This morning Yeovil Town fans woke up in the knowledge that our club is no longer the owner of the ground on which Huish Park stands.
It may well have been the case for a number of days (weeks?) before 2pm on Friday afternoon when South Somerset District Council (SSDC) and the club announced that a £2.8m deal had been completed for the council to buy Huish Park and the land around it and rent it back to the club.
Nearly 32 years after we moved in, we are now tenants in the place we call ‘home’.
So what do we know about the deal? Well, the statement from chairman Scott Priestnall spoke about why the sale was required and what the money would be used for, and SSDC gave its views on the deal.
Their respective messages were consistent – the club lost huge amounts money throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it needs a cash boost and a way to unlock the land at Huish Park for development to safeguard its future.
Having read through it all, there’s a couple of comments on both sides I felt were worthy of further inspection:
Scott Priestnall: “The deal provides valuable funds to the club, in what has been a very difficult period financially and operationally. We utilised all government schemes available to us during the pandemic, but unfortunately those funds did not meet our ongoing cash requirement, never mind allow us to grow.”
There’s absolutely no question the pandemic was a hugely difficult time for all businesses and our football club was no exception. As the chairman rightly says, it furloughed a number of employees to cut its costs to the bare bones, took advantage of grants available to clubs, benefited from more than £50,000 raised by its supporters through a Crowdfunder and has borrowed almost £1m from Sport England. What is an interesting question though is the contradiction between the chairman’s statements from a little under a month ago that the club was in “a pretty healthy” financial position. If that is true, why do we need to sell our only true assets? As one supporter put it, on the face of it it’s a bit like selling your car to pay for the petrol.
Scott Priestnall: “The funds will help pay for costs incurred during the pandemic such as deferred payments with some of our key partners and deferred salaries to our incredible staff and players who accepted a reduction in wages during lockdown when the club could not operate.”
If there are individuals or business the club owes money to, it can only be right that this ‘windfall’ enables these debts to be met. No question. However, what of the other debts? We know we owe Sport England £998,538 in monies that, only a couple of weeks ago the Chairman said the Sports Minister was “working to get written off“. So, unless his view on that situation has changed in just under a month, one assumes those debts will not be paid.
So what of the £1.35m the chairman borrowed from Poole-based lender MSP Capital to complete the purchase of the club back in 2019? In the words of Somerset Live back then, the move by Priestnall to secure the loan he took out against the club’s land assets “effectively acts as a mortgage against the stadium.” At that time, he spoke about the loan as “a facility to help us move forward with the land” – a similar reason to given yesterday to justify the sale to the council through the removal of “restrictive convenants” which have prevented land around Huish Park being developed – it all costs money, right?
Scott Priestnall: “When I first came into the Club, I saw the opportunity to grow this already amazing Club into an organisation off the pitch that could provide revenues all week, not just on match days. While I had very positive conversations with local planning, developers and funding partners, the pandemic delayed our options to grow, at the same time causing huge financial difficulties to our ongoing operations.”
There’s no doubt that Scott Priestnall, like his predecessors Norman Hayward and John Fry, see value in unlocking the value of the Huish Park site – and who could argue with the principle of developments which could create a long-term, sustainable income for the club? Certainly not me, it’s worked for clubs up and down the country and the lifting of covenants on the use of the land seemingly frees the club up to do so.
What could development look like? The simple truth is we don’t know and won’t know until the club unveils its “long-term vision for Huish Park” which the chairman says will happen “over the next year“. One insight came from the Glovers’ Trust back in March 2021 when it published a map showing a ‘Concept Plan’ of potential development of the land which showed the entire car park developed for flats and houses, accommodation for players alongside the current 3G pitch, alongside at least one shop, a sports clinic and a hotel.
I welcome the money raised by the sale enabling the club “to sensibly invest in required maintenance work and our playing squad” whilst paying down the debts it has incurred due to the pandemic, but if we are expected to pay an annual rent to SSDC, how is the development of the Huish Park site going to help us do this?
A hotel, shop or sports clinic paying a regular rental to the club or social facilities able to bring a seven-day-a-week income would achieve this. But simply building and selling property – whether houses, flats, shops, hotels or alike – is a short-term strategy which does not answer the question of – who pays the rent?
“It is important to remember that it is not the council’s intention nor desire to play any part in the running of the football club, which will remain a matter for the shareholders. Our interest is to help with the club’s survival, generate a new rental income, while protecting our ratepayers from loss or excessive risk.”
Not the chairman’s words this time, but those of SSDC’s Portfolio Holder for Economic Development, John Clark, the councillor for Yeovil Summerlands.
A number of councils have pots of cash waiting to invest in schemes they will be profitable for them and, as organisations not seeking to make a quick profit, can invest for the long term. When its District Executive signed off the £2.8m investment in December 2020, the council confirmed it would “provide a yield of around 7%” which was “line with the approved target level of commercial returns.” Speaking at the meeting which decided the deal, then-Chief Executive Alex Parmley said: “We’re not spending money on a football club or giving them taxpayers’ money – we’re investing in the land. We’ll have a significant land asset with a value at the end of it.” To put it simply, this deal is good business for SSDC.
In his statement, Scott Priestnall spoke about how there would be “those that put a negative spin” on the deal. He – and maybe you – may think this blog is an attempt to do that. I would argue there is no more “spin” in his blog than in the club and council’s own statements. Questions are healthy in any democracy – the chairman himself said just under a month ago that he had “no problem with criticism” and therefore I am sure will have no issue with my questions. They are asked out of a desire to see the club thrive, that’s all any fan wants, right?
When I was first becoming a Yeovil Town supporter, the club made its move from Huish to Huish Park, under the stewardship of then-chairman Gerry Lock. It was a move which almost sent the club under due to long-running planning enquiries, the rising cost of land – many other things which have been the subject of podcasts, if you are interested- listen here. Lock’s vision was to create a stadium and facility which was the envy of clubs all over the country – and he did, but almost at a huge cost.
Is this decision Scott Priestnall’s ‘Gerry Lock Moment’?
In “the next year” we have been promised sight of the long-term vision for Huish Park and, if this ultimately benefits the football club, you’ll hear no complaints from me. Like so many things, we’ll just have to wait and see.
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