Time to take a stand on safe-standing?
Last week, all 12 clubs in the Scottish Premier League voted unanimously to relax rules that require clubs to have a minimum all-seater capacity for their stadia. The change allows clubs to introduce ‘safe-standing’ areas – has the time come for this to be considered elsewhere in the UK?
The rules have been on have been in place essentially since the SPL voluntarily brought in the Taylor report recommendation that terracing at grounds should come to an end. Under the SPL agreement, local council and police need to approve a club’s decision to reintroduce standing before the SPL will approve the application, but this is a major shift in policy.
Nobody needs much of a history lesson to recall why standing was abolished. The Hillsborough disaster 22 years ago saw mass-overcrowding in terracing areas ultimately lead to the tragic deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. The subsequent inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor recommended that clubs in the top two divisions move to all-seater stadia by the start of the 1994/95 season.
Safety at grounds has certainly improved in the years since the Taylor recommendations were brought in. This has not just been through the removal of terracing, though the act of their removal did kick-start investment to redevelop a lot of old areas in grounds. Coupled with increases in TV money, clubs generally made much-needed improvements to their grounds that have helped to increase safety.
Some clubs, unwilling or unable to fund a complete rebuild of terracing areas, went for the much cheaper option of adding seats directly onto the old terracing – resulting in cramped, uncomfortable seating with an often terrible view of the game. This was certainly the case when I’ve ‘sat’ in the away end at Fratton Park, and meant that if you wanted to be comfortable and see the game, you had to stand – so everyone did.
Standing at games is not for everyone. For kids and the elderly, it can be problematic. I love standing at matches. At away games, when the atmosphere inevitably tends to be better regardless of how your team is doing, you often find fans stand for most of the game – with stewards attempting in vain to get everyone to sit down.
Taylor was sceptical about the idea of standing at games creating a better experience:
‘I am not convinced that the cherished culture of the terraces is wholly lost when fans are seated. Watching the more boisterous and demonstrative sections at all-seater grounds, I have noted no absence of concerted singing, chanting, clapping or gesticulating in unison. The communal spirit is still there and finds ready expression. To such extent as the seating limits togetherness or prevents movement, that price is surely worth paying for the benefits in safety and control.’
There are certainly grounds that are all-seater that have decent atmospheres, driven to a degree by particularly passionate sections of the ground. But Taylor’s view suggests a lack of appreciation for those fans that genuinely do have more enjoyment at a game if they’re able to stand. He is absolutely correct that standing should not be at the expense of safety, but this need not be a simple zero-sum game – you can have standing and retain safety, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest fans would like the choice.
The Football Supporters’ Federation produced an excellent report in 2007, with a foreword from a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster, where they highlighted the success of safe-standing in the German Bundesliga, where they can be easily switched to seated areas if required. The Deutsche Fussball Bund (German FA) had their own review following the Heysel & Hillsborough disasters, and like Taylor considered the merits of switching to all-seater stadia – and rejected them. In amongst the reasons, two stood out for me:
‘In the long run, abolishing standing areas would make it considerably more difficult, if not impossible, for socially disadvantaged football supporters to attend their team’s matches. Football, being a people’s sport, should not banish the socially disadvantaged from its stadia, and it should not place its social function in doubt itself.’
‘It is here where the atmosphere that attracts millions of people all over the world to our sport is created. It is here where the fans that are the first to cheer their team on and the last to whistle are to be found. Young people live with the emphasis on the physical. They seek and require direct (and physical) contact with their like-minded peers. The terrace is their own miniature world, a place where people from all sections of society meet. Those who do away with standing areas take away a part of these people’s lives.’
The first point perhaps reflects Germany’s generally more reasonable pricing structure, which continues to offer top flight football at a fraction of the cost of the Premier League. At a time when fans are being priced out of many games, safe-standing could enable clubs to offer tickets at lower prices.
The second is a good response to Taylor’s lack of understanding about why people enjoy standing areas. It also suggests we have lost something in removing all standing areas. We have certainly lost choice, and have created situations that suit neither those that want to stand and those that prefer to sit. In the away end at Wycombe earlier this season, fans en masse were standing up singing for the first 15 minutes – for the first time I witnessed an older fan arguing with a steward to make the fans sit, because he didn’t want to. We have fans standing in seated areas, because they really enjoy standing and it’s an important part of them enjoying their match day experience, and some fans suffering as a result because they have no interest in standing. What we need is choice – safe-standing for those that prefer it, allowing those that don’t to fully enjoy the game from their seats.
The SPL are paving the way for this to become a reality up in Scotland. Celtic are rumoured to be seriously considering piloting it. How easy would it be to make this happen South of the border? Unlike in Scotland, we have legislation relating to this – The Football Spectators Act 1989. But it may not require much to change it, according to the FSF report:
‘The Football Spectators Act does not…state that stadia in the Premier League and Football League Championship should be all seated. It simply says that the Secretary of State may direct the FLA [The Football Licensing Authority] to make conditions regarding seating a condition of granting the licence which is required for each ground. The Act also states that the Secretary of State shall consult with the FLA, which may make recommendations as it thinks fit. The all-seater requirement could be relaxed if the Government so wished, without the need for new legislation. The Secretary of State could simply repeal the Regulations.’
So, in essence, this could change quite quickly in the event a Government wanted to allow clubs to introduce safe-standing if they so wished to. One politician said in 1995 that ‘While safety must always be the number-one criterion, there is no reason to ignore technological improvements made since Taylor reported, which might now allow for safe standing.’ That politician was Tony Blair, who then completely ignored the issue in Government.
In the weeks leading up to the last General Election, the Lib Dem culture, media and sport spokesman Don Foster spoke of his party’s support to look at safe-standing: ‘The Lib Dems are committed to exploring options for introducing safe standing at football grounds in consultation with fans, clubs and safety experts and have passed a motion at our party conference to this effect. The evidence from countries like Germany shows that safe standing can operate effectively and safely to give fans more choice about how they enjoy the game.’
Foster has a bill that will have its second hearing in the Commons on 20 January after being first discussed a year ago – The Safe Standing (Football Stadia) Bill. This has no chance of becoming law unless it’s supported by the Government, which is unlikely to happen unless people contact their local MP about it. If it’s an issue that you care about, ask your MP to support this bill when it comes up next month. You can also sign the FSF petition.
The SPL decision to look at safe-standing is a sensible one. We don’t want to return to the old days of old terracing. But as an enhancement to fans’ experiences at games, we can learn from examples from abroad where safe-standing is a success and give clubs the option to introduce it.