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BST Gazette Column 05/10/2018

BST05/10/2018

While fans hold fast to the belief that we are witnessing the (somewhat protracted) end of days for the Oystons at Blackpool FC, in the absence of any significant new developments in the last two months social media has been awash with various debates about whether, after regime change, Blackpool will needs fans groups any longer – as if removal of the Oystons will be ‘mission accomplished’.

Many people still mistakenly assume that BST was formed with the sole objective of protesting against and seeking to remove the Oystons. Not so. It is just that there was such an obvious issue of inappropriate behaviours to be addressed that campaigning for regime change was seen as a necessary first step to putting right so many of the structural things that have gone wrong at our club. Those things will still need to be put right and BST is so much more than a pressure group to oust the current owners.

This week then, a bit of a back-to-basics piece on what a Supporters’ Trust is all about and why it should be of continuing relevance in the years to come, not only here at Blackpool but at sporting institutions up and down the country.

One of the great ironies of the past decade is that it was Karl Oyston who first raised the question of whether Blackpool would benefit from establishing a properly constituted Supporters’ Trust along the lines advocated by Supporters Direct. The prevailing opinion at that time (Oyston’s and the committee of Blackpool Supporters Association) was that Supporters Trusts were only for clubs that were in dire straits…and Blackpool was the ‘envy of the football league’!

Fast-forward just a few months to the autumn of 2013, amidst increasing fan unrest, the formation of SISA as a truly independent voice of the fans and the decision, not taken lightly, to reconstitute SISA as a full-blown Supporters’ Trust.

The reason that decision was not taken lightly was because of the rigorous requirements that need to be met in setting up a Trust – a legally-constituted Community Benefit Society with a formal set of rules, some specific official roles and a requirement to be FCA compliant on an annual basis as well as continuing to meet the strict governance criteria laid down by Supporters Direct.

Consequently BST was established in early 2014 as a fully independent, democratic (one member – one vote), non-profit-making co-operative of Blackpool supporters, open and affordable to all fans, totally transparent in its dealings and with all of its aims and policies decided by a majority of the membership. Its officers are entirely voluntary, are democratically elected and wholly answerable to the membership. Its stated claim to be acting for the benefit of all fans (and not just its members) stems from its status as a Community Benefit Society. The purpose of a CBS is to serve the broader interests of the community, in contrast to co-operative societies that serve the interests of members.

The key aims of BST include:
- representing the best interests of the members and the club at all times
- holding the club’s owners to account in the interests of the community
- achieving supporter representation at board level
- strengthening the bonds between club and community
- promoting football as an activity and focus for community involvement
- giving supporters a shareholding as well as a stakeholding in the club

The full set of member-approved aims can be found elsewhere on the BST website along with a summary of the activities the Trust has been involved in during the past year.

Quite clearly all of those stated aims are ongoing and will be just as applicable when new owners are in place. It is to be hoped that, unlike the present regime which has refused to recognise and dialogue with the Trust, whoever takes on the club will choose to work closely with BST as part of the open and structured dialogue between fans and clubs that was a key recommendation of the recent Expert Working Group report into the future of fan engagement in the game. It would certainly make the achieving of some of those aims a more likely proposition and would go a long way to making Blackpool FC ‘the best small club in the world’ as one recent would-be investor put it.

Supporters Direct has been instrumental in helping to set up over 200 Supporters Trusts, democratic, not-for-profit organisations of supporters, committed to strengthening the voice for fans in the decision making process at their clubs, and strengthening the links between those clubs and the communities they serve. Just over half of those 200 Trusts have some percentage of a shareholding in their clubs and two of the Trusts own their clubs outright.

The fourth Annual General Meeting of BST was held last Saturday. As an example of how its democratic process works, it was proposed that one of the original stated aims of the Trust should be revised – the one that states “The ultimate aim is for supporters to own a majority of Blackpool Football Club” (i.e. a minimum of a 51% shareholding as is the model at some continental clubs). There is a general recognition that because the levels of investment required to sustain a club at the higher levels of the English league pyramid are so great, it is unlikely that any supporters’ organisation alone could command the sums of money that would justify a majority shareholding. A proposal will shortly go out to the entire membership to vote on an amendment to that ultimate aim and the Trust will adopt the majority position – as it does on all significant matters of policy.

It cannot be emphasised enough that BST belongs to the members and its policies are directed by the members – and anyone can join, to help shape the future of democratic fan representation at this football club. Those of us who have bought in to this vision of passionate but reasonable-minded supporters joining together as stakeholders in a Trust so as to have collective input into how they would like their club to be run find it hard to understand how anybody with tangerine in their veins would not want to sign up and help make a positive difference to the future of Blackpool FC.

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