New independent regulator needed to protect English football clubs and give working-class fans a greater voice
Ahead of the much-anticipated publication of the Government White Paper on the creation of a new independent regulator for English football (IREF), think-tank ResPublica warns that it must not be an ‘owners’ and directors’ charter’ and must ensure that the game’s fans are treated as highly-valued stakeholders and given a greater voice at both club and national level.
In its latest report, “Playing by the Rules: Football Governance in England”, ResPublica gives its backing to the fan-led Crouch review published in November 2021. The report produced for the supporters-first campaign For Fans Too, argues that the existing system of self-governance in English football is broken and has all too often marginalised the concerns of working-class fans who view their clubs as vital community assets. The report makes the case for a new independent regulator which should, by statute, have the ability to ensure greater financial sustainability, social responsibility, and cultural protection in English football.
ResPublica says that along with introducing strengthened owners’ and directors’ tests, the new independent regulator should impose a new financial settlement where the vast wealth of the Premier League is more evenly distributed throughout the football league pyramid and the grassroots game. The report concludes that the current system of parachute payments for clubs relegated from the top tier of English football is not fit for purpose - perpetuating inequalities in English club football and ultimately consolidating the Premier League’s monopoly dominance.
ResPublica argues that a new regulator for English Football should require all clubs to consider how best they ensure that the voice of fans is considered in making decisions that affect its long-term sustainability. It also calls for greater supporter-based representation on national bodies such as the FA Council and the EFL Board of Directors – individuals who can be elected into such positions through the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA).
ResPublica further argues that the UK government can inject much-needed life into its flagging ‘levelling-up’ agenda by placing football clubs at the heart of local plans for economic regeneration and social cohesion. The report contends that football clubs can be the centre of public-private partnerships that can help to lift educational and employment outcomes in left-behind areas, as well as having the unique potential to bring together different ethnic and religious communities through a shared sense of place-based pride.
The report by ResPublica makes the following recommendations:
The IREF should have the power to prevent English football clubs from competing in domestic competitions should they chose to join new competitions – such as the proposed ‘new-look’ European Super League (ESL).
The IREF should introduce robust owners’ and directors’ tests – establishing a comprehensive assessments system that examines the historic business practices and financial record of potential owners.
The IREF should be given sufficient powers to impose a new financial settlement for the game. One possible option is for the new IREF to have the power to implement a levy on the Premier League’s broadcasting-related income.
The resources for the new IREF should be funded through the implementation of a progressive levy within English club football. the levy-generated finances for the will predominantly derive from the coffers of Premier League clubs.
The IREF should have parliamentary oversight and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should act as the ‘parent department’ - making the new regulatory agency accountable to ministers and the subject of select committee scrutiny.
The IREF should require all clubs to consider how best they ensure that the voice of fans is considered in making decisions that affect its long-term sustainability e.g. boards to include a democratically elected representative of the club’s Supporters Trust.
An experienced Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) officer specialising in matters of inclusion and anti-discrimination should be required to sit on the club board, with this being enforced by the IREF.
UK government should reenergise its flagship levelling-up policy to co-ordinate with football charities and foundations to develop the capacity of local communities to, for example, improve health outcomes, raise educational attainment and employment prospects.
The role that England’s football clubs can play in facilitating stronger community relations should be explored in greater depth by the UK government's Independent Adviser for Social Cohesion and Resilience as part of broader political efforts to tackle extremism.
Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica said:
“Reform has long been promised and has yet to be made manifest. England gave birth to the world game, but we are betraying it at source. While there is a referee on the pitch there is none in the board room, time to get the owners and backers of English Football to play by the rules or there will be no game left to play.”
Dr Rakib Ehsan, Report Author, said:
“Football clubs in England are not simply commercial enterprises of the private sector – they are vital community assets of social and cultural significance. All too often in English football, local clubs with rich histories and long-standing traditions have been reduced to being the playthings of irresponsible owners and reckless directors.
The current system of self-governance in football is broken. It will only result in more football clubs like Bury and Macclesfield Town disappearing. It is time for the creation of a new independent regulator for English football that prioritises financial sustainability and social responsibility, as well as providing loyal supporters with a stronger say over matters of club identity and heritage.”
ResPublica is an independent non-partisan think tank. Through our research and policy innovation, we seek to establish a new economic, social and cultural settlement. We aim to combat the concentration of wealth and power by distributing ownership and agency to all, and by re-instilling culture and virtue across our economy and society.
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