By Bill Wilson Business reporter, BBC News
As England’s players prepare to step out at Lord’s for the second Test against India, they will be unaware of a long-running wrangle rumbling away not far below their feet.
It is a saga that stretches back nearly two decades, and involves a dispute over a narrow strip of land at the edge of the historic complex in north London known as “the home of cricket”.
The stretch of land, measuring 200m by 38m (656ft by 125ft) at the Nursery End of the Lord’s site, sits above disused Victorian railway tunnels.
And that area has been at the heart of a tussle between the ground’s owners – Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) – and the owner of the lease on that strip of land, property developer Charles Rifkind.
After being frustrated by the MCC in his plans to develop the site over the past two decades, Mr Rifkind has teamed up with property consortium New Commonwealth – headed by developer entrepreneur Johnny Sandelson – to look at selling off portions of the land.
“We have had lots of interest, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, who see Lord’s as a special place in their hearts,” says Mr Sandelson, adding that there have been 10,000 strong expressions of interest.
Mr Sandelson is now working with financial regulators to get the all-clear to sell bits off in around nine months’ time. Shares in the land will be sold via tokens called Lordscoins, which will be traded via blockchain technology.
But there is a catch.
Although the MCC does not own the tunnels, or any development rights to the land on top, it does have a sub-lease on the top 18 inches of the land – which runs until 2137.
And that makes property development impossible for another 119 years at the earliest.
“It is obviously a long-term asset. But people’s grandchildren can have extraordinary development opportunities right in the middle of St John’s Wood,” says Mr Sandelson.
“We are democratising real-estate ownership.”
The drama began on 9 November 1999, when Railtrack – which at the time controlled the UK’s railway infrastructure – told the MCC that the main lease on the strip of land above the 1890s tunnels would be sold at a public auction a month later.
It also invited the club to make a pre-auction offer for this main lease.
above the rail tunnels can be seen at the back of the photos, behind the media centre
But negotiations in the month leading up to the deadline were unsuccessful, and the land and 999-year lease were bought at auction by Mr Rifkind for £2,350,000 – above what the MCC said it could afford.
The club had just completed two major capital building projects – the Grand Stand and the Media Centre – which had depleted its cash reserves.
“Not buying the tunnels was a blindingly obvious mistake,” says writer Matthew Engel, a former editor of the cricketing bible Wisden, and someone who has followed the story closely.
“This is a tale of immense complexity. I don’t know if it will ever be satisfactorily resolved.”
Mr Rifkind’s plans – to build 94 flats on the space – were rebuffed last year when MCC members voted for their own redevelopment scheme, or “Lord’s Masterplan”, for the ground.
The MCC plan involves the redevelopment of the Nursery End by removing temporary pavilions currently situated over the railway tunnels, and moving the existing Nursery Ground cricket pitch down over this space.
Building the Lord’s railway tunnels
In the 1890s the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway opted to build the new Great Central Railway directly beneath Lords Cricket Ground in St Johns Wood. The cricketers were promised a brand new pitch, and the photograph above shows construction work in progress.
The tunnels were built between 1894 and 1898 by the cut-and-cover method, rather than boring. In the picture the wooden centrings are in place and the brick courses are being built up. The scale of the work can be judged by the group of navvies gathered in the bottom right of the picture.
When finished, the area was covered over and the new cricket pitch laid.
‘Control of our destiny’
“There was a very long, bruising and robust debate over a number of years which was concluded when the membership overwhelmingly voted for a Lord’s redevelopment via our own resources,” says MCC chief executive Guy Lavender.
“There have been a number of different thoughts about what is needed, but the masterplan puts the club and cricket at its heart. We have control of our own destiny, to develop in our own way.”
Mr Rifkind’s development proposal came with the offer of a £100m letter of credit for the MCC.
“This has been an area of some discussion,” says Mr Lavender. “However, we can afford to develop the ground at a pace we can afford. We are not dependent on the £100m to develop the ground in the way we want.
“We have got good revenue generation, and will continue to do so. We will now get on with our first phase, redeveloping the Compton and Edrich Stands.”
Meanwhile, the MCC says it is sanguine about plans to cash in on the Nursery Ground land.
“It doesn’t impact on us,” Mr Lavender says. “In 119 years’ time, if that situation hasn’t changed, then that small strip of land will cease to be a part of Lord’s and we will have a smaller Nursery Ground.
“We continue to meet Mr Rifkind to discuss a range of issues. If we find some common ground, we would consider making him an offer at a price we could agree on. But that is not the case at present.”
Matthew Engel says that despite 20 years of soaring property prices in the St John’s Wood area, the MCC has not financially benefited from it.
“As a property developer Mr Rifkind saw a place at Lord’s that was not being developed, and wanted to do it,” he says. “He saw the ugly wall at the edge of Lord’s, and unused space, and thought that – to mutual advantage – he could make something of it. But the opportunity has been missed [by the MCC].”
And the cricket writer says he does not think the plan to sell off portions of the land will resolve matters.
“I think the moment for compromise or agreement has passed,” he says. “It will be a very long time before we have any conclusion to this issue, if at all.”