Rob Trent reports on how many rebuilt grounds fail to take into account of the interests of disabled fans
Since the forced implementation of the Taylor Report, top English football clubs, and indeed Southampton, have spent millions of pounds redeveloping their stadia, but some of these same clubs have blatantly ignored the needs of disabled spectators. Manchester United, one of the richest clubs in the country, are nearing the completion of a new stand, raising the total capacity of Old Trafford to 55,000. In this new stand, no spaces have been allocated for wheelchair users, other than in the most expensive executive boxes.
The Part M Amendment to the building regulations, which dealt specifically with disabled people, advises that any new building, or modernisation of an existing building, should be designed to accommodate the needs of disabled people. The Football Stadium Advisory Design Council (FSADC), of which I as a wheelchair user was a member, recommended that any new stands should have around 1 per cent of the total seating capacity available to disabled people, not tucked away in some ‘pen’, but integrated with other fans. This recommendation is being flouted with ease by football clubs, and in many cases it may well be too late to do anything about it – the FSADC was disbanded a few years ago after the FA ceased funding. Trafford Borough Council allowed Manchester United to get around this law by merely requesting that the club extend their facilities for wheelchair users to a pathetic 70. United currently have no way of telling how near they are to the required 1 per cent. As long as local councils let football clubs get away with this sort of thing (perhaps, who knows, in exchange for complimentary tickets or executive boxes?) disabled people are going to be the losers.
Phil Downs, responsible for handling ticket allocations for disabled people at Old Trafford, confirmed that he had agreed with the decision to build a new stand which ignored the needs of disabled people. He claimed that United’s stewarding resources would have been stretched if there had been another place where access was available. This contrasts sharply with poorer, smaller clubs, like Notts County, who are able to provide facilities in all parts of Meadow Lane, and of Leyton Orient, both of whom take great care to cater for all sections of their support.
Downs also made the astonishing remark that providing space for one wheelchair was the equivalent of providing 12 seating spaces, and that United would in effect lose £500,000 a year. This is a world famous club, able to buy top players at any asking price, or Andy Cole for £8 million; they have a chain of megastores throughout the country; yet they believe the myth that disabled people cause them to lose money.
And United are not alone. Southampton, currently awaiting a new stadium, have replaced two of their terraced areas with all-seater stands, yet no extra wheelchair facilities have been provided within these new stands, again, completely ignoring current legislation. Just recently, Football Focus ran a short piece about how the lot of the disabled spectator had improved in recent years. In it David Dein claimed that when Arsenal upgrade their standards, they do so for everybody. Yet Arsenal’s two most recent upgrades to their stadium, the North Bank and Clock End, have both excluded wheelchair users, and current facilities for the disabled at Highbury are only slightly better than they were a decade ago: another example of a local council not applying the letter or the spirit of the law.
Some clubs have financed the new stands themselves, others have had funds granted from the Football Trust. Sue O’Brian of the Football Trust told me that any club submitting an application for money would have to incorporate facilities for the disabled into their design. This has not deterred Birmingham City, who despite promising vastly improved facilities, eventually neglected the needs of their disabled supporters. (Barry Fry’s desire to buy up every player in the Endsleigh League obviously takes priority.)
Clubs like Chelsea have, however, taken the initiative in providing decent facilities for their disabled supporters. At Stamford Bridge, a wheelchair user has the option of watching from the touchline, or from a vantage point in the upper tier of the new stand, which is reached via a lift. Disabled people at Chelsea can avail themselves of all the facilities on offer. If Chelsea can make the effort, then I am sure there is nothing to stop the other clubs.
Each club has a different approach to the way in which it regards its disabled supporters. Common standards have been defined, but unless clubs use the advice of those with the most experience, disabled people themselves, many good intentions will miss the target by miles. Which brings us back to Andy Cole.
From WSC 110 April 1996. What was happening this month