UK government doesn't want safe standing in football stadiums

© Action Images / Tony O'Brien
The research, the fans, even the teams (to an extent) support safe standing in stadiums. Increased attendances and a much-improved atmosphere are obvious benefits. But the UK government refuses to countenance safe standing for political reasons.

The English Premier League is easily the biggest football league in the world, both in terms of revenue (the League dwarfs the Italian and Spanish league revenues combined) and in terms of viewing figures, with a TV audience of around 4.7 billion people.

According to many fan groups, it still has things to learn from other leagues around the world if it wants to stay the biggest, and arguably the best, league in the world. Spanish football is slowly becoming more and more mainstream in the UK, with the battle royale - Real Madrid vs Barcelona - capturing more and more fans every year.
As in all sports, fans are pretty important in football. The Premier League knows this, and has stepped up in catering to them in the last few years: they introduced the Fantasy Premier League, and recently signed a new TV rights deal worth over £5 billion.

However, by far the biggest thing that needs improving in English football is the prices. The cheapest season ticket at Germany's leading club, Bayern Munich, costs £150, while Arsenal's cheapest is £1,014.

© Dylan Martinez

The reason is what is known as 'safe standing' at European stadiums. The most popular form of this is known as 'rail seats': metal, fold-up seats that form a robust frame at waist height for the spectators behind to lean on. Almost half of German clubs have these fitted in at least part of their grounds. Their benefits are two-fold: for domestic games in the Bundesliga, the seats are locked in their upright position, providing space for standing spectators. For UEFA-sanctioned games, the seats are unlocked, converting the area into a seated space and therefore an all-seater stadium.
So why don't UK stadiums have 'safe standing'? The issue lies with the government, who are wary and reluctant to introduce it, mostly thanks to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989.

Ninety-six Liverpool fans died when they were crushed due to police and stadium officials letting too many fans into the stadium. The fans were in the Leppings Lane stand, where entry was only through one of seven decrepit turnstiles. The police opened an exit gate to relieve pressure, but this led to a tunnel marked 'Standing', which in turn led to two already overcrowded enclosures.

Police let too many fans into the stand, which in turn led to one of the worst football disasters in history. It's estimated that in the 1980s the average English football stadium could theoretically hold roughly double the amount of standing fans as it could seated. It was a time when English football was at its lowest ebb - the opposite of today - with low attendances due to hooliganism and other major factors, contributing to a downturn of many clubs financial prospects.

In the 1970s, when hooliganism was at its height, fans would travel to away fixtures with the intention to 'take a terrace'. They would crowd into one of the terraced stands that were popular with the home crowd, relishing the inevitable violence which then erupted.

This led to segregated stands for home and away fans, and pens to confine fans. These pens caused the disaster in 1989. The police admitted too many fans into the pens in the Leppings Lane stand, which resulted in overcrowding and the crush which followed.

© Darren Staples

The crush at Hillsborough led to the Taylor Report, which was published in 1990. The report recommended that all top-level football clubs converted their stadiums to all-seater. This was completed in 1994. Many clubs had to either demolish and build new stands (such as Manchester United, with the iconic Stretford End, or Liverpool's Kop), or build completely new stadiums, such as Sunderland moving from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light.

While the Hillsborough Disaster was caused by police admitting too many fans into the Leppings Lane stand, it wasn't caused by the standing terraces, at least not directly. The Taylor Report admitted this, saying that standing accommodation was not inherently unsafe. The UK government, however, elected to remove all the standing spaces in the major stadiums, to prevent another disaster.

With this in mind, it's not hard to see why the government is reluctant to allow football clubs to introduce safe standing into portions of their stadiums. Some clubs are for it - Aston Villa and Sunderland in particular - while some are against it, for example Liverpool. Safe standing would allow cheaper prices for fans, which would fuel growth for clubs and pay for the conversion of a stand or portioning off a safe standing area. 

However, the UK government believes that stadiums are "safer and more comfortable than they were twenty years ago," a valid claim, considering stadiums in the late 1980s were crumbling and falling apart. "In meetings with the football authorities and clubs, there is no appetite to change the current policy and no compelling case has been made."

While many fans would be in support of safe standing and therefore cheaper ticket prices, the government needs to consider every avenue. No UK government wants to be seen as the one that indirectly causes another disaster like Hillsborough, even if practical experience elsewhere in Europe says it will not happen. In a protect-yourself-first environment, they simply won't take a chance.

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