Sing when they’re whinging

A packed public gallery witnessed a fiery Full Council meeting in Sutton last night, after the Tory opposition attempted to turn a social project – aimed at tackling youth obesity and school absenteeism – into a political football.

The project itself is due to be led by Chelsea football club and involve some of their players to help popularise the healthy eating messages. This would reach out to young people otherwise be immune to public authority initiatives or advertising campaigns.

There were a number of young people in the gallery last night, mostly participants in Carshalton Athletic’s soccer schools. They came believing Sutton Liberal Democrats were the enemy, after the two local non-league clubs were whipped up by the Tories.

I strongly suspect that the opposition are less interested in football – or tackling social problems in the north of the borough – and more interested in fulminating about their pet-hate, the Life Centre, where the project would be based.

I found it very sad that young people were used to aide a political attack against the Liberal Democrats. The whole purpose of the project got lost the moment Councillor Tony Shields bust out into a cringe-worthy (and off-key) song where he had changed the lyrics of Chelsea’s theme tune Blue Is The Colour to score cheap political points. That ridiculous contribution went uncommented on for the rest of the proceedings.

The whole nature of last nights’ debate was completely unnecessary. These are the basic facts of the matter are this:

1. The Crystal Palace Kickz project comes to an end after funding runs out.

2. The Council negotiate with Chelsea FC Foundation after learning about how well their community schemes work in other boroughs, and their success in accessing additional funding from the Premier League and big business.

3. As soon as negotiations are concluded, the Environment and Neighbourhood Committee make very clear they would like the two local clubs to be involved, and agree this explicit recommendation.

4. Talks with the two local clubs progress, and are still underway.

Both the E&N Committee and several Lib Dem councillors praised the local clubs for their community work in the borough.

Indeed by opening remarks to Full Council last night were:

“I would like to begin by paying tribute to the excellent work – in the community – of our two local football clubs. From their soccer schools, to their work with hospitals, youth groups and charities they truly make a valuable contribution to the borough. And long may it continue!

“And the minute this project was made public, the Environment & Neighbourhood Committee said loud and clear that we would like to see talks with the two local clubs about their involvement in the scheme.

“Since then, Sutton United have been much more positive. They recognise the value Chelsea bring. They want to be involved, and I hope both local clubs are.

“Meanwhile, the Opposition are saying precious little about the value Chelsea bring and are completely ignoring the fact that value doesn’t just come in the form of hard cash. There is also value in a partnership that allows the borough to lever-in a great deal of additional funding, more sponsorships, and maybe even attract new businesses.

The Tories saying “why isn’t the £60k going to local clubs” completely ignores the fact that the Chelsea Foundation believe they can access over £470k worth of funding for Sutton over the three years of this project. So, for every £1 we invest we could lever-in another £8 of additional funding.”

My colleague Councillor Miguel Javelot gave a number of specific examples of additional funding that has already been identified, including from the Football Association and the Premier League. I have a list of businesses that Chelsea already involve in other community projects which they believe will also contribute to Sutton.

These are funds that non-league clubs, despite all their great work, are simply not able to access. To their credit, Sutton United, and to a lesser extent Carshalton Athletic, recognise.

So for Tory Councillor Shields to claim, as he does on his blog – that we are “lining the pockets of a rich football club in preference to local clubs” couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unlike the Mayor of London Boris Johnson – who has handed an £8m bribe to Tottenham Hotspur just to stay put at their White Hart Lane stadium instead of giving it to the local Tottenham community – Sutton Council are investing in an extremely worthwhile community initiative.

Tory Councillor Peter Geiringer suggested that because Chelsea are rich they should help Sutton for free. That is plain nonsense. We are some distance away from Chelsea’s ground but the football foundation are happy to do business with Sutton because we are showing commitment to the ideals of working with a professional club to deliver social projects for disadvantaged communities. It’s all about harnessing the enormous value of Chelsea’s brand name for the public good.

Another Tory, Councillor Tim Crowley, suggested that Chelsea’s top stars won’t come to Sutton and that we will be left with the reserve team at best. I do not know whether Chelsea’s best players will come but I am not nearly as pessimistic as Cllr Crowley because a lot of Premiership stars put time and effort into community projects, especially if they are supported by their club.

My own team – Manchester City – for example, have a fine record. Carlos Tevez attends a Special Schools project for the disabled. Mario Balotelli helps out with City In The Community schemes, including making the tea at an old people’s home! And Pablo Zabaleta regularly attends hospital, community and charity events.

You simply can’t put a price on Chelsea lending their name to a public education campaign to reduce school absenteeism… or promote healthy eating. Even if you tied a public address speaker to every lap-post and had Boris Johnson’s voice booming out – imploring us all to eat more healthily – I doubt this would be half as effective as this partnership.

Listening to the Tories, anyone would think they had a problem with Russian yacht-owning billionaire oligarchs! I bet if the Mayor of London comes down for a high profile photo-opportunity with Chelsea players I fully expect to see the Members opposite clamouring to claim they were fully supportive of this all along as they try and squeeze into the shot!

Thankfully, the initiative was voted through by the Lib Dem Administration and I really hope that Sutton United and Carshalton Athletic can be part of it. We will have to see how the talks go, but ultimately I hope that all the young people in their soccer schools come to realise that the Chelsea initiative is about adding to the work that is already going on, and popularising reading campaigns (a Chelsea player will be a ‘reading champion’), tackling childhood obesity and prompting the value of studying.

And in the end I hope that the young people do not see the Council as against them – an image the Tories have tried to push – but that we are actually trying to reach out to even more young people to improve their health and life-chances.