This blog has been quiet for a while and the reason is fairly obvious. Despite odd rumours things are very quiet on the stadium front and a number of the available relocation options for the club are either fast disappearing or have already gone. The Malaysians are embarking on their redevelopment of Battersea, the Earls Court project is edging forward in endlessly controversial fashion and even the choice of last resort for some – Old Oak Common – may be more likely to become the new Loftus Road than the new Stamford Bridge.
Our view is that the elements are almost certainly converging on two remaining possibilities – either (a) a limited and unsatisfactory expansion of Stamford Bridge or (b) no change at all. And the former will happen only with the co-operation of the ever-supportive council (questionable) and the agreement of the local community (highly unlikely). At which point we will all have to draw our own conclusions about who is responsible for leaving the club with so few options and with so many missed opportunities.
But there may just be one story to keep an eye on over the coming months. Is it possible that Earls Court may not be the completely dead duck that we are led to believe? It is true that the status of Lillie Bridge is still unclear (Transport for London has still not done a deal with CapCo and appear in no rush to do so). But even more interestingly the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham local elections are scheduled for May 2014.
For many people, local elections often seem virtually irrelevant. But in this case, this is an election which could actually make a real difference to the future of the Earls Court project and potentially also, if all various balls fall in place, to the possibility of a stadium being built in the area. Let us explain…
To begin, let us establish the view of key figures in the London Labour Party to the LBHF Tories' pet project in Earls Court. Here are a few key quotes:
"Save Earls Court Exhibition Centres from Demolition & Overdevelopment"
Stephen Cowan, Leader of the LBHF Labour Group, urging people to sign the above petition, December 2012.
"Residents are alarmed by the proposed destruction of their well-established community on the Gibbs Green and West Kensington estates, where 760 units are home to families and others living in modern flats and lovely houses with gardens. Industry experts express concern that the destruction of the exhibition space at Earls Court will cost thousands of jobs and £1 billion the facilities currently bring into the local economy."
Nicky Gavron, Labour member of the London Assembly & former Deputy Mayor, June 2013.
"Earls Court/West Ken is the Tories' biggest social engineering project, uprooting thousands of low income Londoners and replacing them with ten times the number of high–rise luxury flats for overseas and City investors. As planning authorities, the Tory mayor and councils have torn up the rule book to help their developer friends, and as landowners they have sweetened the deal with hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money. This is ideology and gerrymandering corrupting local government as never before."
Andy Slaughter, Local Labour MP, July 2013.
Based on these quotes it appears quite clear that Labour remains resolutely and unequivocally against the project in its current form. But please also note this quote:
"The challenges to this monstrous scheme are just starting, not finishing. This scheme will be continue to be fought through the courts and at the local elections next May"
Andy Slaughter, Local Labour MP Oct 2013.
It seems certain that the LBHF Labour Party will fight the next local elections on a platform of opposition to the scheme. But do they have a genuine chance to win?
The current political complexion of the 'deep blue' council in Hammersmith & Fulham is as follows:
This means that Labour will need to elect at least 24 councillors in the forthcoming election to take control of the council. To achieve that, the party will require a swing of around 4.4% in its favour which on the face of it looks achievable given the volume of local opposition to the scheme.
To support the feasibility of this outcome, current opinion polls suggest that we should expect a swing of around 7.2% from the Tories to Labour in the borough which, if this reflected actual votes in May suggests that the outcome of the election would be as follows:
This result would give Labour a working majority of 6 in Hammersmith & Fulham. But it has to be acknowledged that there are so many factors at play in the borough including opposition to the project, gentrification, the rise of UKIP and its possible impact on the Tory vote and of course national factors like the economy to suggest that no outcome is certain this far ahead of the elections. But the evidence suggests that Labour at least have a fighting chance of winning control of the council.
So we know Labour is vehemently opposed to the Earls Court Project in its current form. We also know that they may well win a majority in Hammersmith & Fulham in the local elections next May. But, if they do win, what then? Could they really stop the project from happening?
That would be difficult to imagine happening. The law on the potential revocation (or modification) of planning permission is summarised in House of Commons Standard Note SN00905. The limits of the powers of the council are explained quite clearly.
The key point to make is that while a council has some rights to revoke or modify planning permission, they cannot do it unilaterally. Once planning permission has been granted then any revocation or modification of this permission means that the applicant (in this case CapCo) can claim compensation. And the fact is that Hammersmith & Fulham council simply does not have hundreds of millions on reserves in order to pay back what CapCo as a company have already ploughed into theEarls Court project.
In addition, any decision to revoke or modify planning permission for the Earls Court Project will also have to be ratified by the Secretary of State who in this case is Eric Pickles. A Labour-led council shouldn't expect an easy ride there either.
So is that the end of the matter? Far from it. What CapCo have secured at this stage is Outline Planning Permission for the scheme which gives them broad permission to move forward with the project and which sets out certain conditions attached to the work including how the land will be parcelled up, how the phasing of the project will work, building design guidelines and so on. They have also confirmed a Section 106 agreement setting out what CapCo will do in return for permission and a Regulation 24 statement explaining the reasons why permission has been granted.
What has not been agreed at this stage are detailed plans for each part of the development. In planning law these are called 'reserved matters' and the current planning permission for the scheme acknowledges that detailed 'reserved matters' applications will follow in due course.
It is at this stage that a hypothetical Labour-led council in LBHF could cause trouble for CapCo. Although there are limits to the council's powers over the overall project, CapCo may well decide that it would make more sense to work with the new council than against them. In other words there may be some scope for negotiation on certain aspects of the overall scheme.
If this should happen then we could almost certainly expect a compromise that left the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates with a better deal and perhaps also a greater emphasis on genuinely affordable housing in the overall scheme. There could also be a deal to either save the Exhibition Centre, or perhaps more likely, an agreement to include some exhibition facilities in the revised project.
All of these changes would have the direct effect of making the Earls Court project less lucrative forCapCo. How could they deal with that loss of potential revenue from the project? Well one way might be to revisit the proposal that CapCo themselves have previously approached Chelsea FC with – that is,the idea of a stadium (along with associated conference and exhibition space) being incorporated into the scheme.
We know that CapCo are theoretically open to this idea as was the council in Kensington & Chelsea (which shares the site with LBHF). We also know that even Boris was prepared to consider the possibility (let us not forget that a large-scale cultural facility in the area was proposed in his London Plan). It is instructive to re-read the club's previous submission on the subject from last year:
[Chelsea Football Club] submit that the "creation of a new stadium, as well as additional conference and exhibition space at ECWKOA could facilitate regeneration and create a high quality flagship development, providing a gateway for London and meeting the objectives of the London Plan to provide "a strategic leisure, cultural and visitor attraction within the Opportunity Area."
Please note that CFCtruth is not suggesting at this stage that a superb new stadium on the Earls Court site for Chelsea FC is the likely outcome of the situation. It is still an incredibly long shot in our view. But we have outlined a scenario in which a stadium which incorporates exhibition and conference facilities might suddenly look like an attractive option to certain key parties compared to the current plan. And this may even be true for local residents who we know would probably have been the hardest to convince over the merits of a stadium in Earls Court. But compared to the current faceless mega-development it may just look a little more appealing.
So what are we saying? At this point all we are saying is that we should watch how things develop over the coming months. Because come 23rd May 2014 on the morning after the elections, the ground in LBHF may just have started to shift...