THE BLOG

Could Wales Lead the Way With a Safe Standing Pilot?

05/06/2014 14:37 BST | Updated 04/08/2014 10:59 BST

Welsh football has undergone something of a renaissance in the last couple of years and it's only right, therefore, that we should find ourselves with an opportunity to be at the heart of a movement to address one of Football's most pertinent issues - safe standing.

For many years standing areas at football stadiums have been outlawed for teams playing in the top two divisions of the professional football pyramid and teams entering the upper echelons of the game have been required to 'upgrade' their facilities to adhere to these ground regulations - a legacy of the Taylor Report in 1989.

After the Hillsborough tragedy, steps were quite appropriately taken to make stadiums safer and to prevent a repeat of the tragic scenes which cost so many fans their lives. A generation ago football stadiums were very different places; known for crowd violence, crumbling into dangerous decay and just about the least family friendly environments you could imagine.

It might have seemed sensible at the time to ban standing areas in football stadiums - seating not only made it impossible to overcrowd an area, it also made it easier to police disturbances amongst rival fans, with CCTV enabling police to identify them individually. But the so-called 'English Disease' is thankfully a thing of the past and it no longer makes sense to stigmatise football fans.

Safety has to come first, but it's worth noting that safe standing operates effectively throughout the continent with 'rail seating' providing a convenient way to switch rows from a seated position - to one which allows supporters to stand.

Most importantly, their configuration in fixed rows makes 'surging' of large numbers of fans impossible and it is that key advancement in stadium safety which makes safe standing areas an altogether different proposition to the terraces of the past.

This is also an issue of fairness. Football supporters deserve parity of esteem with aficionados of other sports.

How, for example, can it be safe to stand at the rugby, but not at football matches? Why are race courses and concerts treated differently to football stadiums? Both can be equally crowded (and often more raucous), both serve alcohol - but punters at Chepstow Racecourse are trusted to stand safely, whilst here in Wales, Cardiff and Swansea fans are 'protected' by an antiquated law that says more about the way we view football fans than it does about how we deal with crowd safety in the 21st century.

Fans from visiting Premier League teams who have been to Cardiff City's stadium this season will be aware of the arrangements in the Canton Stand 'singing section', where standing is tolerated in one area - but not explicitly legal. The atmosphere is electric and the club have attracted plaudits for the experience they offer to both home and away supporters. I visited the stadium back in March and was impressed with the arrangements in place there.

Standing should be a matter of choice. Clearly not everyone wishes to stand, but if a stadium can be easily re-configured to offer the option to those who do then why not take advantage of that? Rather than having to skirt around regulations in the way Cardiff do, it should be possible to have designated sections for those fans who wish to stand.

Yesterday I hosted a cross-party 'Safe Standing Roadshow' at the National Assembly to highlight this issue. I was delighted to be joined by Assembly Members from all parties - including Ann Jones of Labour, who has long shared my enthusiastic support for the safe standing campaign.

Having the opportunity to demonstrate 'rail seating' in the flesh was a real game changer for many of the Assembly Members who came along. It helped them to see first-hand how these areas could work in a pilot scheme.

Legislation governing standing is a confusing mess - drafted in a different era, to address a different set of problems, in the shadow of and shaped by a national tragedy. I think we need to accept that we've all moved on and start treating football fans with a little more respect.

The beautiful game has come a long way in recent years and today's crowds are as diverse and family friendly as they have ever been. With that in mind I am keen to work with colleagues here in the Assembly to lobby the UK Government to revisit the issue.

Safe standing has already attracted genuine cross-party support here in the National Assembly for Wales and I am delighted to see such enthusiasm for what started out as a grass-roots fan issue. The hard work undertaken in consultation with fans by organisations like the Football Supporters Federation and the Safe Standing Roadshow has been incredible and it is clear that the appetite is there for the vast majority of supporters.

Both Cardiff and Swansea City have supported the FSF's campaign and given the opportunity I would love to see Wales leading the way with the first pilot scheme of Safe Standing.