Building a fanbase: which football team is winning the housebuilding league?

Some footballers playing football. Image: Getty.

There are plenty of reasons to welcome new housing in our neighbourhood. It’s a fundamental human need, and one we’re uncomfortably short of.

But here’s one reason you may not have considered – more homes could be just what your local football club needs to gain an edge over its rivals.

So which football clubs have the fastest growing local population and future fanbase?

OK, so this is a silly-season joke, but it’s one with a grain of truth. On matchday, around 2.6 per cent of the population of England and Wales are at a football match. That means that, to fill one extra seat in a stadium, you need to build around 17 new homes in the local area.

Of course not everyone supports their local team, least of all people moving into a new area. But over generations even football loyalties can change, and a nearby club will always have a draw. Milton Keynes’ Stadium MK now gets crowds of up to 27,000 in what was a small village only 50 years ago.

The top clubs’ finances rely on international audiences and TV rights – but matchday fans, their loyalty and their spending, are also important. Outside the Premier League it is essential.

So, accept for a moment that in football “demographics is destiny”, and let’s look at the current winners and losers in the housebuilding league.

Click to expand.

The map above shows the 92 teams in the top four tiers English football, plus a few more who have been there in recent years. The country is divided up to show their nearest “catchment”. Reality of course is nothing like as neat – few in north Devon would see Swansea as their nearest club – but, well, lines have to go somewhere.

Let’s look at the Premier League first. The table below uses 2011 Census data and the change since 2001. Swansea tops the first column, for local population – it’s the nearest club for nearly a million people (though it’s helped in this analysis by the omission of the Welsh leagues), with Crystal Palace not far behind. At the other extreme, Burnley has only a quarter that number.

Looking at growth, London’s swelling population has helped Arsenal gain the most new locals – 89,000 new residents, which on average equates to 2,300 new season ticket holders. (I’ve used the location of the Emirates here, not taking account of the move from Highbury.)

Leicester too has been propelled on its way by an additional 83,000 new locals. And the 90,000 new homes Leicestershire projects it needs over the next 25 years equate to an extra 5,300 new season tickets sold. Everton, by contrast, is the only club in the Premier League to have lost locals.

Looking beyond the top division, recently-relegated Newcastle can console themselves having the highest local population in English Football (although that’s partly because Berwick Rangers is missing from the analysis, as they play in the Scottish Leagues). More worryingly, the North East’s relatively low population growth is doing little to help Newcastle return to the top flight.

Cardiff can, in this respect at least, claim bragging rights over Swansea, and has a higher population growth rate too: the city’s 40,000 planned new homes over 10 years should mean 2,350 new season tickets.

Seven of the top ten fastest-growing football catchments are in London, with Millwall and Brentford topping the list. Both have gained over a hundred thousand new locals, and the next London Plan may need to boost them further with new housing growth targets.

At the bottom, Hartlepool’s local territory is squeezed between Middlesbrough, Darlington and Sunderland, although Everton’s back yard has still lost the most people – 3,700 fewer residents equates to 95 empty seats.


So could different local attitudes to housebuilding affect the long-term future of any big football rivalries? Manchester United and City both have fast growth, but City has added most locals, thanks to its proximity to the fast-growing city centre. Liverpool’s local population was still larger than either at the time of the Census, although slower growth means it may already have fallen behind Manchester United.

On the south coast, Southampton, Bournemouth and Portsmouth have quite evenly matched local catchments, although faster growth has seen Pompey just pull ahead. In the Second City Derby, Birmingham City has a clear and growing lead over Aston Villa (at least in terms of demographics).

In London, Arsenal and Tottenham are very closely matched for population. Islington’s growth means Arsenal is edging ahead, although the 20,000 homes planned for the Upper Lea Valley Opportunity Area could help fill over a thousand of the seats in the Tottenham’s new stadium.

The analysis here isn’t serious – but the difficulties overcoming opposition to new housing really is. One of the biggest barriers is people’s natural suspicion of change, and of new people coming to their neighbourhood. We need to overcome that fear, and persuade people that people are a good thing, by showing them the benefits.

A bigger fanbase for their local club is just the start: many other local facilities and services benefit from more people, not to mention businesses that rely on the local labour market. From struggling local shops to infrequent bus services and underfunded council services, the best way to keep communities sustainable will often be new housing and new neighbours.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.