Long-overdue plans to improve access at the country’s biggest football club have divided its disabled supporters.
Although the official disabled supporters’ association at Manchester United has welcomed the plans, which will eventually see the number of wheelchair spaces increase from just 120 to 277, a smaller group of disabled fans have raised concerns.
They say there has not been any consultation on the plans outside the official Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association (MUDSA), and have raised concerns that the new wheeelchair spaces will be restricted to a certain section of the stadium (pictured), and lower levels that are more likely to be exposed to the elements.
As well as increased wheelchair spaces, the number of amenity seats for other disabled fans will rise from 126 to 278 under the club’s proposals, which will be phased in over three years. There will also be new accessible toilet facilities.
The key issue raised by the independent group, the Independent Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association (IMUDSA), is that the club has refused to meet its members to discuss their concerns and allow them to examine the proposals in depth.
The club is just one of many that have been forced to improve access after high-profile concerns that the professional game – particularly the elite Premier League – had not done enough to make its services accessible to disabled supporters.
Three years ago, the club was forced to admit that it had less than half the recommended number of spaces for wheelchair-users in its huge 76,000-capacity stadium, after the disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson highlighted the club as one of the worst offenders in the Premier League when it came to access for disabled fans.
The national disabled supporters’ organisation Level Playing Field, MPs, other peers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have also been critical of the Premier League for failing to carry out sufficient access improvements over the last 20 years.
The Premier League promised in 2015 that every one of its clubs would meet strict access standards by August 2017, but the commission was forced to write to all 20 Premier League clubs in December to ask them to explain how they were complying with their legal duties to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled supporters under the Equality Act.
The pledge to meet standards laid out in guidance 13 years ago in The Accessible Stadia Guide (ASG) is likely to be broken, despite the clubs spending more than a billion pounds on transfer fees last summer.
Richard Currie, of IMUDSA, said: “All we want from the club is for the club to have a meeting to explain the reasoning and the decisions they have made.
“So far they are refusing to do that. It’s not just me as a wheelchair-user but I am concerned that other people with impairments have not been consulted effectively.”
Jon Nield, of IMUDSA, added: “In our opinion they are trying to get away with imposing this on fans because they know when the detail is examined it won’t stand up scrutiny, and disabled fans will most certainly tell them to go away and think again.
“Pretty much everything done by the club seems to be nothing but ‘window dressing’ or ‘smoke and mirrors’ in an attempt to disguise what they are trying to do.”
They also point that a survey of MUDSA members found that nearly two-thirds of those who took part (63 per cent) wanted the new wheelchair spaces to be installed either immediately (by August this year) or by August 2018.
But MUDSA insists that the club has come up with the right solution to improving access.
Chas Banks, who took over as MUDSA’s secretary last October, said he and fellow committee members were shown all of the 28 possible solutions put forward.
The committee, which he stressed was elected by the organisation’s disabled members, voted to approve the proposals at the end of January.
He said: “We were totally satisfied that the club had come up with the right solution, and we think it is a good solution and we think the members are pleased with it.
“We have had very few complaints apart from one very small group.
“It terms of not being consulted, we never expected to be.”
He said the club had not consulted disabled fans when making previous access improvements, and had not consulted with its 75,000 supporters when extending one of its main stands.
And he said that only those in the very lowest-level spaces would be particularly exposed to the elements.
The club itself had refused to comment by noon today (Thursday).
Despite the club suggesting in public that Level Playing Field and EHRC supported its proposals, both organisations declined to endorse them this week.
Level Playing Field (LPF) said it was disappointed that the club would miss the August 2017 target because of its phased approach to achieving the minimum standards, and that it was “not in Level Playing Field’s remit to either approve or disapprove a project”.
Tony Taylor, LPF’s chair, pointed out that Manchester United was one of the world’s richest football clubs.
He said LPF congratulated the club on the improvements, but he added: “Surely, consideration must be given for the disabled fans who have never seen their team play at Old Trafford because of a lack of availability of tickets for wheelchair users.
“It must also be stressed that the planned increase in wheelchair user spaces are spaces that have been owed to disabled fans for over 20 years.”
An EHRC spokesman said: “There has been no formal consultation between the commission and Manchester United Football Club (MUFC).
“We have been in discussion with MUFC with respect to accessibility to the ground, the facilities and access to season tickets, however, we have been clear that as a statutory body it is not our role to either advise on their specific plans nor to rubber stamp them.
“We are also in contact with all Premier League clubs, and last month wrote to each of them, including MUFC, for an urgent update on whether they are compliant with the law and how they are making it easier for disabled fans to attend matches.
“We are currently assessing their responses, which will soon be published on our website.”