Tracey Crouch is everything a Sports Minister should be – bright, independent minded, and above all passionate about her subject. But on this one I think she’s wrong.
Terracing in the top two divisions was outlawed after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The context was not just football’s greatest tragedy, but years of bad behaviour in the stands.
Football and stadiums have changed significantly since then and safety has been nothing short of transformed, with pens and perimeter fences thankfully confined to history. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that tens of thousands of spectators still stand up every week – they just do so in their seats in the face of unenforceable ground regulations saying they mustn’t.
To fall over whilst standing in front of a low backed seat is far more likely to lead to injury than standing in front of the waist high safety rail that puts the ‘safe’ in safe standing. In short, a refusal to change the law is the current weak point in UK stadium safety.
How do we know that safe standing is, indeed, safe? It has shown to be the case at Celtic and in Germany, where it has operated for many years. And if you don’t want to stand, you don’t have to. No ground in the world is all-safe standing, it is usually limited to one area for those who prefer to.
Safe standing probably wouldn’t increase capacities at existing grounds, as the concourse space and entry and exit routes will have been designed to serve a specific number of people. What is the point then? As well as making grounds safer, it would give football fans what they overwhelmingly want, according to polls by the Football Supporters Federation and dozens if not hundreds of others by clubs and supporters’ groups around the country. Some football fans just prefer to stand, as shown by the number who have continued to do so since the law was changed 30 years ago.
It is true there is no clarion call for safe standing amongst Premier League clubs, most of whom have full stadiums and make a profit with their tens of millions of TV money. But in the Championship, where grounds are 70% full, and nearly every club makes a loss, it could be a real help to improve atmosphere and encourage more fans through the turnstiles.
The evidence about the low risk of safe standing is already decisive, but the politics needs to be carefully handled given the sensitive matter of public safety. The government should set up an independent review to look at the experience from Germany and Scotland, as well as the situation in England now, and use that to update stadium regulations and, if necessary, the law.
In 2017 the Liberal Democrats were the only one of the three major parties to include safe standing in their manifesto. It would be surprising if Labour hadn’t caught up by 2022, and the Conservatives shouldn’t get left behind.