7 December 2023

Half of England’s football stadiums should be housing


I like football and I am a big West Ham fan. Though not a season ticket holder, I go several times a year, and have even followed the team abroad on our recent European adventures to places as cool as Athens and as unexpected as Viborg (it’s a small town in Denmark). 

I say this in a desperate attempt to fend off the most obvious response to my provocative claim: that England has too many football stadiums, we should make teams share and redevelop the rest for housing.

Football stadiums often occupy prime locations in built up areas near good transport links. Just look at a semi random selection of Pride Park (a mile from Derby station), Home Park (1.2m from Plymouth station) and the Stadium of Light (a mile from Sunderland station) – and all just off a major A road. 

Despite these excellent locations, the stadiums themselves are massively underutilised. With 23 League games a year (just 19 in the Premier League) plus a few cup games and pre-season friendlies – many stadiums are in use much less than once a week on average. While a few of the biggest host other events like concerts, the reality is the demand for stadiums most of the time is very low.

Wikipedia reliably informs me there are 127 stadiums in England with a capacity of over 5,000. I reckon we could do away with half of them by expecting teams to share. This is uncommon and will be unpopular among football fans, but honestly if it is good enough for the two great Milan clubs AC and Inter, who share the San Siro, it should be good enough for us. Speaking as a West Ham fan, I know what it’s like to lose your long-standing stadium, following our exit from the historic Upton Park to take up residence at the London (Olympic) Stadium. I assure you, you do get over it. 

Redeveloping 60 stadiums could easily net us 50,000 homes given Upton Park was redeveloped into 842 homes. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a large price to pay for enough land to meet the demand for new homes for a mere two months; or a small price to pay given the alternative is building where there is no infrastructure/concreting over our green and pleasant land/upsetting the great crested newt or whatever the Nimby ‘reason du jour is.

And 60 stadiums is just the start of what we could redevelop, if we make more than two teams share a single ground. Two teams sharing one stadium still only means 38 league games a year, with one team at home while the other team is away. Cricket’s T20 finals day fits in three matches back to back at a single venue, and for a long time Premiership rugby hosted two games back to back at Twickenham. You can easily hold two home games in the same stadium on consecutive days, without even having to go this far. More games in fewer stadiums means more stadiums we can turn into housing. 

In fact, we could also go the whole hog and bring other sports stadiums to the table. Bristol City share their ground with the Bristol Bears rugby team, and they are far from alone. Wikipedia also lists 15 rugby-only stadiums with a capacity of 10,000+, and about the same again in cricket grounds. There are probably a few more in the 5,000-10,000 range. If we’re serious about fixing the housing crisis, we could look at more ground shares here too.

Politics is all about trade-offs, and of course the most important fact about land is they aren’t making it any more. Every football stadium that isn’t homes is a choice we’re making, implicitly or explicitly, just the same as every field that isn’t homes is a choice and every car wash that isn’t homes is a choice. 

In reality, I know this idea will be even more unpopular than the average development. These sizable football clubs have sizable followings, not just the tens of thousands who go every week, but the hundreds of thousands of others who go from time to time and would go more if they live closer/could get tickets/could afford it. Rows about development on fields make the front pages of the local paper. Trying to force Manchester United and Manchester City to share a stadium would dominate the national conversation and make international headlines. 

But I am increasingly coming to the view that the fastest way out of our Nimby-inspired sclerosis is to start coming up with genuinely unpopular ideas as the alternative. It’s somewhat cynical, but honestly at this point ‘build loads of homes within a mile of the station or the kitten gets it’ is fine by me as long as it works.

So let’s #SaveOurStadiums by agreeing to build all the homes we need elsewhere! 

Building homes ought to be easier than winning the league, but it doesn’t always feel like it.

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Ben Gadsby is a writer and policy professional.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.