Some of the country’s top football clubs have been told by the equality watchdog to spend some of the millions of pounds they receive when promoted and relegated from the Premier League to improve access for disabled fans.
The call to spend part of the “balloon” and “parachute” payments on disability access came in the final report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on the accessibility of Premier League football stadiums.
The report found significant improvements since the watchdog sent a letter to all 20 Premier League clubs in December 2016 to ask for information on the steps they had taken to meet their legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments for disabled supporters.
The total number of wheelchair spaces has risen from 3,024 in April 2017 to 3,724 in April 2018, while the number of clubs providing the recommended number of amenity and easy access seats has risen from eight to 17.
All 20 of the clubs that were written to in December 2016 now provide accessible toilets to the required standard, compared to just 10 in April 2017.
And all 20 also now provide support or aids to support people with sensory impairments, compared to seven in April 2017.
One of the richest Premier League clubs, Chelsea, has signed a legal agreement with EHRC to improve access at its Stamford Bridge stadium.
The commission had written to Chelsea last October warning that there could be “unlawful acts” taking place that were “contrary to the club’s duties as a service provider under the Equality Act 2010”.
Two other clubs, Burnley and Watford, have signed informal agreements with EHRC to fulfil their obligations under the act.
But the watchdog said it was “disappointing” that four more clubs – Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Hull City* and Sunderland* – had refused to sign informal agreements, although they each promised to improve their facilities for disabled fans.
The watchdog warned that if they “fall short against the improvement plans that they have shared with us” it will use its legal powers to “ensure they meet their obligations towards their disabled supporters”.
Among the report’s recommendations is for the Premier League to redraft its handbook to place a greater emphasis on the access pledge first made by its members in September 2015 that they would comply with guidance on accessible sports stadiums laid out in the Accessible Stadia guide.
When a club is promoted to the Premier League, it is given two seasons to meet these standards, but the handbook currently makes no mention of this.
The report adds: “The Premier League is the richest football league in the world and cannot use affordability as a barrier to undertaking work.”
The report also calls on the Premier League to consider insisting that clubs that are promoted or relegated from the league should ensure they use some of the millions of pounds they receive in “balloon” (for promoted clubs) or “parachute” payments (for relegated clubs) “to improve disability access at their grounds more quickly”.
Clubs that have been relegated can expect about £100 million over three years if they do not return to the Premier League within that time.
A Premier League spokesman said that its 20 current members would be asked to consider the two recommendations.
The commission also plans to meet governing bodies of other football leagues and “seek to influence other sports’ governing bodies” so they take a “strong leadership role on the issue”.
Tony Taylor, chair of Level Playing Field, which represents disabled sports fans, welcomed the report and supported the use of parachute and balloon payments to improve access, although he said it was important to be “pragmatic about the art of the possible”.
But he said: “The Premier League pledge has demonstrated what can be done in a relatively short period of time, but in reality disabled fans have been treated unfairly for many years.
“It is going to take time to regain their trust and for them to have the confidence that they can enjoy their match day experience.”
And he said the Premier League pledge was not “aspirational” but should instead be “the very minimum that disabled supporters can expect of their clubs”.
Taylor said: “It is pleasing that some clubs have taken this on with some gusto, but others still have a way to go and we will continue to monitor and press for more than the bare minimum.”
He added: “There is little doubt that it has taken the threat of enforcement by the commission to drive change at some clubs, but the overall picture is positive.
“Clubs now recognise the importance and benefits of good access and there have been increases across all facilities for disabled fans.”
He said Level Playing Field would continue to work with the clubs and governing bodies to provide advice and support.
David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, said the commission had seen “some excellent examples of how clubs engaged with disabled fans to introduce many positive changes” but had also “met some resistance”.
He said: “It’s pleasing that so many clubs – including Chelsea, one of the world’s biggest – have taken our threat of legal action seriously and are now working with the commission to deliver real change. It’s important that all clubs make disability access a priority.
“We’re proud of the important part we’ve played in ensuring Premier League football clubs change their ways and the experience of their disabled fans.
“There was no excuse for the poor standard of facilities we saw at some clubs last year. As a result of using our powers this won’t be the case in future.
“Disabled people must be able to participate equally in all aspects of life.”
Bill Bush, the Premier League’s executive director, said: “In the last three years clubs have made huge improvements to disabled access for their fans.
“The scale and scope of the work undertaken – from enhanced car parking and ticket purchasing options to increasing the wheelchair bay provision – is unprecedented in any other sport or entertainment sector.
“The league and the clubs are considering the details of the EHRC report and will respond in due course.
“We will continue to engage constructively with disabled supporters and are committed to making future improvements to keep pace with rising standards.”
Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, said she was “so pleased that the Premier League is making significant progress on accessibility, setting an example to clubs all over the country to do right by all of their fans.
“But there is still more work to be done, and I would urge all clubs to ensure they’re meeting the standards required by law.”
*Both Hull City and Sunderland have been relegated from the Premier League since EHRC wrote to them in December 2016
Picture: Some of the accessible facilities at Premier League club Watford