Staying on your feet

With legislation enforcing all-seater stadiums on clubs in the top two divisions of English football, Steve Bradley examines whether this benefits either clubs or supporters

While the media’s attention was distracted recently over the question of who will secure tenancy of the new 2012 Olympic Stadium, a separate move began which could have major implications for the look and feel of any future stadium developments here.

The Taylor Report after the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 recommended all-seat venues for clubs in the top two divisions in England, and this was passed into legislation via the Football Spectators Act. There had been nothing inevitable in this wholesale change to stadium design. Lord Taylor’s report didn’t list standing as a contributor to the Hillsborough disaster, and it even noted that standing itself is not intrinsically unsafe. Instead, the report pinned the blame on poorly designed and maintained grounds, and poor matchday management. Yet in his recommendations, Lord Taylor elected to draw a clear correlation between seating and safety: “There is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control. But I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure.” Instead of ensuring standing became a safe activity within modern, well-run stadiums, the Taylor Report banished this century-old football tradition in favour of a bias towards seating.

From a design perspective, swapping terracing for seats proved to be a relatively straightforward (though costly) change for top clubs to make. For supporters, however, both the desire and the practice of standing has proven much more difficult to eliminate. The report predicted that supporters would grow to prefer sitting, but 20 years on it is clear in stadiums around the country that that is not the case. Fan groups like the Football Supporters’ Federation have long been running campaigns on the issue. Their 2007 Football Fans Survey showed significant support for clubs being allowed to decide on the matter for themselves.

Support has also come from within the world of politics. In 2007 Liberal Democrat MP and Portsmouth fan Mike Hancock attracted significant cross-party backing for an Early Day Motion on safe standing, only for the sports minister to reject it. The following year the Liberal Democrats adopted safe standing as official policy at their conference. And in December 2010 the party’s current culture spokesperson, Bath MP Don Foster, introduced a new safe standing bill into parliament. In it he argued for clubs to be granted the option of introducing safe standing if they wanted to, highlighting how countries such as Austria and Germany had enabled this without issue.

Foster and his party colleagues say they want to change bad legislation, and in the Football Spectators Act they have found a ready target. Perhaps its biggest flaw was the link it created between the quality of football being watched and the legality of standing while doing so. Standing has been allowed to continue unfettered at every level outside the top two divisions, and clubs that find themselves promoted into the Championship are given a three-year grace period in which to update their infrastructure.

This arbitrary cut-off point has placed some clubs in a perilous position, with Scunthorpe Utd being the latest example. Promoted to the Championship in 2009, the club only attracts an average 5,600 attendance to the 9,000-capacity Glanford Park. Yet they are now only a season away from the requirement to go all-seat, which would knock 1,000 off the capacity of the Championship’s smallest ground. And the act also dictates that, once the seats are put in, a stadium cannot be switched back again should the club be relegated. For small clubs like Scunthorpe, the Football Spectators Act represents a de facto barrier to entry into football’s upper tiers.

What success this latest legislative push for safe standing will have is unclear. Introduced as a Private Members’ Bill, it will not succeed without government backing. The bill is due for its second reading in June, and Foster hopes it will create a head of steam for the campaign to convince the government of the need for change. With the Lib Dems a junior partner in the coalition, he hopes it will cajole the government into drawing up its own legislation on the matter. For clubs like Scunthorpe, it would be a change that can’t come quick enough.

From WSC 289 March 2011