Club & Council Stadium Partnerships: Viable for Hearts in Edinburgh?

The possibility of a partnership between Heart of Midlothian Football Club and Edinburgh Council is already dividing opinion in the capital. Many argue that public money should not be spent on financing a facility for a private business, but joint ventures between local authority and football club are not uncommon.

No fewer than 20 partnerships of some form between council and club exist in the Scottish and English leagues, and two of these were even highlighted in the report as ‘exceptional examples’ to follow.

Nothing is certain yet, but the report does put the ball firmly in Edinburgh Council’s court to decide whether or not a joint venture with Hearts would be a good move. As for redevelopment, the report concluded that this is ‘not a viable option’, and also dismissed the possibility remaining at Tynecastle without development, due to the poor condition of the stadium.

It is very clear why Hearts would be keen to find a partner to assist in funding a new stadium, as financial questions are often asked of the Gorgie club – in particular during a period where players wages have failed to materialise. The question would be why a public body such as Edinburgh Council would want to become involved. The report suggests that “there is a quantifiable need for a new community, multi-purpose venue in west Edinburgh”, and many similar partnerships have focused on the regeneration of certain areas in their towns and cities.

The Falkirk Stadium, described on the official website as “a focus for business people and the local community alike, as well as being the preferred local venue for a wide range of community and sporting events”, was opened in 2004. The funding originated from the sale of Falkirk’s previous ground, Brockville, which was purchased by supermarket chain Morrisons for £9m – although a portion of this went to paying off Falkirk FC’s outstanding debt, as well as other associated development costs. Falkirk Council then stated that the first phase of the new community stadium would cost around £6.1m, funded entirely by the sale of Brockville. Of that £6.1m, around £3.1m came from Falkirk Council and £2.8m from the club, with a further £200,000 from a National Lottery agency.

Although Falkirk are now in the Scottish First Division, following a sustained spell in the SPL, they are operating almost entirely debt free and have a very promising young side. The stadium itself offers a wide range of services, from hosting corporate events to 5-a-side football – all shown on the official website.

The Falkirk project is relatively small in comparison to what would be required for Hearts though, so a club such as Hull City is possibly a better example, and indeed the KC Stadium was specifically mentioned in the report.

The KC Stadium, with a capacity of just over 25,000, was built for an overall cost of £44m, and a staggering £42m of this was provided by Hull City Council – with the rest coming from government single regeneration budget grants and from the Football Stadium Improvement Fund. Hull City FC had been struggling financially at the turn of the century, and went into receivership in 2001, just a year prior to the new ground opening.

The stadium seemed to mark the dawn of a new era for the club though, and not only did the financial difficulties subside, but they rose from what was then the English Third Division all the way up to what we now recognise as the Championship, with back to back promotions in 2004 and 2005. Even in Hull’s first season at the new stadium, they averaged almost 17,000 fans each week, a figure that was more than three times the average Third Division attendance for that season.

The stadium was also named “Best Ground” at the 2006 Football League Awards. Eventually, Hull reached the top of the ladder and gained promotion to the English Premier League in 2008, although they only remained at this level for two seasons. A return to the Football League meant financial problems for the side, but this was mainly due to a £39m wage bill that remained from their period in the top flight.

These join ventures have not only proven successful in Scotland and England, but also in Wales. Premier League newcomers Swansea City currently play their home matches at the impressive Liberty Stadium. A quick look at the stadium website shows that, similarly to Falkirk, there are a host of events and services available, not only top flight football matches.

In the late 20th century it became clear that Swansea had outgrown Vetch Field, their 11,000 capacity home ground at the time, but lacked the financial resources to fund a new purpose built stadium. Swansea City Council stepped in, and luckily owned a perfect site for the new arena, the Morfa Athletics Stadium and adjacent playing fields, located a couple of miles outside the city centre. Swansea has roughly half the population of Edinburgh, but with just a single professional football club, so it would seem an appropriate model for Hearts to follow.

What the council decided to do was to include additional land in the development to create ‘the potential for a major mixed-use retail and leisure development opportunity’. A consortium was invited to submit a proposal for a sustainable ‘bowl’ venue with just over 20,000 seats on a site to the west of the river, funded by 355,000ft retail park on land to the east of the river. The overall development came to a final cost of around £50m, although the stadium itself was little over half of that, at £27m.

Swansea have since risen to the dizzy heights of the Premier League, becoming the first Welsh side to compete in the division, and the Liberty Stadium has averaged almost a full house every game, 19,708 to be precise.

There are countless more examples of partnerships between football clubs and local councils that have proven very successful, certainly for the clubs themselves. Some ventures have proven problematic, but more often than not this is when a club is relocated too far from their original home – Clyde being a prime example.

It would seem that Hearts will look only at the west of Edinburgh for a new stadium location, which will hopefully avoid any such issues. The real question for many, in particular Edinburgh residents, will be whether or not a joint venture involving the council is really beneficial for the community, not just Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

There are plenty of areas in the west of Edinburgh that appear to be crying out for ‘regeneration’, but local amenities such as sports facilities and public services would surely cost far less than a state of the art, purpose built football stadium. Then again, such a facility offers a variety of possibilities when it comes to event hosting, as well as the fact the joint venture would mean that Hearts themselves would probably be financing much of the project as well.

Personally, I find it difficult to look at the situation without my maroon tinted spectacles blurring my vision, even just slightly. My club needs a new stadium, and I don’t believe we have the means to fund an appropriate project ourselves – so this potential partnership looks very tempting. And such joint ventures, as I’ve illustrated above, are not uncommon in the UK. However, I can fully understand the scepticism of an Edinburgh resident who has no interest in football, or doesn’t support Hearts. Ultimately the council themselves will have to make an informed decision on the viability of such a move, and weigh up the benefits for the city of Edinburgh and its residents.

L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire