Before the start of this year’s football season, West Ham’s much discussed move to the London Stadium has proved controversial for a number of, already well-publicised, reasons.

And following a number of West Ham’s first fixtures at their new home, the London Stadium has once again shown its capacity to provoke debate. Instead of chronicling the events on the pitch, some of the press coverage has instead focussed on “crowd disturbances” in the home stands, which appear in part to have been sparked by fans who used to routinely stand during games at the Boleyn Ground, being asked sit at the London Stadium.

These reports have led to a renewed focus on a debate that has been ongoing for a number of years amongst football fans, namely, whether new forms of so-called “safe standing” should be introduced at football stadia in the top two divisions of English football.

The current legal position for standing at football stadia in England and Wales, whilst by no means straightforward, is briefly summarised below:

  • Whilst it is compulsory, by virtue of the 1989 Football Spectators Act, for all clubs within the first and second tier of the English Football League to have an all-seater stadium for their home fixtures, it is not compulsory for those clubs in the leagues below.
  • If a club is promoted from the third tier of the English Football League, it has three years to convert its home stadium to meet the all-seater requirement.
  • If that club is subsequently relegated before the expiry of that three year period, the “countdown” to the three year deadline stops. However should that club return to the second tier, the clock once again starts ticking from where it left off.
  • However, once a club has been required to go “all seated” it must remain so.
  • And, whilst it is not a criminal offence to “persistently” stand, it is a breach of ground regulations.

In this respect, football stadia occupy a relatively unique position, considering spectators at cricket matches, in both codes of rugby, or those at horse races throughout the UK, are able to stand on the terraces.

Football’s position can be attributed, in part, to the violence that often scarred the terraces during the 1970s and 1980s and, more importantly, to the string of fatal tragedies at football stadia in England and Scotland during the 20th century, in particular the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Indeed, one of the key recommendations of Lord Justice Taylor’s report following the disaster was for all terraces to be removed from football stadia in order to improve safety and assist with crowd control, a recommendation that, as we have seen, was eventually only partially implemented.

Yet there has been a growing clamour to reassess the current legislation surrounding football stadia, most notably through the Football Supporters’ Federation’s Safe Standing Campaign. Those in favour of the reintroduction of standing point to a survey showing that nine out of ten supporters are in favour of fans having the choice between whether they sit or stand, whilst some observers of the game regard it as a means of both countering what they believe is an increasing gentrification of the game and ensuring that it is affordable for fans from all walks of life.

In addition, supporters argue that the development of new forms of safe standing since the late 1980’s addresses the key concerns in the Taylor Report regarding safety and crowd control. One such example is the rail-seating used throughout football stadia in Germany, which includes the near 25,000 capacity grandstand at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion stadium, otherwise known as the “Yellow Wall”. Safe standing advocates point to its widespread use in Germany as powerful empirical evidence that safe standing does not equate to a return to the “bad old days” of crumbling open terraces and dangerous crowd surges.

Now that the overwhelming support amongst football supporters has become clear, it seems that tangible momentum is indeed building for the introduction of safe standing in the top two divisions of English football, whether that be in the form of the promise from the new chairman of the Football Association to lobby the Government or the recent reports that the Premier League is prepared to talk to clubs about the potential implementation of rail seating. There has even been developments on the all important political front with the Welsh Assembly passing a motion in July 2014 to pilot safe standing at grounds in Wales and the Liberal Democrats pledging to introduce safe standing in their manifesto for the 2015 General Election.

It may be that the remaining concerns over safe standing, which are understandably centred on safety after the tragedies of the past, can be addressed by the developments in Scotland, where the legislation relating to all-seater stadia does not apply. After the Scottish Premier League relaxed its former requirement for all-seater stadia in 2011, Celtic FC recently became the first club in the UK to install rail seating in a formerly all-seater stadium.

Should the rail seating at Celtic Park prove a success, safe standing advocates are likely to deploy it as another piece of evidence with which to further press their case. Given the prevailing winds, it may not be long before standing in the top two divisions in England once again becomes a reality.