So the stadium plans are out and the planning application will be ready for submission within weeks. We at CFCtruth have not commented on the plans themselves – there is more than enough coverage out there already and we don’t see it as our role. But we have attended the consultations and have formed our own opinions of the design (which we mostly love) and of the prospect of playing for the foreseeable future at our historic home (which we are thrilled about). If that surprises you then, at the risk of repeating ourselves, we are not and have never been a ‘pro-move’ blog despite what our (former?) antagonists suggest. We remain ‘pro-club’ and ‘pro-ambition’ and the plans that we have seen are hugely ambitious and are perfectly fitting for what is a unique club who play at a unique ground. In this context we will continue to provide clear information, attempt to interpret and explain where we can and to keep the activities of LBHF in sharp focus.
That said, some of us are perhaps a little concerned that all this is just a very, very slick PR exercise at present. We remain hopeful that everything will come to fruition but we have too much knowledge of local politics, especially in relation to the planning process, to believe with any certainty that this will be all smooth sailing. We are also fully aware that, as a business decision, this project makes little sense even if we assume the (we think seriously underestimated) costs are limited to around £500m. The ‘cost per seat’ totals are horrendous. Thankfully, we are no longer looking at a pure business decision - Roman appears to want a permanent legacy for his club and who are we to argue?
What none of us could really have predicted or accounted for was the genius of Herzog and de Meuron in fitting a stunning quart-sized stadium into a beautifully located but pint-sized pot. This particular concept still remains something of a miraculous one...and we continue to wonder whether, if and when the stadium is built and once detailed work is done, the capacity might have to be reduced. The genuine limitations of the space available also gives us some concern for the eventual layout and comfort of the ground but we shall see, and the solutions to egress that are being proposed may be the answer to the problems. But they are eye-wateringly expensive solutions.
We can speculate all we want about what would have happened if the CPO had voted Yes back in October 2011. Maybe we’d be building a stadium at Old Oak Common. More likely Earls Court given what we know of what was happening at the time. Or the Stamford Bridge project could perhaps be two years ahead of where we are now. We have no wish to remove the wind from the sails of the SayNoers but we would only say that we distinctly recall all their accusations of ‘land-grabbing’ and ‘vote-rigging’ by Roman and of ‘secret plans to move the club to Milton Keynes’. We would argue strongly that the ambition and attention to detail of the current stadium plans are testament to Roman Abramovich’s good faith and good intentions from the start. This was never a get rich quick scheme for Roman – just have we have always argued.
What next for the CPO? The second consultation made it absolutely clear that the club will need to go back to the Pitch Owners to seek permission for the overall development but the precise timing for this decision is not yet confirmed. The project schedule anticipates a planning decision in early 2016 which would suggest that the CPO AGM around the beginning of next year would be a sensible opportunity for the club to approach the Pitch Owners. That said, the club’s planned work on covering the railway lines planned for 2016-2017 does not impinge on the CPO’s freehold (which takes in the pitch and the land the existing stands sit on) so a delay in asking the question is possible if not entirely logical. What will ‘the question’ be though?
Now we at CFCtruth take a relatively neutral and disinterested view of the CPO as a concept. We are Pitch Owners ourselves but we do not consider the CPO sacrosanct as many others do. Despite the myth-making, The CPO never quite 'Saved the Bridge' but it did provide handy protection against property speculators all the way from its founding in 1993 until the Stamford Bridge freehold was acquired by Matthew Harding around two years later. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of 2011, since then the CPO has become somewhat of an anachronism. In a sense, it is now a 'nice to have' rather than an essential protection for the club going forward into the future. This will become all the more true if the new stadium is built as planned at Stamford Bridge, as we will discuss below.
Going back to the upcoming 'question' though, will Roman ask the CPO to vote itself out of existence? And what should the CPO's answer be? Dedicated Facebook pages are being set up to ask just that question and there appear to be hints that things might start getting heated once again. Clearly the CPO Board is also starting to consider the issues involved and we welcome that.
So far, reports have been mixed as to whether Roman will ask the CPO to merely give permission for the development to take place and for the club to play elsewhere for three years, or if he will seek to gain full control of the Stamford Bridge freehold by getting the CPO to disband. A few second-hand reports from the consultations suggest that some people have been reassured that Roman gaining ownership of the freehold is not a pre-requisite for the new stadium to be built while other reports suggest Roman and the consultants have never even got around to discussing the issue. This seems a little unlikely to us.
So what should the CPO's response be if it is simply asked to wind itself up? As a standalone question, we are sure that it would be rejected (especially as a full 75% of votes would have to be in favour of the motion for it to pass). Why throw away a unique protection for the club however unlikely it is to be needed? But we need to consider the likely response of the CPO in the current context. What if, after Roman has raised excitement levels among Chelsea supporters to fever pitch about their shiny new Stamford Bridge, he said to the Pitch Owners that while he would be happy to pay for this amazing new stadium to be built exactly where they want it, in return they will first need to give up the CPO? What would the likely response be then?
There are various reasons Abramovich might want the CPO consigned to history and to full take full ownership of Stamford Bridge. It might be for tax or debt purposes; it might be down to pure vanity, or he may, for practical reasons, need to mortgage the value of the whole Stamford Bridge site in order to finance a development that may well cost the best part of a billion pounds. The point is if the CPO is asked to vote itself out of existence in return for a new stadium, what will its answer be? For those Pitch Owners reading this blog right now, what would your own answer be?
Various Chelsea fans are already starting to make their position clear on the issue in advance of any question:
I have no issues with the stadium expansion personally (never have had, stay or leave) but mortgaging of the freehold is a major issue to me. If the club are prepared to make this statement categoric as a commitment in writing [that is that the CPO will not need to disband and the freehold will not need to be mortgaged for the stadium to be rebuilt], it gets my instant go ahead. But not 1 minute before. 'Sid Celery' on Twitter.
In my opinion the CPO must stay and in its current form! There are no footballing reason for it being disbanded as it's only real function is allowing real fans to protect the long term future of the club we love! Surely no one who cares about the club would be opposed to an organisation that does that! Vic Locke on Facebook.
Some CPO die-hards would reject the suggestion outright, stadium or no stadium. Many more would consider the pros and cons and would then, we believe, reluctantly vote Yes. Enough to swing the vote behind dissolution? Probably yes because the momentum behind the stadium development is so emphatic now. But every Pitch Owner will have to make their own choice on the matter and we will not seek to influence the debate unless to counter petty grandstanding, misinformation or outright lies. However, we at CFCtruth would caution against the unthinking rejection of an offer to build a world class stadium for the club now in exchange for the loss of an antiquated legal safeguard which may never be required. As we have always said the best protection for the club is to be self-sufficient and the best route to self-sufficiency is our own world-class stadium.
There is one point we would like to make however. If the CPO were to vote itself out of existence, it needs to do so with caution and with a critical awareness of timing issues. Because despite CFCtruth playing down the degree of genuine protection the CPO has provided for the club over its history, it may well be approaching its moment of destiny. With the planned move away from Stamford Bridge looming in the next few years the club will be entering uncharted territory and a period of unprecedented vulnerability at which time the CPO's protection may finally be crucial.
Other clubs do not have the protection of their equivalent of the CPO but are not considered to be under constant threat. However what post-war history has shown is that clubs are in most danger when their home stadiums are sold from under them or if they are moved away from their home ground. Clubs as diverse as Leeds United, Coventry City, Charlton Athletic and Brighton have suffered from these issues over the years. Some clubs such Hereford United and Scarborough have disappeared completely at least partly due to complications over ground ownership. Chelsea is a huge club compared to the others listed but we are not immune to the dangers.
We at CFCtruth are not going to suddenly start accusing Roman of ulterior motives and we remain convinced of his good faith. But what if, in three years’ time, the CPO is gone, Stamford Bridge has been flattened, the club is happily knocking the ball around at the national stadium and then Roman falls under the proverbial bus...what then? What if the ownership of the club is passed on to someone else who wants the club to play at Wembley permanently and would prefer to scrap redevelopment plans at the Bridge and sell the land for luxury housing instead? What could we Chelsea fans do about it? Without the CPO, nothing.
Once the new stadium has been built (at huge cost) our fears will be assuaged. We just cannot conceive of any situation where it would make financial sense for a future owner of the club to just scrap a world famous, iconic stadium that cost hundreds of millions to build, in order to build flats. The financial costs and benefits of doing this could never make sense and so the building of the stadium would, in itself and in the way it would make the club so much more self-reliant, provide an almost unchallengeable level of ongoing protection for the club. For that period before Chelsea FC move back into the completed ground, however, the club is vulnerable.
For this reason we recommend that if the CPO is asked to wind itself up and the Pitch Owners consider agreeing to this request, that we do so at the right time and with a watertight level of legal protection in place to ensure that the club is absolutely certain to move back to a complete and spectacular new Stamford Bridge in due course. We are reassured by their latest minutes that the CPO Board are also considering these questions seriously.
And so we wait for the next step. For a process that seemed so moribund for such a long period everything now seems to be happening at a lightning-fast pace. The planning application is likely to be submitted in October with a decision promised mere months later. We expect the CPO to be approached by the club sometime in the same timescale and so all Chelsea Pitch Owners will need to be prepared and need to consider how to use their unique influence to best support the long-term future of our club. At Stamford Bridge.