fourth step of non-league football they now find themselves in the Conference Premier, the level at which they folded in May 2008. FC Halifax Town’s inaugural season of national football has delighted their fans, as they have quickly settled into the top half of the table and currently sit in a comfortable eleventh place in the league table.
But despite the part-time team’s praiseworthy performances on the pitch, the main focus for most Shaymen has been, once again, their uncertain future. A few days before the Skrill Premier season kicked off, the local press dropped a disconcerting report of a private bid for their council-owned Shay Stadium. The Shay, Halifax Town’s home since their first Football League season in 1921/22, has been shared by co-tenants Halifax RLFC since 1998, when the rugby league side sold their Thrum Hall ground for a supermarket development. The land comprising the Shay itself was bought by Calderdale Council (then known as the Halifax Corporation) in 1903, and today both clubs pay the Council rent for the stadium’s use. It was current Halifax RLFC director Tony Abbott who put in the bid for the Shay, a piece of news that although over a year into development came quite out of the blue.
It is fair to say that the news split Calderdale’s sportspeople into two sides. Public opinion from football fans has been overwhelmingly opposed to any private sale whatsoever, whereas many rugby fans have been supportive of their director’s bid, though not without exchanging worried side-glances over missing information in Abbott’s rhetoric. A “Save Our Shay” campaign was swiftly launched by Halifax Town fans and has attracted moral support from Liverpool to Liversedge. Abbott’s deal had been thought to be near completion in early September but for a hitch. Abbott would have paid £1.9m for the ground, a value purposely below the £2m threshold for which Calderdale Council’s sales have to be discussed between a full cabinet of all fifty-one councillors, so the deal could have been approved among just six cabinet members without full consultation.
This deal follows the 2010 completion of the Shay’s East Stand, its all-seater main stand, at the cost of £5.5m to the Council. Of this, over £3.1m in instalments is yet to be paid off, showing Abbott’s initial bid to be significantly short of even covering the cost of that one stand alone. In 2011, the Localism Act gave communities the power to lobby councils to list property as Assets of Community Value (ACVs), a status that has been granted to the likes of Old Trafford, Anfield, and Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium. After one fan’s application, this status was approved for the Shay on 14th October. Bids for ACVs must wait in line for six months to allow other parties to launch bids, buying residents time and in the Shay’s case, meaning a much higher bid will be required with a covenant to keep the ground as a sports stadium.
Now with all four stands safe for use, the stadium looking impressive for one of the first times in its history, Calderdale Council will install a scoreboard for the Rugby League World Cup’s clash between Italy and Tonga at the Shay, with longer term views to improve the pitch’s draining system. No-one can ignore the high cost of running a ground like the Shay. With a loss of over £500k being reported in the three financial years leading up to 2012/13, it is no surprise that the “waste of taxpayer’s money” trope is repeated so often in relation to it. The ground’s many revenue streams certainly haven’t been maximised, but as telling are the losses made on Calderdale Council’s other assets. Halifax’s Victoria Theatre lost £127k in 2012/13, while the Council’s library services shed over £2.2m and leisure services set it back £847k. Few in their right minds would want to campaign for sale of these however, and the Shay is not alone in holding a place in the hearts of thousands. When Halifax Town AFC were buried under historical debts of over £2m, countless members of the public lost their money. No matter how bad the Shay’s losses sound, Halifax’s football fans know from experience that private businesses going under are no less financially detrimental.
On 24th October, reportedly following requests from football fans, Tony Abbott hosted an open Q&A session to lay out his vision for the Shay and respond to “the loud minority’s” concerns. The evening begun with Abbott’s artist impression of the Shay: a revamped arena packed full of fans, as he listed his plans for its future. Starting next year, Abbott’s new eight-figure investment would include on-site amenities such as a gym, a nursery, a coffee shop, concert facilities and an education centre, as well as creating 350 new jobs as he moves his business and Halifax RLFC sponsors, Reactiv Media, into the stadium.
His plans had evolved from those in early 2012 of buying the unused, skeletal structure in the Shay’s south-east corner, redeveloping it and moving Reactiv Media’s headquarters there. Abbott’s charm offensive continued as he promised lower rents for both clubs with a view to allowing them rent-free tenancy. The ground, he announced, would be owned by the Reactiv business. When asked what if Reactiv went bust, he assured the audience it would not happen, telling them not to fret about his plans being funded, rather to worry about getting supporters to games. When standing up to scrutiny, these promises feel shaky when Abbott’s combined business liabilities currently outstrip his assets by over £250k. Still, that night he affirmed a revised deal had been agreed upon. One of the first of Abbott’s statements was to deny any involvement with payday loan companies, currently banned from advertising on Calderdale Council property. With three websites, Payday-Quote.co.uk, Sunrise Pay Day Loans and Want a Pay Day Loan listed under Reactiv Media’s name, this is shown to be disingenuous. Following this Q&A session, a potential bid for the Shay ceased to be merely a crusade against the privatisation of another football ground, and became a saga much more to do with the integrity of the bidder in question.
Of course, we can take a long look at recent casualties to privatisation in the world of football grounds. The Darlington Arena proved to be a millstone too huge for Darlington FC to survive, following the Ricoh Arena’s eviction Coventry City now ground-share at Northampton Town with desperately small crowds, and uproars were heard from Brazil when the Maracanã Stadium was put up for privatisation this spring shortly after £320m renovation work was commissioned by the Brazilian government. Community ownership of grounds has a record of providing a safety net, with stories such as building commencing on FC United of Manchester’s fan-owned stadium giving them a long-awaited leg-up to compete at a level in line with their fan base. Although Calderdale Council has not put the Shay Stadium up for sale Tony Abbott’s bid is being considered, and without pressure from fans and other citizens, both FC Halifax Town and Halifax RLFC may well face very uncertain futures at the mercy of one businessman’s interests and bank balance. It will be a while still until the Shaymen can bask in their recent success without risk of intermittent showers.
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