Five Premier League football clubs have let their disabled fans down by failing to meet a pledge on access standards by this autumn, say campaigners.
The Premier League promised two years ago that all its clubs would by this August meet the standards of the 2003 Accessible Stadia guide, including providing a minimum proportion of spaces for wheelchair-users.
That pledge had followed a series of embarrassing media reports into the discrimination faced by disabled supporters at some Premier League grounds.
Two years on, the Premier League has now published a progress report, which reveals that the total number of wheelchair spaces at the 16 clubs that have had a constant presence in the Premier League in the last two years has increased by about 50 per cent, or more than 1,000.
And all but two clubs in this season’s Premier League now have Changing Places toilet facilities – compared with just two in 2015 – with the other two set to build them this season.
The Premier League said the improvements made in the last two years were “unprecedented in any other sport or entertainment sector”.
But the report also says that four of the 16 clubs – Chelsea, Everton, Watford and Crystal Palace – have failed to meet the target for wheelchair spaces.
The Premier League report says Chelsea is planning a major development, and claims work on the current stadium to provide further spaces in the meantime would be “disruptive”, although it is “exploring” the potential to extend provision.
Everton has added more than 50 spaces but blames the age and complexity of the ground, a similar situation to Crystal Palace, which has more than doubled its number of wheelchair spaces.
And Watford (pictured), which also more than doubled its spaces, says it does not currently fill all its existing wheelchair bays and will move towards the minimum standard as demand grows.
Another club, Manchester United, only meets the minimum standards for lower-profile games, and is phasing in the use of further permanent wheelchair spaces over the next few years “to reduce disruption to other fans”.
Tony Taylor, chair of Level Playing Field (LPF), which represents disabled sports fans, said his organisation was “disappointed” that these five clubs had not met the pledge and had “let their disabled fans down”, even if Manchester United was claiming it was “technically compliant”, which he said was “a bit of a dubious statement”.
He pointed to the example set by West Brom, which had made “remarkable progress” to improve access at one of England’s oldest grounds, meeting the minimum standards on wheelchair spaces, and installing easy access and amenity seats, and providing additional accessible toilets, a “state of the art” Changing Places facility, a sensory room, accessible refreshment areas and new signage.
He said this had happened because “the impetus has come right from the very top of the organisation”.
He said Premier League clubs were some of the wealthiest organisations in the country, and that “if the commitment is there it can be achieved”.
Taylor said LPF was now seeking “urgent assurances” from the Premier League over how long its clubs would be given to meet their obligations, that “this subject is not just going to be put away into the filing cabinet and forgotten about”, and that it “keeps the pressure on”.
He said: “The reality is that all clubs should really be at the stage now where they are saying, ‘We are all compliant, end of story.’ That clearly is not the case.
“There’s got to be a determined effort to make sure clubs do become compliant, and quickly.”
He also said that LPF was not “100 per cent sure” that all the figures published by the Premier League were accurate, and it was now going through the report “with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that everybody who’s claiming to be compliant actually is”.
But he said there had been “a considerable amount of progress” and the issue was now “firmly on the agenda” with the Premier League, and that there was “a lot of good news” in the improvements that had been made.
He said that as well as an increase in wheelchair spaces, there were now more sensory rooms at clubs, more Changing Places toilets, more audio-described commentary, and more easy access and amenity seats for fans who need more space but do not use wheelchairs.
And he said LPF wanted to be sure “that that message doesn’t just stop at the Premier League” and is heard in the Championship (the second tier of English football) and the English Football League (the third and fourth tiers).
Bill Bush, executive director of the Premier League, said: “The scale and scope of what has been undertaken across the Premier League is unprecedented in any other sport or entertainment sector.
“For clubs to have delivered more than 1,000 new wheelchair bays for fans, and the widespread installation of Changing Places facilities, show how seriously they have taken this commitment.
“The two-year period to complete the work was a deliberately challenging target.
“Some clubs, particularly those with very old stadiums, have found significant built-environment challenges.
“For those clubs, money has not been the determining factor but disruption to fans and matchday operations means more time is required.”
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has not yet ruled out legal action against some clubs.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “Today’s report from the Premier League is a step in the right direction, but it is clear that some clubs still have a way to go to meet the needs of disabled supporters.
“We have met with every single Premier League club and are now in the final stages of discussions to agree on specific action they will need to take to avoid facing legal action.”
Tracey Crouch, the minister for sport, said: “I welcome the work that Premier League clubs have done and are doing to meet their legal obligations to disabled spectators and the commitment from the Premier League to keep their clubs focussed on these requirements.
“Football is rightly stepping up to fulfil these obligations.
“I expect all sports and all clubs to take the necessary action to fulfil their legal obligations under the Equality Act of 2010 so that disabled people are not placed at a substantial disadvantage when accessing sports venues.”