Trust Chairman's Right To Reply

26 October 2013 12:13
One Man's View

Worth a read are the comments from Sky Blue Trust Chairman John Fletcher in reply to Les Reid's “Could Ricoh Arena be sold to Coventry City owners Sisu for £7m?” article

"Well, alright, not the lies, and certainly not the videotape. But only some of the truth, and some misleading statements. The headline was too tempting to resist though.

In the latest of what looks like being a series as long as Star Wars, Les Reid, “award winning journalist” for the Coventry Telegraph, has written an article headlined “Could Ricoh Arena be sold to Coventry City owners Sisu for £7m?”

There are a number of highly questionable assertions, some of them about an organisation that takes up much of my time these days, and one that refers directly to me. There are also a number of inaccuracies and misleading expressions. So I thought I’d do some “deconstruction” on it. Let’s look at some what Les writes.

(Quotes from the article in italics first, then my comments)

“A legal battle and administration process was won by Sky Blues’ owners Sisu/Otium by early August after a summer of claim and counter claim and potential investors hovering in the background.”

Just what was the “legal battle” won by Sisu? The only time they’ve been in court was to apply for Judicial Review. They LOST.

“Yet it appears a good number of fans – many of them city council taxpayers – want the Sky Blues to return to the Ricoh Arena as soon as possible. So too might city taxpayers at large.”

This is almost certainly true of all fans, not just a “good number”, whether they boycott Sixfields or not, want Sisu out or not. The only question is whether they come back with Sisu as owners of the stadium or not. That, as the poll at the bottom of Les’ article shows, is opposed by almost two thirds of those voting.

“Only around 1,500 fans on average are making the 65-mile round trip.”

Total attendances at Sixfields have been between 1600 and 2000, including away fans. On Sunday, just around 1000 City fans attended. The “home” attendance has not been much more than that all season.

“A prior statement from related fans’ group the Sky Blue Trust called for Sisu/Otium to return to talks on ACL’s terms of ‘rental discussions’.”

This appears to suggest that the Sky Blue Trust only want Sisu to talk on the basis of rental terms. We simply relayed the ACL offer and urged the two to get together and talk. How on earth is there to be a resolution if nobody talks to anybody else?

“Some contacting the Telegraph have sought to redress the balance despite fear of reprisals”

Where have the threats come from? The Trust has never even hinted at anything like this, and so far as we know, KCIC have disowned anyone who may have threatened anyone. Les needs to provide evidence for this, not just accept Joy Seppala’s statement that she’s had hate mail as indicating that fans have been threatened. Threats and insults have been thrown around by various groups of fans. The blame isn’t all on one side, as Les suggests it is.

“Some fans argue one-sided campaigning is not surprising.

Minutes from the Sky Blue Trust’s annual general meeting in July last year reveal early discussions had taken place about working with the council in the event of administration. Talks had already been held with then Labour council leader John Mutton and insolvency practitioner Brendan Guilfoyle (who ACL had later hoped would become the administrator).”

First of all, the minutes Les referred to were those of the last but one AGM, the one that “re-founded” the Trust. It was a member, Lionel Bird, that said HE had talked with John Mutton and Brendan Kilfoyle. At no point was it suggested that his talks were on behalf of the Trust, which had, at that time, held no talks with anyone. To suggest that the Trust’s actions were those taken by one member at the last but one AGM is disingenuous. Subsequent minutes, including those of the last AGM show that the Trust has consistently been independent of any side. It was the club that stopped any talks with the Trust on any formal basis. We have tried to talk with Joy Seppala and she has refused.

“The meeting – chaired by ex-Labour Coventry City Council leader John Fletcher – resolved not to enter “dialogue” with Sisu amid a possibility of new owners emerging after administration.”

What Les fails to do is to quote the relevant paragraph in full. It reads:

“It was ultimately agreed that the Trust should not show any support for the current board or owners. The importance of being seen as independent being stressed by a number of attending members whilst recognising that the group may at some stage need to work with any potential new owners. It would however keep open lines of communication with all relevant stakeholders including supporters groups but would not enter into dialogue with SISU.” (My emphasis)

Quite why I’m referred to as “ex-Labour Coventry City Council leader” is puzzling. I haven’t been Leader for 13 years, nor a councillor for 11. My relationship with any current Labour council is irrelevant. In any case, if my knowing the leader, current or previous, enables the Trust to talk to the council, isn’t that to be welcomed? What is more representative of the Trust’s policy: a minute from a meeting held 18 months ago, or those of many subsequent ones. A recent open meeting of members endorsed a policy of being independent, and trying to get all sides to talk. The Trust has vigorously pursued that with whoever out of Sisu, the Council, ACL and the Football League will talk to us.

“But the council/ACL had been unwilling to talk with Sisu after negotiations over stadium rent, revenues and ownership collapsed in February, ahead of ACL seeking to place the club in administration in the High Court in March.”

Les can’t have it both ways. Either ACL have offered to talk (as the article quoted by him says) or they have refused to talk. Both ACL and the Council have consistently said they will talk, with Council Leader Ann Lucas making several offers. Joy Seppala says in Les’ own interview, that she won’t negotiate with the Council. “I don’t negotiate” Les quotes her as saying. A resolution won’t happen while not ALL parties are willing to talk.

“The council argues it is “protecting taxpayer investment‚Äù but valuations in reality have been based on potential future revenue, and the existing business (including contracts, costs and income streams).

Other land valuations are being based on the market rate in the Coventry area for brownfield sites for particular uses.”

Les continually confuses the leasehold (held by ACL and lasts another 40 odd years) and the freehold (belonging to the City Council, until it decides to sell). The “existing business” is ACL, who operate the arena. The property value is that of the building and the land. Quite why it should be valued as “brownfield land” is baffling. Certainly there is brownfield land still to be developed. The stadium itself is hardly brownfield, unless it’s to be sold as a building to be demolished and something else built. The Ricoh Arena belongs to the taxpayers of Coventry. It cost over £100m to build, and if that is what it is worth then that should be the price. Certainly a figure of £7m, quoted in the headline, is a derisory figure. That may be what ACL might cost, but that would simply buy half of what is, in effect, a tenancy and an operating business.

“Yet previous council taxpayer investment was nothing like the full £118m final cost of building the Ricoh, which opened in 2005.

Costs were partly met from around £40m profit on a £59m sale of part of the land to Tesco; £21m borrowed money later repaid by ACL’s Yorkshire Bank loan; from Europe, the club, and from the former regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands.”

Les suggests that the taxpayer’s investment in the Ricoh was very little. But the money from the Tesco land was for the sale of a public asset. The Council has consistently sold land and property it owns, usually on a leasehold. Selling it at a profit is surely good value for Coventry taxpayers. And both the European and AWM money were taxpayers’ money, since they both came, in effect, from Government. The City Council, of course, acted as guarantor for the £21m loan.

“Some campaigners are outraged by any suggestion Sisu should obtain 100 per cent freehold Ricoh ownership – despite Ms Seppala publicly insisting there will be no return to a landlord/tenant relationship.

They argue it is unnecessary – as more stadium revenues for the club could come from ownership or part-ownership on a leasehold basis.”

Outrage is a strong word to use to describe what is a well respected argument. Many clubs, both here and abroad, play in stadia they don’t own. Indeed, if the League’s salary cap rules are what are important, then the crucial issue is the income the arena generates, not its ownership. That costs money to maintain and develop it. No-one would dispute that the rent was too high (though I understand ACL’s last offer was below what the club is paying at Sixfields), nor that they need access to the income streams. Both of those are up for negotiation. What is stopping talks is an inability, for whatever reason, of the different sides to come to the table. If it was up to me, I’d lock them all in a room until they came to an agreement.

Les has not mentioned the role of the Football League in all this. After the fiasco of allowing Wimbledon to be transferred to Milton Keynes, they declared it would never happen again. They claim to work for the benefit of “real fans”, yet they ignore the considerable evidence presented to them, break their own rules wholesale, allow the club to move to Northampton on the promise of a £1m fine if they don’t return, and openly admit that they don’t know if the club will actually come back. They have also claimed to be working to persuade all parties to talk, yet they is scant evidence of that. The evidence for their reform grows by the day.

None of the various main players in this saga have covered themselves in glory. For Les to criticise one side, or one group of supporters (with twice as many members as attend “home” matches, by the way), neither explains the situation, nor contributes to a solution."

Source: Coventry MAD


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