The disturbances on the night of August 6th following a vigil for local man Mark Duggan, allegedly shot by police three days earlier, became the spark that ignited the most widespread and sustained civil disobedience in Britain since the early 80s. Yet Tottenham remains the area that has suffered the most. As well as the damage to property that resulted in the subsequent demolition of several buildings, up to 200 people were made homeless. Urgent calls for donations of food, clothing and nappies were reminiscent of disaster appeals. A leisure centre provided emergency shelter for families in need.
The burnt-out Carpetright store heavily featured on the news is a few hundred yards from the ground but the club remained unscathed apart from some damage to the ticket office. Tottenham High Road, the main route to the ground by car and public transport, remained closed for several days, causing the postponement of the season’s opening fixture against Everton.
Tottenham is an area of considerable social deprivation. Tottenham Hotspur, regularly in the world’s top 15 in terms of annual income, falls within a ward that is amongst the 5% most deprived in England, while in Tottenham as a whole 80.3% of children live in low-income homes. It is natural therefore that both local residents and politicians should look to the club, the largest local private employer, as a major partner as the rebuilding begins.
Victoria Hart lives on the High Road and spent a long Saturday night comforting a frightened and bewildered 6 year old as the troubles raged outside her window. Not a fan, she is nevertheless convinced that the club has an essential contribution to make in restoring the health and well-being of this fractured community.
“We all feel very damaged by the riots and the destruction around us. We want to retain a pride in Tottenham but it’s difficult when the press perception seems to be of a locality where a riot was ‘just bound’ to happen. I hope the football club, being one of the really identifiable places on the High Road, can help us to rebuild. And I really mean more emotionally than financially.”
Early signs were positive. Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy swiftly promised support now and in the future:
“The Club is committed to supporting its community with help with both the physical clean-up of our area and the longer term rebuilding of community spirit. It is more critical than ever that community, business and political leaders…now work closely together to support the regeneration of this area and we shall certainly look to play our part in that.”
The fans responded too. Many travelled to Tottenham on their spare Saturday to labour alongside local people as the clean-up continued, whilst an internet appeal of behalf of 89 year old barber Aaron Biber raised over £35,000 as word spread amongst the messageboards and twitterati. The refurbished shop was reopened by Peter Crouch, looking decidedly edgy despite the carefully choreographed photo opportunity as Biber approached from behind with clippers in hand.
Otherwise it was left to Benoit Assou Ekotto to respond on behalf of the players. This comes as little surprise to Spurs fans. Derided by Hansen and Dixon from the comfort of the MOTD sofa, the full-back is fast attaining cult status for both his dashing if occasionally risky performances and his grounded attitude. Travelling London by public transport, he’s made a conscious effort to be close to the city and its people, eschewing the trappings of celebrity in order to ‘live a normal life’. Aware of his own impoverished upbringing, he understands that football is part of something much bigger. It is he rather than the British players who talks earnestly to local people a few days after the disturbances.
The club has developed an increasing awareness of the community over the past few years. In 2007 they invested £4.5m in a Foundation that boasts a proud record of achievement: 470 hours of sporting and education sessions for children a week, support for the unemployed, a chance for the homeless and adults with learning disabilities to play football plus the highest rate of charitable giving in the Premier League.
Yet the local impact is questionable. Mark Perryman, author, co-founder of Philosophy Football and West Stand season ticket holder, trenchantly dismisses the club’s performance in the 25 years he’s lived locally:
“The club makes the name of the borough known worldwide but otherwise I don’t see what it gives the area. Away from the ground itself the club’s presence physically is almost non-existent and it’s painfully obvious how disconnected the club is. It’s just not a significant institution in the community in which I live.”
The club’s investment in ‘Football in the Community’ schemes is generous and laudable, but the question is, which community? The popular coaching sessions and soccer schools reach out primarily to the relatively affluent suburban fan bases in Hertfordshire and Essex rather than the N17 estates and thus are designed to win fans rather than directly benefit the local community.
Perryman also casts doubt on their claim as a major employer, pointing out that most of the jobs are on matchdays only and are not filled by local people. Also, some of the highest ticket prices in the country mean locals cannot afford to watch their team.
This problem is not confined to Spurs. Rather, it’s one of the consequences of the modern game as supporter demographics change in response to increased prices and the blurring of social boundaries. Perryman again:
“London clubs aren’t London clubs, they’re Home Counties clubs. Those who can afford season tickets don’t live in inner London. They are not in the community where those kids emerged from. Where I sit, they [fellow supporters] don’t seem to like Tottenham as a place. There may have been a connection a generation or so ago, not now.”
The meaning of all this is not lost on Victoria Hart: “I’d say a lot of people like me who live locally retained a kind of benign neutrality towards the club. It is a part of the local area and the local history and of course, carries the name of the place we call home but especially recently with the attempts to bid for the Olympic Stadium, we didn’t kid ourselves that they’d really rather be further out towards Essex where most of the fan base seem to live.”
This is the paradoxical nature of the Hotspur in Tottenham, an attachment to an area but distant and out of reach at the same time. “I see the fans coming and going past our homes and regard them fondly but I’ve never been to a Spurs match – too expensive!”
Her words hint at the most revealing measure of the club’s relationship to the community of which it has been an integral part for 129 years, the planning for a new ground. Precisely as he talks about increased community engagement, Levy is actively exploring a move away from Tottenham entirely. Economics overrides history or community responsibility when it comes to the option of the Olympic Park site in east London to replace the venerable but creaking White Hart Lane, which will be cheaper to build and generate greater income from non-football activity. Undeterred by opposition from a large and vocal section of the fans and a public aghast that Spurs propose to demolish the Olympic stadium built with taxpayers money and which will be the focus of world attention for two weeks next summer, Levy is keeping the option open for as long as possible. Even the decision to award West Ham the dubious honour did not stop him launching an expensive and ultimately successful judicial review. His sympathetic and compassionate support for the local community suddenly sounds decidedly hollow.
The alternative is a 56,250 capacity ground with an ‘end’ and stands close the pitch right next to White Hart Lane. Properly called the Northumberland Development Project, it includes housing, a hotel, supermarket and renovated listed buildings. Together with improved transport links it should reinvigorate the area as well as the finances of the football club. Supporters’ groups continue the campaign to stay in Tottenham but now the project takes on a significance greater than merely preserving the club’s heritage.
It’s an ill wind and although the area lost out on the latest round of government regeneration money, the recent problems have boosted the case for grants from the Regional Growth Fund, which could cut the costs Spurs will incur in upgrading public transport links and other improvements around the ground, costs they have long claimed should come from the public purse. It would not be factor if they moved to Stratford, of course.
I have asked the club for a comment regarding their response to the community in the wake of the riots but they have not replied. Levy would say that he must do the best for the club. His business acumen has left the club financially secure and has won grudging admiration from most fans, even those who wanted greater investment in the team over the last two years. His deadline-day brinkmanship has become legendary and I respect his refusal to pay over the odds. However, for every great deal – Lennon, Keane and a pound of flesh from a destitute Leeds comes to mind – there have been opportunities missed because of his refusal to compromise. He would do well to ensure that he doesn’t make the same mistake over what is effectively the future of the club.
His decision is further complicated by the increased number of stakeholders who are now part of the equation. As chairman he is duty bound to keep the PLC on a sound financial footing. However, the interests of shareholders seeking a profit may not not be the same as fans wanting success on the pitch. Also, to ascertain the intentions of his employer, ENIC, look no further than the name: it’s an Investment company looking for long term return, which may best be served by making the club ready for a sale.
In addition, there’s now a responsibility to the local community who desperately want the club to stay where it is, a powerful argument that cuts little or no ice on the balance sheet. Indeed, these aims are in direct conflict with those of investors. In my experience of working in the charitable sector, private companies are comfortable with activities like fund-raising and donations but less sure-footed when it comes to the openness and adherence to goals that are not easily measured that true engagement requires. He may have to adjust his approach.
One outcome could please everyone, however: the riots as leverage for assistance to make the NDP a profitable option again. Some characterise Levy as a ruthless negotiator but it is a cold hard fact that the disturbances have suddenly shifted the financial impasse. In late August, London mayor Boris Johnson made available a large sum, at least £8m, to cover these infrastructure costs on condition that Spurs dropped the review. Even MP David Lammy thought agreement had been reached but the following day Spurs tuned up in court and went ahead as if nothing had happened.
The deadline for another offer came and went this week. ENIC say the City Hall deadline is unreasonable, and “the correct level” of public money is “critical … to create a community with hope and prospects … We cannot be expected to do this single-handedly.” Levy clearly believes the offer will not go away just because the deadline has passed. However, there may come a time when local politicians find better ways of spending their £8m windfall.
Another stakeholder has recently entered the fray. Spurs Future is a loose collective of fans who has have submitted detailed proposals to the club regarding a ‘community share’. Basically, this allows for up to £50m of investment from fans and other sources who purchase shares or bonds for the purpose of financing ventures of a community purpose. A return on the investment is possible and it encourages greater participation and involvement. I understand talks have taken place with the club but it’s at an early stage. £50m could come in handy for ENIC but they may baulk at ceding any influence over the running of the club to supporters. There’s also the question of how fans see the idea of giving this prodigious sum to a company owned by Joe Lewis, a man worth £2.8bn and 6th on the world football richlist.
Talking with residents, the club is part of their lives and has the potential to be the focus for their determination to rebuild relationships as well as bricks and mortar. The stadium project, important though it may be, is not in itself enough. “I have no great faith in the idea that stadia can regenerate an area,” says Mark Perryman, concerned about the future of his community and his club. “Spurs has to develop a relationship with those estates where the kids live,” says Mark Perryman. “They must develop dialogue not summer schools.”
I leave the last word with Victoria Hart. “I hope it helps the club and the community work together to make Tottenham a better place. That would help and it would help emotionally as we residents feel a little abandoned at the moment. We always needed the club but we need it a whole lot more now.”