Safe standing, but not as we know it

Clear, unobstructed rows - Safe standing European style

As a safe standing campaigner for over 16 years, I’m delighted that safe standing in the Premier League will begin in January. Due to Westminster red tape, however, conditions for standing fans will be unduly cramped and access in an emergency for paramedics will be impeded. That’s hugely disappointing and if the Premier League is to be a beacon of stadium safety best practice it requires urgent attention.

Unlike in Europe and Scotland, where for standing use rail seats are tipped up and locked out of the way to leave each row completely free of any obstruction, the government’s failure to remove the all-seater policy red tape requiring an unlocked seat for every spectator means that in the Premier League bulky seats will remain, taking up valuable space that is vital to spectator safety.

Clear, unobstructed rows - Safe standing Scottish style

Speaking in 2018, two years after the opening of the safe standing area at Celtic, which – exempt from the Westminster all-seater policy – utilises the original European style of rail seat, Superintendent Alan Murray of Police Scotland pointed out the importance of space and how the very compact seats at Celtic create this: “The Green Guide to stadium safety talks about how much space each spectator should have. The reality is seats are designed to be sat in. As soon as you stand up, you need 20% more room than you do when you sit down so if you’re standing in a seated area - even if there’s no extra people in there - it immediately becomes, technically-speaking, over-crowded. The rail seats get the space that’s designed to be the space for someone standing so, as long as there’s no migration in there, it is going to be safer."

Space makes things safer because it avoids any spilling out into the aisles and blocking of gangways. It makes things safer too, as it enables stewards and paramedics to rush along a row to the aid of a stricken supporter in a medical emergency (of which there has been a spate this season already). In such situations every second counts. Hemmed in by the rails and impeded by protruding seats on narrow rows, fans will struggle to get out of the way. That will cause unnecessary delays.

By comparison, the space at Celtic, with their flat, locked seats, praised so highly by Superintendent Murray is over 40% greater than it will be at some clubs in England, where the seats will take up to six times as much room.

And all because of that all-seater red tape.

And the red tape is not only preventing clubs from providing as much space as their European or Scottish counterparts, it is also introducing a wholly new safety hazard to standing areas: the obligatory presence of a seat that may not be locked upright, out of harm’s way, i.e. a seat that can be stood on, and fallen off.

It is clearly bonkers that for one type of standing, conventional terraces, the safety guidelines call for all structures to be “non-climbable”, while for another type, deemed ‘safe’ standing, the guidelines have to say, due to that red tape, that seats must be accessible. And they, of course, can be climbed on. In fact, can even be used as steps to climb up onto the rails themselves, as is already happening. And that is clearly not safe.

I personally believe that if they had not had one hand tied behind their back by the red tape of the Westminster all-seater policy, the authors of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds would have written the guidelines differently. Their sole concern, after all, is spectator safety. Martyn Henderson, the Chief Executive of the Sports Ground Safety Authority, and Ken Scott MBE, the Head of Inspectorate, get nothing but praise from me for the open-minded way in which they’ve responded to the supporters’ campaign for safe standing and, following detailed research, took an evidence-based decision that standing behind a waist-high rail is safer than the status quo, i.e. standing behind seat backs that come barely half way up your shins. The great sadness, in my view, is that the Westminster all-seater red tape has prevented them so far from drafting guidelines to facilitate safe standing in the safer way that it is implemented in Europe and Scotland. With lots of room for the fans. Lots of room for paramedics. And nothing to stand on.

There can be no doubt about it: More space = safer. Nothing to stand on = safer. Why aren’t we getting this? Because of Westminster red tape. So, I say to Sports Minister Nigel Huddlestone: If you want the Premier League to be a shining example of safe standing best practice rather than a pale imitation of the real thing in Europe and Scotland, act now to remove that all-seater red tape, so that the safety authorities can do their job unfettered by its constraints.

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