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Telegraph: Premier League clubs accused of betraying disabled fans with a third failing to meet wheelchair access promise

Premier League clubs have been accused of betraying their disabled fans after it was revealed that a third are expected to renege on a collective promise to provide the minimum recommended access for wheelchairs.

Despite being secured a windfall from television deals over the next three years of £8.3 billion, some of the richest clubs in world football – including Chelsea and Liverpool – appear already to have accepted that they will not meet a pledge that was made last year. Chelsea currently provide only half of the recommended wheelchair space at Stamford Bridge and, despite last year’s pledge, now only say they can meet minimum numbers when they move into a new stadium. There is no definite timescale on building that stadium.

Liverpool have just proudly opened a new stand but, for all the additions in hospitality space, say that the guidelines for wheelchair use will still only be met at stage two of their renovations. There is currently no definitive timescale either for that part of the project. Others, including Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and West Ham United are also not now expected by campaigners to meet the pledge, while the three promoted teams have been given a special dispensation until 2018 by the  Premier League. There was no mention of additional time for promoted clubs when the promise was first made last year.

“The excuses being put forward by clubs as to why they will not meet this are, frankly, unacceptable,” said Lord Faulkner, a Labour peer. “Liverpool Football Club, for example, seems far more interested in providing general hospitality places than in installing sufficient disabled fans’ seats to comply with football’s own minimum standards. It is law that they [the clubs] are required to provide that accommodation, and it is disgraceful that they have not done so. It is clear that the Premier League appears to have no intention to penalise or sanction clubs that do not meet the pledge.”

A statement was issued on Sept 10 last year in which a series of provisions were said to have been “agreed by Premier League clubs”. It followed a Telegraph investigation into the issue and the first part of the pledge was for “all clubs to achieve compliance with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017”.

The Football Task Force, of which the Premier League was a part, first said in 1998 that these numbers, which are only a modest minimum target, should apply to all grounds.

There is particular frustration among campaigners that promoted clubs are being given extra time on disabled issues while other stadium modifications, to satisfy broadcasters, are mandatory as soon as they reach the Premier League. There is also frustration that the Premier League are not threatening any sort of sanction against clubs who do miss the deadline. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also again today renewed its threat of legal action. “We are now at half-time, and for many teams, the performance is simply unacceptable,” said Lord Chris Holmes, a Conservative peer and the EHRC disability commissioner. “There are clear sanctions in the equality act which Premier League clubs may find themselves on the end of. HD cameras and extensions to hospitality areas are done in a heartbeat.

“I think anyone out there would understand that it’s perfectly reasonable for a Premier League club to be accessible. We have the richest, the most profitable league on the planet. That has to be the most inclusive league as well otherwise it is morally bankrupt.”

Research into the progress of Premier League clubs has been conducted by the charity Level Playing Field and, as things stand today, only three clubs meet the minimum guidelines. This research has been seen by the Telegraph and the three clubs are Leicester City, Manchester City and Swansea City. Other clubs, including Everton, Watford and Manchester United remain at less than half of the recommended number, but have renewed their pledge to get the work done by next season. Stoke City also promise to meet the target while Arsenal, Southampton, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland and Hull City are already close and would need only relatively minor adjustments. West Ham United, who have inherited a supposedly fully accessible Olympic Stadium, have been accused of only reaching the target by including flexible seating in hospitality areas that could also be used for general admission. “One of the most shocking findings is that the Olympic Stadium, the new home of West Ham, will no longer have sufficient permanent seating provisions,” said Joyce Cook, the chair of Level Playing Field. “In its current state, there will only be enough seats for disabled fans if places in the hospitality area are included on a flexible basis, which will never be part of the season ticket provision.

“With the Paralympic Games taking place currently in Rio, how can we talk of the positive legacy of London 2012 for disabled people in the UK when even the Olympic Stadium will no longer be fully accessible? It truly beggars belief.” 

In discussions with Level Playing Field, concerns have been raised by clubs regarding potential disruptions to season ticket holder seating, and the difficulty of obtaining planning permission for necessary changes to be made. “It is an attitude that is symptomatic of a culture in which disabled fans are treated as a nuisance or afterthought,” said Lord Holmes. “Supporters are the lifeblood of any team, and we need to move beyond tired excuses that stadia cannot be made more accessible to disabled fans; no such issues arise when improvements and extensions to hospitality areas are needed.

“The English Premier League is the richest league in the world; in a year when club signings are reaching stratospheric levels, Premiership clubs simply cannot continue to leave disabled fans on the sidelines.” Chelsea claim still to take the issue “very seriously” but say they are constrained by “an old stadium that is restrictive in terms of improving our current accessible seating arrangements”. 

A spokesman added: “A planning application for a redeveloped ground at Stamford Bridge has been lodged with the local council which, if approved, will see the construction of a new stadium that will exceed the Accessible Stadia guidelines to offer outstanding, accessible facilities for all visitors to Stamford Bridge.” 

West Ham say that it was a benefit for the wheelchair spaces to be located in different areas, including hospitality, and point to the vast improvement on Upton Park. “Every disabled supporter that has applied to attend a West Ham United match at London Stadium has been allocated one of our accessible seats,” said a spokesman. “All flexible WAV spaces in Club London will never be allocated at the expense of a disabled supporter.”

The Premier League is adamant that their clubs are working hard to address the issue. “The commitments made in this area are wide-ranging and will set new standards for sport and other sectors,” said a spokesman. “They have challenged all clubs, some of which will have significant logistical and built environment issues, involving old stands, planning issues and new stadia. All are working towards making their grounds meet the appropriate standards in the agreed timescale and improving the experience for their disabled fans.”

Reproduced from: The Telegraph


LPF & EHRC Press Release: More than a third of Premier League clubs will not meet disabled accessibility standards

BBC: Up to third of Premier League clubs to miss deadline for disability access