Stand and deliver

wsc320Plans for Ashton Gate include installing rail seats but Bristol City will not benefit unless the law changes, Joe Sharratt writes

The Football Supporters’ Federation’s (FSF) Safe Standing Campaign aims to persuade the government and football authorities to allow trials of standing areas in the Premier League and Championship. It took a big leap forwards in August with the announcement that plans had been submitted for a £40 million redevelopment of Bristol City’s Ashton Gate stadium that would incorporate two areas of rail seats. The rail seats – which can be easily converted from seating accommodation to standing and are common in several European leagues including the Bundesliga – would take the capacity from the 21,500 now to 27,000 in all-seat mode, or 29,000 with the seats locked back allowing fans to stand, and would occupy the lower sections of the Dolman Stand and a new Wedlock Stand.

The proposal is the work of Bristol Sport Ltd, the company set up last year by Bristol City majority shareholder Steve Lansdown to run the club alongside Bristol rugby club, also in his ownership. If approved by Bristol City Council, who are due to rule on the application at a committee meeting in October, Ashton Gate could become the first professional sports ground in Britain to feature rail seats and may be ready as soon as the start of 2015-16.

However under current legislation only the rugby club would be able to offer supporters the chance to stand. Football League rules state that any club with an all-seat stadium must not revert to standing areas even if, as in the case of Bristol City, the club has been relegated from the Championship to the third tier where all-seat stadiums are not demanded. Such a situation has been branded as “inconsistent and illogical” by the FSF.

Guidelines are scarcely any more sensible in the Championship where, although there is a requirement for all-seat stadiums, promoted clubs are allowed until the start of their third season in the division to convert any existing standing areas. Consequently Yeovil Town this season – and Peterborough United last season – could both compete in the second tier despite their stadiums retaining terraced sections.

The FSF insist that rail seating offers a completely different product and environment to the crumbling, decrepit terraces of the 1980s. Bristol City, too, say the changes they wish to implement will be state-of-the-art, in keeping with their recent restructuring, having already moved into their new training complex at Failand and relocated their academy to a new site in the last year. In an interview with the Bristol Post, City’s managing director Jon Lansdown (the son of Steve) said: “Ashton Gate has been the club’s spiritual home for more than 100 years and these plans would improve and enhance the facilities in readiness for the next 100 years. Modern stadium facilities are a key pillar for the club, closely aligned with our community engagement, youth development, recruitment and financial prudence.”

But the club has a backup option too. The proposal to redevelop Ashton Gate has been submitted alongside a bid to obtain permission for the construction of a new stadium at Ashton Vale, less than a mile from the current ground. This new stadium would also include rail seating but has repeatedly been delayed by a row over a bid to secure Town Green status for the plot, making approval of the Ashton Gate work the most likely scenario for the introduction of safe standing.

And the tide is beginning to turn in support for the Safe Standing Campaign. At the Football League’s annual general meeting held in Portugal in June, more than two-thirds of the 72 member clubs voted in favour of allowing trials of safe standing areas, forcing the board to explore the matter further. The Premier League remain opposed to the plan, however, despite increasing support among top-flight teams.

Long term, convincing the government to intervene will be difficult given the broad reduction in football-related disorder since the introduction of all-seat stadiums. But Jon Darch of the Safe Standing Roadshow – a touring demonstration of the rail seat technology designed to show what safe standing areas could look like – believes that Bristol City’s plans could be a big step in changing policy makers’ minds. “To get clubs and politicians to have a look at rail seating up to now we’ve had to drag them across to Germany, but now we could have an installation right on our doorstep. I can say ‘Come down to Bristol, I’ll show you what we’ve got at Ashton Gate’,” he says. “And I’m sure anyone who stands in that rail seat area will immediately accept that it’s safe.”

From WSC 320 October 2013