The Big Interview: Ken Scott, SGSA: Football must address persistent standing in seated areas “before something goes wrong”.
WHEN the latest definitive guide to stadium safety is published next year, it will for the first time since the Hillsborough disaster 28 years ago provide guidance on how so-called ‘safe standing’ areas can be introduced to Premier League and Championship football grounds across England.
Whilst legally EPL clubs cannot install non-seating areas, and the idea is not an endorsement by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA), it is as much as a recognition that there is growing interest among top level clubs looking ever closer at introducing areas with dual purpose seating and standing areas, should there be a change in the law allowing areas where supporters can stand for the first time since terracing in the top two levels of English football was outlawed following the tragedy which claimed the lives of 96 supporters.
Moreover, it would help combat one of the biggest safety threats currently facing football grounds – that of thousands of fans standing in areas designed and built to be sat in. This is where significant injury can occur, as people with little room to manoeuvre cascade over seats or down aisles, injuring themselves and others.
“Persistent standing at football is a concern from a safety and customer service perspective” said Ken Scott, Chief Inspector of the SGSA, “You can see at almost every fixture and particularly in the away-end, people are standing for prolonged periods of time in areas that have been designed for sitting in. There have been instances of injuries and the problem must be looked at before something goes wrong.”
The sixth edition of the Green Guide – the Government-funded bible of sports ground safety – will break new ground and include details on rail seating, which involves retractable seats and which is successfully used at Celtic and Borussia Dortmund, among other clubs outside England.
“We have written guidance on dual purpose seating and standing for the first time, because it is one of the solutions that people are looking it but there are no definitive standards. What you don’t want is clubs introducing lots of differing standards and methods, because that causes problems.”
Nearly three decades since Hillsborough, the issue of safe standing remains as contentious as ever. In Greg Clarke, the FA has a chairman known to support safe standing, several top level clubs are looking at it closely and supporters’ groups are piling on the pressure, and while there is growing momentum in support, as yet the Government doesn’t appear minded to budge in its stance that seats are best, although it is looking closely at Celtic as a case study.
It’s a position that Ken finds hard to disagree with. The SGSA was formed in 1992 to oversee and regulate legislation requiring clubs in the top two tiers of English football to have all-seater grounds and lower league clubs to offer best practice in safety – the key recommendation from the Taylor Report into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough stadium, Sheffield, in 1989. As its initial raison d’être, that tragic day in May remains ingrained in the Authority’s DNA.
“The Green Guide concludes that it is possible to design safe standing areas – by definition we couldn’t have it in there if we didn’t think that was the case,” said Ken.
“Having said that, and while there isn’t any panacea to create safe sports grounds, if there is one factor that makes the biggest contribution to safe sports grounds, it is having seats.
“People have their own environment and their own space, sight lines are good and it removes the inconsistencies of standing, where you have small people mixed with large people in the crowd. That encourages people to move around, to move sideways, jump up and down and other things to see, all of which can create difficulties.
“The problem is that in providing seated accommodation, there is always the expectation that people will sit on the seats. Since the mid-90s and beyond, an increasing number of people prefer to stand in seated accommodation.
“And if there is an area of standing that has a risk attached to it, then it’s standing in seated accommodation, because you don’t have the benefit of barriers. We are seeing increasing cases where injury or crowd collapse is occurring because of this.
“As well as safety issues of potentially falling over seats and people at a steep angle, there is the customer care angle because if one person stands, everyone else behind has to stand and so on. And if you don’t want to or can’t, you end up not seeing the game.
“The third key aspect is that when people stand they take more room; they tend to spill out into aisles which has safety risks as stewards and first aid cannot get by.
“So in all, persistent standing in seated areas is something we are giving a lot of attention to. There hasn’t been enough effort to tackle this over the last 20 years and now we’re at a point where it’s a major problem. We have to find a way to resolve it”.