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Column 575That verdict has been generally accepted both in the game and in the House.
The policy of moving towards all-seated stadiums must, of course, be implemented sensibly and pragmatically. As I noted earlier, many football fans like to stand and if that can be safely allowed, it is right for the Government, who believe in freedom of choice, to allow them to do so. The review conducted in 1992, in which all the relevant football organisations and the police were consulted, concluded that the grounds in the premier league and the first division presented the greatest risks in terms of crowd control and safety due to the larger crowds attending and the more highly charged atmosphere at the games.
Clearly, wherever a line is drawn, anomalies will arise. However, in seeking to ensure the reasonable safety of spectators, a majority of those consulted agreed that working on a divisional basis was the best approach.
Mr. Terry Patchett (Barnsley, East): Is the Minister aware of the valiant effort and the financial resources that Barnsley football club have put into complying with the Taylor report? Even given the dramatic unemployment situation in our area, Barnsley football club has received a great deal of support and has made a staunch effort to comply with the Taylor report. So far, I have heard the Minister blandly comment on seating and so on but I have not heard him refer to Barnsley football club.
Mr. Sproat: I am aware of the efforts that Barnsley has made. I shall turn to them in a moment. I wanted to put the matter in the context of the debate on all-seater stadiums.
In the opinion of most people, the all-seating policy has been a success. The measure of that success can best be seen in UEFA's decision that England should host the European championship finals in 1996. That decision was a vindication of all the work that the clubs have put into upgrading their stadiums to provide the facilities and comfort which spectators are entitled to expect as we enter the 21st century. The changes have not been easy or cheap, and have been made possible only as a result of the financial assistance provided by the Football Trust, which is, of course largely funded by a reduction in the pool betting duty.
The Football Trust has so far approved awards of more than £120 million towards Taylor-related work and, as hon. Members will know, the Government have agreed to extend the concession until the end of this century. I should also pay tribute to the advice and assistance provided by the Football Licensing Authority and the Football Stadia Development Committee and its predecessor the Football Stadia Advisory Design Council.
I turn now specifically to Barnsley's Oakwell ground. I should first congratulate the hon. Gentleman on Barnsley's l-0 victory at Millwall on Saturday. I am sorry that you and I cannot share similar pleasure at the Australian game, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I said earlier that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central had been admirably persistent in arguing the case for standing to continue at Barnsley. He wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), the then Secretary of State for National Heritage, in June this year. Those representations were carefully considered, as were those from the local authority, and of course the club itself.
Column 576Indeed, the Secretary of State even held a meeting with members of the club to hear their case for an extension to the 1 August deadline.
It is worth pointing out that Barnsley has not questioned the all-seater policy, but has merely asked for an extension of time in which to introduce it. To quote from the original submission from the club:
"It must be stressed quite clearly by the Club that we fully support the move to all-seater stadia--it is our belief that, a generation from now, people will look back to this century and be astonished that spectators actually were even prepared to stand at football matches--let alone wanted to--and we are very proud of our new East stand--the first step on the mammoth task of converting the Oakwell Ground to being an all-seater stadium".
Those are the fair words of the club.
Nevertheless, Barnsley applied for an extension to the 1 August deadline and it was rejected. I will explain why the Secretary of State did not accept Barnsley's request for a temporary dispensation from the all-seater policy. First, it must be borne in mind that for a policy to have any meaning exceptions can be made only in truly exceptional circumstances. Barnsley did face some genuine problems, which the hon. Gentleman highlighted and which I acknowledge, but the question that Ministers had to answer was whether those problems were sufficient to be considered truly exceptional. When this was looked at in June this year, the answer was no.
I accept that Barnsley started from a very small number of seats, that its extraordinary constitution presents complications and that the planning process in relation to the development land that it sought can be very lengthy. However, had the club begun the planning process as soon as the Government's policy was announced, instead of three years later, many of those difficulties could have been overcome.
I also find it difficult to accept that the all-seater policy has restricted the admission of supporters. I note that the average attendance is 5,000, though the hon. Member maintains that it is lower now. That figure is in any case greatly inflated by the 11,000 attendance for the Coca-Cola Cup match against Newcastle. Since the ground has a seating capacity of more than 11,500, it seems that Barnsley's fears that it would have to turn supporters away, thus losing money and creating crowd control problems, have not materialised.
I appreciate that Barnsley has had to re-allocate home and away supporters around the ground, and that away supporters are generally sitting next to the directors' box--which can hardly be considered a great hardship. The Football Licensing Authority pointed out at the time the new east stand was being built that it should be designed with sufficient flexibility to allow it to accommodate both home and away supporters. Had that been done, some of Barnsley's current problems would have been avoided. However, the club chose at the time not to accept the FLA's suggestions.
I am also aware that 2,000 of the seats are of a temporary, uncovered design. But that, too, does not make the club's circumstances exceptional. Chelsea football club, which was also denied an extension to the 1 August deadline, has installed temporary, uncovered seating which is regularly used. Barnsley's gate may have been affected by the seating. If some supporters are deterred from attending, that is a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of a policy with which Barnsley is in full agreement.
Column 577I entirely accept, and indeed mentioned earlier, that financing ground improvements can be very difficult, and in recognition of Barnsley's circumstances the Football Trust gave it a grant of £1 million towards its east stand. I understand that Barnsley is now applying for a grant for a new south stand, seating a further 4,500, and including a social club and community facilities. I am sure that, once the Football Trust and the Football Licensing Authority have been able to satisfy themselves that the design is suitable--I gather from the hon. Gentleman that they have now done so--the trust will give this application the proper consideration. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the trust is independent of the Government, and I cannot say what the outcome of the application will be.
Given all those facts, I cannot agree that Barnsley's circumstances are so exceptional that it should receive a dispensation from the all-seater policy, which was introduced with the safety and comfort of spectators in mind. Many small clubs with limited resources have accepted the policy and made great efforts to introduce it.
Column 578Many clubs have had to close parts of their ground during the season, losing revenue and atmosphere, and creating crowd control problems. Other clubs have also had to introduce temporary arrangements while redevelopment is under way. And other clubs have also had to face legal and planning difficulties. For the Government now to make special allowances for Barnsley might be considered unjustified, and unfair to all the other clubs.
I appreciate that what I have said will not have pleased the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, but I hope that he will accept that I have looked into this case carefully; while I sympathise with any genuine difficulties that Barnsley may face, I am not convinced that I could, in all good faith, come to any other decision.
I shall be happy to see the hon. Gentleman if he wants to come and have a word with me. I will have a look at the problem again. I do not know what powers to change the situation I have, following the original decision, but in view of the hon. Gentleman's persuasive speech today I will certainly agree to a further meeting to talk the matter over.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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