It’s never a dull life being a Birmingham City fan. On the pitch the club has flirted with relegation to League One in four of the last five seasons, while off the pitch the tangled web that is the ownership has only got more tangled.
When the club reported in December 2020 that a council inspection had closed off two of the stands at St Andrew’s, I think most of us Blues fans thought “huh, typical Blues”. While in normal times it would make things very difficult, with the country in covid-restricted lockdown it seemed like a fortuitious timing to get it all sorted without affecting fans.
I don’t want to get into the story of what happened in this piece; I’ve done that on my own website in detail last week.
Instead, as I’ve used this occasional Medium Blog in the past I want to use this article to talk about what I’m doing about this myself, and why.
Freedom of Information
One of the biggest problems we have in all this is I don’t think anyone actually knows what is going on. There have been rumours that it’s all some sort of ruse and there is nothing wrong; equally there have been rumours that the whole lot has to be demolished and rebuilt.
While I’m sure the truth lies between those two extremities, I think it’s important to know what the truth is — and to get that objectively from a party which doesn’t have skin in the game.
When all this originally broke at the end of last year, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Birmingham City Council asking questions about the inspection of the stadium. I never got a response — whether that was due to lockdown or it being lost in the system I don’t know but with the recent issues I’ve decided to try again.
However, rather than just trust in the system I think it best to report exactly what I have requested (and why) here. I have also sent my request for information by recorded delivery to the council to ensure it is dealt with.
I have asked four questions in my request.
The first question I asked was:
1) Please can you confirm the reasons for closure of the Tilton and Kop Stands following an annual inspection of the Stadium that was made by Birmingham City Council, and what remedies were required. This was reported by Birmingham City FC on December 16, 2020 here: https://bcfc.com/news/articles/2020/temporary-closure-to-tilton-and-kop-stands/ and confirmed by Councillor Ian Ward in this tweet posted on August 13, 2021: https://twitter.com/BrumLeader/status/1426165026524745728?s=20
I think it’s important to understand what is exactly wrong with the stands. I’m not expecting an engineers report; if only for the reason that I wouldn’t understand one if it was offered. However, with some defined specifics it’s possible for fans who know this field to be able to offer an informed opinion without having to work from what might be incorrect assumptions.
I’m hoping that with some detail it will be easier to understand how much of the problem comes down to a failure of the original building, and how much comes down to wear and tear.
The second question I asked was:
2) Please can you confirm if the work outlined above was raised at previous inspections by yourselves; if so, what remedies were required, and what sanctions were to be put in place if they were not completed.
I asked this question because I wanted to understand why this is a problem now. If the council have spotted potential work before and it’s not been dealt with, then there are questions that need to be asked about that.
Howevr, if the work required is a wear and tear issue that hasn’t been seen before, then the question has to be asked why the council have not made note of it before, or why it has suddenly worsened to become this level of an issue.
The third question I asked was:
3) Can you confirm the date of the Safety Advisory Group Meeting as reported by Birmingham City Football Club on July 16, 2021 https://www.bcfc.com/news/articles/2021/club-update-2/; whether a safety certificate was issued; if no safety certificate was issued the reasons no certificate was issued. If no Safety Advisory Group meeting took place, please can you confirm why not.
This for me is a crucial question, because the Safety Advisory Group (SAG) would be the ones to sign off the stand as being finished. The club published this update in July but there was no further mention of the SAG meeting despite them saying that there would be.
If a safety certificate was refused then there would be reasons why, which would indicate the club knew in mid-July exactly what needed to be done to be ready in time.
If the SAG didn’t meet at all, then the question is why not and why didn’t the club report any cancellation / postponement?
4) Can you confirm if the Council advised Birmingham City Football Club if a safety certificate was likely to be issued for any part of the Tilton or Kop stands in time for the home game with Stoke City on August 14?
One of the most puzzling parts for me in all this is that the club have said that they didn’t know that things weren’t going to be ready for the game with Stoke yesterday only on Tuesday afternoon — and that they can’t guarantee that works will be ready for the game on September 10.
What I want to establish is what happened on Tuesday. If the council come back and say that nothing was scheduled, then fingers need to be pointed at the club. If the council say that suddenly something else was added, then questions need to be asked about that.
Questions for the club
While the Freedom of Information Act 2000 makes it possible to ask questions of a public body, it doesn’t work on private businesses such as Birmingham City Football Club plc.
As has been proven with Supporters Forum meetings, the club will hold these at their convenience, with an agenda of their choosing answering questions in the manner they see fit. This is only to be expected — it’s a thing to “control the narrative” and in these sorts of situations the club has all the power. While fans might have a moral right to ask questions, there is no right to demand an answer.
However, I am in a slightly different position to other fans at the club.
As a shareholder in the Hong Kong listed parent company Birmingham Sports Holdings Limited, I have a legal right to ask questions of the company which affect my investment — and I can demand an answer.
With this is mind I emailed Robert Yam Pui Hung (who is company secretary at BSH) on Saturday some questions. Again, as emails can go astray I have sent a letter by registered mail to the principal place of business in Hong Kong.
Again, I have asked four questions.
1) Can you confirm that the cost of repairs quoted by BCFC plc Chief Operating Officer Lungi Macebo at a recent Fans Forum (August 3) as “£2.5million plus unforeseen costs” is accurate? The minutes from the meeting are online here: https://www.bcfc.com/media/32236/final_supporters_forum_minutes-2.pdf
I have asked this question as it’s important to have some sort of idea of how big these repairs are, and to dispel the rumours that there is nothing wrong with the stand. £2.5million is about 10% of the yearly revenues of the club, so it’s also important to understand the scale of that in relation to the club, so that we can understand the financial implications.
2) Can you confirm what the unexpected delay was to the repair of the upper part of the stands was (as reported on bcfc.com here https://bcfc.com/news/articles/2021/club-statement-kop-and-tilton-stands/ ) which has meant that they will not be open for either of the opening two home league games, causing massive disruption to ticketing?
This question is to the point, but one that I think needs answering directly. The delay has been very expensive for the club; thousands of tickets refunded, lots of man-hours used up trying to sort out revised ticketing for the Stoke and Bournemouth games and a huge police bill for the Stoke game in fear that fans were going to rush the stadium. All of that money spent on those things is money the club cannot invest elsewhere; be it the team or the stadium.
3) Can you confirm what remedies the club have put in place to ensure that any further delays will be communicated in a timely manner to ensure that there are no further issues with tickets being sold for stands which may not be in use?
As much as we need to understand who and what is to blame for the problems that the extended closure of the stands has caused, it’s important to see that things are being resolved in a manner so it doesn’t happen again. This requires understanding of what processes went wrong, and what the club needs to do better.
4) Can you confirm that as per the profit and loss sharing agreement outlined in the circular dated November 16, 2020, that any losses made by the club will be compensated by Oriental Rainbow Investment Ltd so that Birmingham Sports Holdings Ltd will remain unaffected?
This is a technical financial question, but one which I feel is also very pertinent right now. When Vong Pech’s Oriental Rainbow Investments bought 21.64% of the club (and 25% of the stadium), they guaranteed to BSH that they would cover any losses the club made in the Championship. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter so much that the club have had to fork out for these repairs because someone has had to put their hand in their pocket for it.
What concerns me is that the money for these repairs will come out of money to run the club; which puts a strain on every other budget and probably would ensure that the club would need to sell a big player to keep things running smoothly — something I don’t think anyone wants to see.
While I get that some people out there are cynical of me writing letters and asking questions, I think that having accurate answers helps us as fans to understand what is happening better, which helps us to make a more informed decision about what to feel about it.
I’m also hopeful that by asking questions I’m forcing others to think about how they reply and maybe what has happened that shouldn’t in their respective positions. If they can reflect and improve, that helps everything in the long run.