Helen Martin: It’s time heads won over Hearts

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Dear Council,

Our commercial business premises need to improve and expand. As business models go, we’re not in great shape, with multi-million-pound debts despite our attempts at debt-for-equity deals. Oh... and we pay thousands of pounds a week to several employees... some of the biggest salaries in the land.

We also require a considerable police presence in order to operate.

In view of all that, I am sure you will be delighted to, on behalf of the council tax payers, gift us many acres of public land to facilitate this expansion.

I must warn you that we will only accept your offer if it is (in accordance with our recent customer survey) within five miles of our current premises – regardless of whether said land has been earmarked for much needed housing or anything else – otherwise, the deal’s off.

Cheers,

Hearts FC

MY heart sinks at the thought that Edinburgh city council might actually go along with this, for so many reasons I barely know where to start.

The council (like Hearts) doesn’t exactly have a good record when it comes to entrepreneurial business decisions. A joint venture between them has all the hallmarks of another fiscal tragedy.

In fact, it can only be a disastrous omen, rather than mere coincidence, that the proposed Sighthill site is on the troubled tram route.

The pay-off (which is at the least an overstatement) for the hard-pressed council tax payer, is that the new Hearts stadium would have benefits for “the wider community”, such as a home for Edinburgh Rugby. Oh great! A mini-team of the SRU, another private concern, which is currently labouring under debts of £15 million.

To be fair, it may also include outdoor pitches, a fitness centre (how many fitness centres does one city need?) and some school sports facilities.

Sighthill is hardly a central location for city schools; almost impossibly time-consuming for many to access during the week; and for most of the time, especially weekends, we can pretty much assume Hearts would have primacy over the whole site. On match days, large “wider community” events wouldn’t get a look-in.

Under normal circumstances, one could argue that as one of our two city clubs, Hearts has a place in the tradition of the Capital. If goals and major international trophies were rolling in, if the club was in good financial shape and the City Chambers were sloshing about in spare money from a booming economy, there might be a case for it.

Today, when some people in the city can’t afford to eat, when services are being cut and we are all already saddled with the burden of paying off the trams fiasco, it has emerged that the council faces a £97m gap in its finances over the next three years and has to make £22.5m in cuts over the next year. It’s hardly the time to be giving away land – particularly land that could be used for housing.

And so to the Council’s obligations to the team and the fans. To fans (a derivative of the word “fanatics”) their team’s football is everything. They are passionate, they wound with loss and are ecstatic in victory. And they are loyal to the point of shelling out nearly £250 for a season ticket and around a tenth of that for one match. They are not all rich but even with fuel prices and food costs rocketing and any savings dwindling away in the recession, they will find that money. That is their right. And they are council tax payers, too.

But the rest of us, the majority, don’t buy into their blind adoration. The club is not a community asset. It is a private enterprise that can’t look after its own finances let alone be trusted with a hand-out from the public.

The council insists any partnership would have to be “cost-neutral”, which I understand to mean no additional financial input and getting back those “wider community” benefits. But what of the land as an asset itself? How much would it be worth to a housebuilder or any other purchaser, from whom we could possibly, even in the future when things might have improved, get money to off-set the soaring debt we are now building up?

The alternatives for Hearts include a venture with Sir David Murray Estates, which seems like a much better idea... an entrepreneurial football fan who happens to have land near the airport and who, unlike the council, knows how to put a deal together without bankrupting himself.

The economic mantra of investing our way out of financial collapse is fine for those who have money to invest. The council has nothing. It “invests” and spends on our behalf, then reclaims the money from us. We may have to put up with the government doing that now. All the more necessary that the council counts its pennies, is prudent, spends only what is essential, and protects rather than gives away our public assets.