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Grassroots Football Wants New Independent Regulator Plan To Go Further

Key figures want the Government to force top tier clubs to give more money to the lower leagues (Alamy)

5 min read

A plan for a new football regulator has provoked scepticism from grassroots and non-league campaigners, with many claiming the new independent body will not be far-reaching enough.

The government’s new white paper on Reforming Club Football Governance has set out a plan to police the top five leagues of English football. Despite the overall success of the sport in recent years more than 60 clubs have entered administration since 1992.

The Conservative Party promised to reform English football in their 2019 manifesto. This proposal was backed by the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. The new fan-led review aims to prevent elite clubs from joining a breakaway European super league, protect teams from rogue owners and ensure all clubs are financially stable.

Financial problems have particularly affected the lower leagues, with historic clubs including Macclesfield Town, Chester City and Bury FC going out of business in recent years.

But some sport sector figures are keen for government to go further to force top-tier clubs to give more money to lower league and non-league clubs and help insulate them from financial shocks.

Niall Couper, CEO of Fair Game, which is supported by 33 professional clubs, claimed this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to change the sport’s culture and make it more redistributive.

“The regulator is a good first step but should only be seen as a baseline. There are two big areas missing. The regulator's remit needs to extend further down the pyramid and include at least National League North and South,” he told PoliticsHome.

When clubs are relegated from the Premier League to the Championship they receive parachute payments to offset potential losses of revenue.

Last year Fulham, Sheffield United, West Brom and Bournemouth made £39 million in parachute payments. According to Fair Game, this was more than the Premier League gave to clubs in League One, League Two, the National League, and the National League North and South combined.

"Football's financial flow needs a massive overhaul. The parachute payments need to go. At the moment, the Premier League gives more to a club getting relegated from the top flight than it does to all the clubs of League One, League Two, the National League, the National League North, the National League South and the top two tiers of the women's game put together,” he said.

“That's one club getting more than 140 others. A proper redistribution across the pyramid would be transformational.

“We believe the money should be given to well-run clubs, encouraging them to become better behaved. It would create a virtuous cycle.”

However, one proposal campaigners support in the white paper is the introduction of a mandatory owners’ and directors’ test, which is set to be imposed on England’s top five leagues. The new framework will ensure incoming board members have “robust financial plans” and are correctly audited.

To date, budding directors and investors do not have to prove their identification when joining a football club board.

Head of the National Game and Community ownership Andy Walsh described the current tests as “inadequate” and in “serious” need of a review. But overall he hailed the legislation as a step in the right direction for lower league clubs.

“We think having an independent regulator is a good thing. Does it cover everything we wanted to see? Does it go far enough? No, but it represents a huge step forward in reforming the game,” he told PoliticsHome.

“Clubs going bust and bankrupt have plagued the competition for decades. When a club overstretches, it distorts the competition and market for players.”

Walsh has also been campaigning on giving fans "more of a voice" when a club's ownership changes. 

His opinions were echoed by author and expert Gerry Brown who wants a “broader section of people from the community on boards of football clubs”.

"When a club shuts down it has an effect on the community. We want to get independent directors on boards for all football clubs. And we want independent directors on boards properly trained,” he told PoliticsHome.

“We have got a crisis in sport and particularly in football. In terms of its governance, football is in a dreadful state. But the regulator is not really going to make a big difference. What needs to happen is a change in behaviour in football clubs.”

The Institute for Economic Affairs, a think tank, has opposed the regulator due to the “many costs, including compliance costs and disincentives to investment and innovation.”

It claimed the new regulator would undermine property rights while making it more likely to “deter investors and volunteer workers in smaller clubs.”

It added the government has not undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the Review and regulator. 

However, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has claimed the white paper will transform the men's elite game for the better by putting fans "back at the heart" of football. 

"As part of these plans, a new independent regulator will be established to undertake new tests for prospective owners and directors of football clubs," a DCMS spokesperon told PoliticsHome.

"Football clubs are central to community life and these proposals will ensure that only fit and proper persons are allowed to be custodians of our historic clubs, better protecting them for future generations."


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