One of the country’s 20 top football clubs has admitted that it will breach a promise made by the Premier League that all of its stadiums would meet strict access standards by August 2017.
When the Premier League, the governing body for the top 20 club sides in England and Wales, made the pledge in 2015, it was welcomed by the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, and was seen as one of the few successes of his time in office.
But the Premier League club Watford has now admitted that it has no intention of honouring the pledge to meet standards laid out in guidance 13 years ago in The Accessible Stadia Guide.
Only four months ago, Watford told Disability News Service (DNS) that it was “very confident in its ability to be fully compliant with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017” and was “fully focused upon delivering our part of the Premier League’s public commitment”.
Watford has a capacity of 21,000, which under the guide and other guidelines means there should be at least 153 wheelchair spaces and another 153 “ambulant and easy access” (AEA) spaces. Three-quarters of these spaces should be in an elevated position.
But Watford (pictured) only has 61 wheelchair spaces, and will increase this to just 92 – still more than 60 short of the target – by August, although the number of AEA seats will increase from 124 to 173.
The club says the extra 61 necessary wheelchair spaces will be achieved in the future through “planned stadium development works”.
The disabled supporters’ charity Level Playing Field, which campaigns for better access to sports stadiums, said it was “very disappointed” that the club was “reneging” on the Premier League pledge, although it welcomed its recent opening of a sensory room for young disabled fans, with equipment funded by charity.
The club’s disabled suporters’ organisation, Watford Football Club Enables (WFC Enables), is backing the decision to increase spaces only to 92, which it claims will “satisfy current demand” from wheelchair-users and leave a “healthy 30 per cent reserve capacity for the future”.
David Butler, chair of WFC Enables, said in a statement released by the club about its decision that he feared a “potentially negative attitudinal change” if extra wheelchair spaces were introduced that were then not taken up by disabled fans and left empty.
He said that each wheelchair space and seat for a personal assistant can mean the removal of between nine and 12 seats for non-disabled fans, as well as further losses to make way for ramps for those seats in elevated positions.
This could mean a four per cent reduction in the ground’s overall capacity, if the club was to meet the Premier League’s pledge, he said, at a time when matches are currently sold out.
He said: “If these additional spaces were to be provided, 700 able-bodied supporters would be displaced from cherished seats that they may have occupied for many years.
“If these supporters subsequently see that these positions are not appropriately occupied due to lack of demand, they will be at best disgruntled and at worst antagonistic.”
He told DNS that he was “genuinely concerned abut the safety of my disabled members” if such changes were made, and that he did “not want to put them unnecessarily in that position”.
But he did say that he was “not happy” that the club had not carried out the necessary work to improve access previously, during the two decades since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act.
He also pointed out that the club has just opened the sensory room, and that its plans for increasing wheelchair spaces had been unanimously approved at WFC Enables’ annual general meeting.
But he said he was “reluctant to comment” on the club’s previous promise to meet the Premier League pledge by August.
Tony Taylor, chair of Level Playing Field, was critical of the stance taken by the club and WFC Enables and their “inappropriate” and “over-simplified supply and demand argument”.
He questioned why there was not more demand from wheelchair-users when there were lengthy waiting-lists for tickets at many other clubs.
He said: “It may well be that accessing tickets might be more difficult for disabled supporters or that the overall match day experience is lacking for disabled people.”
He said clubs had made “significant revenue” from the seats “occupying the spaces wheelchair users should have been able to occupy” in the years since the Accessible Stadia Guide was introduced.
Taylor added: “As an organisation representing disabled people, we know only too well that many disabled football fans are regularly disappointed by their matchday experience – inaccessible websites and lack of information, shortage of wheelchair-user spaces, transport and parking problems, insufficient easy access seats for ambulant disabled people, a lack of adequate audio descriptive commentary for blind and partially-sighted fans and all too often as an away fan, having to sit among the home supporters.”
In October, the Premier League was branded dishonest by the equality watchdog’s disability commissioner, Lord [Chris] Holmes, over its attitude to access and inclusion.
He told MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee that there had not been “anything like an inclusive culture” in the Premier League and among Premier League clubs, which was “a great shame when it is our only national game”.
He warned that the commission could take legal action under the Equality Act against individual clubs, and even against the Premier League itself, while he believed that probably more than a third of the clubs would fail to meet the Premier League’s August 2017 deadline.
The Premier League is due to publish a club-by-club account of progress on meeting its access pledge later this month.
A Premier League spokesman said: “It is for Watford to communicate the work they are doing in this area, and they have done so in great detail in the article you have referenced.
“Clearly the club has consulted its disabled fans and significant progress has and continues to be made.
“Any follow-up questions about Watford’s future work in this area should be put to the club.
“In terms of the Premier League, as previously communicated we will at some point in January provide an update to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the culture, media and sport select committee on the progress all clubs are making in their work to enhance disabled access.”