The football community is eager for change
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Why is the government so reluctant to embrace safe standing at football grounds?
When the government rejected a request from West Bromwich Albion FC to introduce a safe-standing section at The Hawthorns in May, it's unlikely they anticipated the response they received. With the end of the regular season, over 110,000 people signed a petition calling for the safe-standing rules to be relaxed, triggering a debate in Parliament. It's time for MPs to understand the context of the debate and give it the energy it deserves. The football community is eager for change.
Since 1989, standing in English football's top two divisions has been outlawed by the Football Spectators Act. Given the event that triggered such a law - the Hillsborough disaster which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans - the prohibition was regarded as the right move. Since then, the stance of successive governments has been largely unchanged, and in response to the recent petition, the government claimed that all-seater stadia are "the best means to ensure the safety and security of fans". But does this really remain true?
Borussia Dortmund and its famously named ‘yellow wall’ - a section with standing capacity of 25,000 - is one of the best examples of safe-standing done exceptionally well. Several other Bundesliga clubs, and clubs in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia, also have safe-standing sections. Closer to home, Celtic FC successfully introduced a standing section in 2017 with a capacity of 2,900. Few question the safety of such stands when visiting and all seem to notice the enhanced atmosphere they provide.
In England, a whole host of clubs are actively seeking safe-standing sections in their grounds. Brentford FC's new 17,250-capacity stadium, to be completed in late 2019, has a safe-standing design option built in with many others also open to the idea. This all makes common sense (which oddly isn't that common) in planning and design terms. Safe-standing is exactly that - standing, which is safe.
So, if safety isn’t the issue and clubs are supportive, what continues to make the Government reluctant to embrace change?
Is it the fans? According to some recent surveys, 96% of 7,239 Arsenal fans and 88% of 18,000 Liverpool fans are in favour. Not at all just a "vocal minority", as the minister for sport and civil society suggests.
What about the families of those tragically killed in the Hillsborough sisaster - the reason for the debate in the first place? The Hillsborough Family Support Group has for a long time been opposed, but more recently, some families have been lending their support and calling for a "full and objective debate". The government can no longer use an awful event in football's history as a reason not to engage.
The English Football League (EFL) has also come out in strong support. At its annual general meeting in June 2013, over two thirds of clubs voted in favour of a motion to explore safe standing trials. More recently, the EFL's chief executive, Shaun Harvey, called on the government to review the legislation and stated the EFL will work with the government to "bring it to fruition".
The Premier League has been more hesitant. In 2016, it stated there was "no overall consensus on the matter" and called for more research to be undertaken. Nevertheless, it can only be a matter of time before their view aligns with that of the clubs they represent. Those of us who go to watch professional football are likely to have seen en masse standing in an all seater stadium. That's uncontrolled and not safe at all.
The government's argument that all-seated stadia remain the best means to ensure safety is simply no longer credible. Clubs support it, the fans support it, and the regulations are there to facilitate it. Why should the government stand in the way?
Bill Shankly, the late Liverpool FC manager between 1959 and 1974, said: “Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better”. We agree Bill. The government should know better, and give both clubs and fans the commercial and match day choice of seating or safe standing. They're best placed to decide - so let them.
Alistair Watson and David Clarke are, respectively, head of planning and environment and trainee solicitor at Taylor Wessing.
This article first appeared on City AM on 5 June 2018.