Caring for the Community? The case of Hartlepool United

Image: Nathan Rogers

Monday 8th October, 2018

By Duncan Fisher and Eddie Rees

With weekly attendances of less than 4,000 for their Vanarama National League matches, and a location in a neglected area of north-east England, Hartlepool United is an unheralded football club. However, recent events there offer a unique opportunity to align discussions about the role of football clubs in post-industrial settings with fundamental questions about the UK welfare state and social care regimes.

Following serious financial trouble at Hartlepool United, businessman Raj Singh became owner in April 2018. Singh also owns the multi-million pound Prestige Group, a prominent social care provider in the north-east. Demographic changes are markedly increasing demand for social care, but chronic underfunding is compromising quality and squeezing out many of those needing support. For the overwhelmingly female workforce, very low pay and precarious working conditions are widespread. This piece seeks to question the normalisation of extracting profit from a sector characterised by such conditions. Additionally, it considers the implications of using that capital to support another asset which is emotionally enshrined in the local community.

The vast majority of care is provided informally (i.e. by family or friends), but where it is socialised, in the UK it takes the form of a quasi-market. State provision has been largely replaced by a private sector-dominated market, but one in which non-profit making providers operate, and commissioning of services (by local authorities (LAs)) forms a key statutory responsibility. Despite generating much political attention during the 2017 General Election campaign, the sector’s undervaluing persists: note the contrast of a recent, further delay to the publication of a social care funding green paper with the announcement of billions of pounds of extra funding for the NHS. Since 2010, LA social care budgets have been cut by £4.6 billion.

The social care system is the site of myriad injustices and inequalities. The post-2008 cuts to LA budgets led to at least 25% fewer people receiving state-funded social care. There is great country-wide variability in care quality, and for those who fund their own care, cost depends on local market provision. Alongside those in retail and hospitality, social care workers are amongst the lowest paid. In her compelling and essential socio-legal study of domiciliary care workers, Hayes highlights the inadequacy of, for example, equal pay and minimum wage legislation, in protecting this group of predominantly female, working-class employees from “institutionalised humiliation”. There is, unsurprisingly, a high turnover of staff (with over 80,000 vacancies at any one time). While these are issues in and of themselves, they are central to perpetuating the gender pay gap and the feminisation of poverty. Although the percentages of migrant and/or ethnic minority staff working in social care varies significantly by region, overall the sector contributes to the intersectional disadvantage of migrant women and women of colour.

As Hayes asked at a recent event at the London School of Economics: “What happens when this most basic human activity becomes a “for profit” activity?” Well, in addition to creating the situation briefly outlined above, the way that the state organises care in this country allows for care providers to accumulate millions of pounds in profits. As Burns and colleagues argue “the issue is not simply how much money goes into adult care but where the money goes”. Sociological studies of inequality need to look upwards and question the way wealth and power are accumulated on the back of public spending; inadequate service provision, and the precarious employment of working-class women. Despite the levels of risk involved in social care provision being low, a profit margin of around 12% is commonly envisaged. Against the backdrop of the marketisation of everyday life and normalisation of extracting profit in this and many other sectors, the (welfare) state is key. The arrangement of social care in this country exemplifies what Tyler terms the neoliberal state, which “entails the tentacles of government extending and dispersing into every stratum of social and cultural life, working tirelessly to block impediments to capital, to deregulate resource extraction and to ‘securitize’ profits within the new global class of the super-rich”.

The politics of extensive profit-making from an austerity-ravaged care system require a rethink. In the same vein, there are also questions over the structure and commodification of club football. The relationship of wealthy men like Singh to the football community – especially in post-industrial areas like Hartlepool where the local football club has such symbolic, long-standing status – is built on inequality and questionable motives.

Football clubs have traditionally held a semi-religious, emotionally entrenched status within their local communities, particularly in regions with a strong working-class identity. Nayak’s study of Newcastle United fans found that acting in the role of a ‘Real Geordie’ by following the club vociferously and performing local fandom rituals was one of the few ties which connected the local citizens to their erstwhile industrial heritage. Despite being a significantly smaller club than Newcastle United, Hartlepool (United) is also located in the north-east of England, in Teesside, an area that has in recent decades experienced heavy job losses as a result of deindustrialisation. The Prestige Group’s current care homes are located in Teesside, which within Britain’s older industrial towns accounts for three of the eleven districts with the lowest rates of real employment.

As a local asset attracting thousands of active and lay supporters, football clubs’ sense of localism has often given them a nostalgic and communal feel. This is despite the fact that they have always operated as businesses. Since the creation of the English Premier League (in 1992) there has been a more overtly transnational, neoliberal consensus in the upper echelons of football. In his study of Manchester United fans, King relays mixed responses to these changes. Although Hartlepool United are an unsuccessful and, until recently, financially perilous club, the takeover by Raj Singh’s consortium appears to be recreating this corporate relationship on a smaller scale. The idea of fans being disillusioned by the exploitative, consumerised nature of football is in keeping with the work of Boyle, whose discussion of supporters as stakeholders, at least in a moral and cultural sense, is made all the more interesting when considered alongside their socio-economic circumstances. Although fans have little power to spend money on their club, they argue that they are the community in which the club is emotionally bound and therefore their identities should not be compromised for the sake of the owners’ profit margins. In the case of Hartlepool, the power and inequality dynamics of Singh’s involvement in football straddle his social care role too: it allows him a modicum of control over both leisure and employment sectors, and concentrated power within the local community.

It must be noted that Singh did save Hartlepool United from extinction. Edwards reported that that the club was haemorrhaging money and debts had increased to over £1.8 million, a substantial sum for a team in the National League. In an interview with the Northern Echo Singh asserted that his actions – in keeping with the mainstream rhetoric of football owners – were not for his own benefit. Rather they were to make amends to north-eastern football following his tenure at Darlington FC, which culminated in its bankruptcy and reformation. This defence appears contradictory as inherent in this stance is Singh’s effort to restore his own reputation within the local (footballing) community. Furthermore, on the subject of Singh’s motivations, his appointee as Director of Football, Craig Hignett, told the Hartlepool Mail that the new owner is “not interested in the developments, or money, or what he can make off the land.” In July 2018 it was announced that the Prestige Group would sponsor one of the stands at the club’s Victoria Park. Whilst this provides the club with further investment, it would be disingenuous to deny that Singh’s existing business stands to benefit from the advertising exposure this arrangement presents.

It is too early to draw conclusions regarding the actualisation of Singh’s motivations with Hartlepool United. Yet even if he meets his stated aim of contributing positively towards the club, as Skeggs argues, there are grave problems with a system of organising care that allows individuals (like Singh) to extract millions of pounds in profit (so much that he can use it to fund other ventures such as football club ownership). The varied nature of care provision in the UK is evident in the quality of care at the “centres” owned by Singh. One of the three “requires improvement” according to a recent Care Quality Commission (CQC) report. This assessment is based on findings of “inadequate levels of safety”; insufficient staff numbers, and flawed recruitment processes. Although the full explanation for these resourcing failures is not clear, they are commensurate with cost-cutting and suggest rationalising towards increased profits.

As Cancain points out, one view of care is that it is incompatible with marketisation. She argues, however, that effective care is the result of its organisation, and that it is possible for this to take place within a profit-making context. That said, the first of three factors she contends promote good care is “restrictions on profit making and cost cutting”. There are no restrictions on the amount of profit Singh and his company can make from social care, although a cap on returns in investment in social care would seem to be a sensible regulatory policy. Whilst acknowledging the sector-wide labour shortage, insufficient staff numbers and inadequate recruitment checks hint at a lack of investment in core aspects of providing a care service. To further question the role of profit-making in social care, a recent study of care and nursing homes in the UK reveals that on average, non-profit provided services are of better quality than profit-making ones. The present structure of social care legitimises and encourages the accrual of significant profits, and it is the legislative framework of organising and delivering care to which our criticisms are overwhelmingly directed.

Irrespective of his motivations, Singh stands to profit handsomely from social care and football within this post-industrial, resource scarce community. These circumstances – which exemplify the normalisation of everyday life’s marketisation – are at the crossroads of some of the urgent and damaging developments within our socio-economic lives. These include the toxic, corrosive inequality built on narrowing concentrations of wealth contrasted with widespread precarious work, in-work poverty and underemployment. The marketisation of spheres of life such as social care and club football contribute to crisis in the former and fan alienation and powerlessness in the latter. In a society riven with class and gender domination, Singh is able to amass substantial wealth from a sector which persistently undervalues the contributions of its largely female, working-class labour pool. This is not an issue of scandal or sensationalist power-grab, but one that prompts a rethink of the normalised aspects of care’s delivery and provision, and the commodified direction of club football.

Duncan Fisher is a PhD candidate at Teesside University researching the perceptions and experiences of young adult social care workers.

Eddie Rees is a PhD candidate at Teesside University. His thesis is titled “The Last Stand: football fandom in the age of socioeconomic precarity” and his primary research areas are football, social class and post-industrial employment.

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