Everton’s new ground poses a fundamental question: can football stadiums still serve the public good?

In a sport whose greater virtue is becomingly increasingly harder to discern, a sport of narcissists and despots and cynicism and exploitation, it's worth asking who exactly will benefit from the club's breathtaking new stadium

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It’s about two miles from Albert Dock to Bramley-Moore Dock, two places that share a postcode but may as well be on different planets. To the south, a long snake of tour buses spits out its latest clutch of foreign tourists onto the waterfront, into the Tate gallery and the Beatles museum and the swish bars and restaurants. To the north, a bare notice warns pedestrians away from a barren patch of disused wasteland next to a sewage treatment plant. Liverpool’s Northern Docks lies in an area ranked in the top 0.5 per cent most deprived wards in Britain, and as with much of the surrounding area, it’s impossible to escape the sense of loss and decay, the bones of a more gilded age.

Perhaps it feels strangely appropriate, then, that this is the spot that Everton have chosen to build their new dreamscape, a 52,000-seater stadium that they hope will lay their own crumbling ghosts to rest. The designs were unveiled on Thursday, and such has been the excitement at Finch Farm that Leighton Baines says the dressing room has been able to talk about little else since. For a club that has spent three decades fighting entropy, a fanbase that had almost given up on the possibility of renewal, that most precious of commodities: hope, that their best days may yet lie ahead.

You didn’t even need to be an Everton fan to feel moved. The centrepiece of the new stadium is the imposing 13,000-seat south stand, a clear nod to the single-tier megaliths at Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham. Intimacy seems to have been the founding principle here: the closest seat is just five metres from the pitch, the rake giddily steep. “I don’t think there is a seat that’s further away from the pitch than it could absolutely be,” insists the architect Dan Meis, who has become something of a local cult hero among Everton fans in recent months for his enthusiasm, his openness to discuss the project on social media and the rumour that such is his emotional investment that he got himself an “1878” tattoo to mark the year of the club’s foundation.

Naturally, for Evertonians this is all richly encouraging stuff: an opportunity to compete, to punch their weight, to take the club to the next level, wherever that is. For the rest of us, meanwhile, what’s at stake here is arguably even more important. In a sport whose greater virtue is becomingly increasingly harder to discern, a sport of narcissists and despots and cynicism and exploitation, the new Everton stadium poses a fundamental question: whether big football infrastructure projects, and by extension elite football itself, can still be a community good rather than a mere vehicle for greed. Whether football – the original people’s game – can still operate for popular benefit.

Everton insist that the new stadium will deliver a £1 billion boost to the local economy. It’s probably best to take that with a pinch of salt. There’s very little hard evidence to suggest that new stadiums drive the sorts of tangible economic benefits its masterminds claim. A 2015 New Zealand study found that while big stadium projects certainly offer a short-term boost to the construction sector, there is “little in the way of empirical evidence to suggest that new or upgraded facilities had any significant impact on local area real GDP”. Meanwhile Roger Noll, a Stanford economist, has studied the economic impact of NFL stadiums in the United States, concluding that they “do not generate significant local economic growth”, and that for the local government looking to invest in the future, you’re going to get far more bang for your buck from a big shopping mall or a new manufacturing plant, which generates sustainable jobs by the bucketload.

And so when developers argue about economic benefits, it’s often worth asking who exactly does the benefiting. One of the less trumpeted upshots of Tottenham’s new stadium is that the club is now moving into property development in an extremely big way: the stadium project itself created 585 new homes, of which exactly zero were designated as affordable housing (although some are being built elsewhere). And for all its detractors, the new Wembley Stadium has had a remarkable uplift on local property prices: 15 per cent within the surrounding two miles, according to one study. This, naturally, is a great success for those with existing assets and property interests; not so much if you’re an elderly local council tenant who can’t find a seat on the 92 bus because it’s packed with screaming Ed Sheeran fans.

And so ultimately, this is a question of priorities. The danger with any new stadium – especially those funded by public subsidies – is that it becomes a vessel for private wealth creation. The developer swoops in, signs themselves a blank cheque, siphons the revenues off to their private tax haven and fobs off the local community with glossy brochures, a new branch of Giraffe and vague promises of jobs (which in the case of football stadiums are often casual jobs for stewards and event staff on minimum wage).

Is there any reason to expect that Everton, whose owner Farhad Moshiri is resident in Monaco for tax reasons and whose holding company is registered in the Isle of Man, will be different? The club would like you to think so. It trumpets its much-lauded community foundation, the work of the Everton Free School, the fact that it is one of the few Premier League clubs to pay its staff the Living Wage. Meanwhile, the plans for the current Goodison Park site are genuinely impressive, with allocations for public green space, affordable housing, a children’s centre, residential care facilities, space for small local businesses.

A cynic might point out that the club’s press release makes rather liberal use of the conditional tense, and that the waterfront development associated with the new stadium also provides for a new cruise liner terminal and luxury waterfront apartments. An optimist might counter by taking you to a disused, dishevelled patch of wasteland next to a sewage treatment plant in north Liverpool, and ask: honestly, could you really do worse than that?

The short answer is we just don’t know. Is it reasonable to expect billionaires to act in the best interests of an entire city? Is regeneration possible without gentrification? And can the bloated, avaricious corpse of football still generate something vaguely adjacent to a common social good? The stakes are sky-high here, and perhaps the nicest thing you could say about Everton as a club at this still-early stage is that if they can’t pull it off, it’s hard to see who else can.

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