Date: 15th September 2016 at 9:22pm
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In September 2015, the Premier League made a promise to ensure that all member clubs would make their home grounds fully compliant with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017.

The statement from the Premier League at the time read.

‘We look forward to reading the Government`s report and will take on any information it provides. At the moment, we are undertaking our own assessment, surveying every Premier League stadium to determine improvements for disabled access. Disability access was discussed at the Premier League Shareholders meeting last week with several new proposals agreed. All Premier League Clubs have agreed to make their stadiums compliant with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017. Clubs also agreed to ensure the appropriate number of wheelchair bays are located in their away sections (10% of their home provision).’

Level Playing Field obviously welcomed the commitment at the time, but a full 12 months on to the day – yesterday – they released an updated press release stating that seven Premier League sides would miss the August deadline given current progress in that direction.

The clubs they report as not being able to meet this deadline are Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth – whilst recently promoted Hull City, Burnley and Middlesbrough do have an additional 12 months to meet the requirement.

In a meeting with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Premier League itself admitted progress hadn’t been as swift as originally anticipated, and EHRC Disability Commissioner (Lord) Chris Holmes, said of their admission.

‘All clubs agreed to make the minimum recommended improvements for disabled fans over 2 years. We are now at half-time, and for many teams, the performance is simply unacceptable.’

The Commission warned that clubs that fail to meet the requirements for disabled access could in fact now face legal action under the Equality Act.

‘Football teams are legally obliged under the Equality Act to ensure disabled fans are not disadvantaged. Where it is found that little or no progress has been made toward improving accessibility, we will consider using all our strong legal powers to ensure compliance; all options are on the table. We will be writing to each club to ensure they do not go back on their commitment given last year, and we will be receiving a report every six months from the Premier League on progress being made.’

Level Playing Field’s Chair Joyce Cook explained.

‘Just like last season on the pitch, champions Leicester City are leading the way, while many other teams such as Manchester United have shown clear commitment towards reaching the ASG standards of accessibility by next year.’

Noting that one of the most disappointing things when it came to a failure to comply, was that new builds such as West Ham’s now London Stadium, and former Olympic Stadium, wouldn’t now comply with the regulations unless hospitality seats were given over on a flexible basis – which will never form part of a season ticket provision – so it’s a lack of planning across the board.

‘With the Paralympic Games taking place currently in Rio, how can we talk of the positive legacy of London 2012 for disabled people in the UK when even the Olympic Stadium will no longer be fully accessible? It truly beggars belief.’

Clubs themselves have defended the delays by pointing out disruption to other season ticket holders with renovations and even planning permission issues to make the changes in the first place.

Those reasons didn’t wash with Lord Holmes.

‘Supporters are the lifeblood of any team, and we need to move beyond tired excuses that stadia cannot be made more accessible to disabled fans; no such issues arise when improvements and extensions to hospitality areas are needed. The English Premier League is the richest league in the world; in a year when club signings are reaching stratospheric levels, Premiership clubs simply cannot continue to leave disabled fans by the sidelines.’

With seven potentially missing out, clearly progress has been made by some clubs though in recent seasons as the new agreement was drawn up following a BBC report back in 2014, and back then 17 out of the 20 member clubs failed to meet the required number of wheelchair spaces, and eight of those at the time failed to even offer half the number they should’ve done under national guidelines.

So 17 down to 7, with 3 of those having an extra 12 months to comply is significant progress of sorts, and for those that won’t meet the deadline, it also doesn’t mean improvements haven’t been made, it just hasn’t been enough of an improvement in applicable spaces.

For many campaigning on this issue, it simply isn’t acceptable as access and numbers pretty much spent two decades not being addressed by clubs to begin with, so there’s little goodwill left – especially as the Premier League effectively set their own deadline.

Taking these claims back to the Premier League, the BBC received the following response.

‘The commitments made in this area are wide-ranging and will set new standards for sport and other sectors. All clubs are working towards making their grounds meet the appropriate standards in the agreed timescale.’

Some clubs gave their own responses as well, Chelsea explained that they have a planning application in with the local council for a redeveloped ground at Stamford Bridge, and should that new stadium construction be approved, their disability access in the future would exceed current requirements, Watford said they were ‘very confident’ of being compliant by the deadline, and Crystal Palace stated they have ‘met with architects’ as they continue working towards the Accessible Stadia Guidelines.

Liverpool didn’t respond, but obviously feature given their £100million Main Stand redevelopment this year, which upgraded facilities for disabled fans, but didn’t go far enough to meet the requirements on its own. It’s believed the next stage of redevelopment will see them meet requirements.

West Ham explained.

‘Every disabled supporter that has applied to attend a West Ham United match at London Stadium has been allocated one of our accessible seats. All flexible WAV spaces in Club London will never be allocated at the expense of a disabled supporter.’

As things stand, three clubs already meet the requirements – Leicester City, Manchester City and Swansea City. Stoke City, Arsenal, Southampton, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland and Hull City only require minor adjustments to reach the standard, but Everton, Watford, and Manchester United are confident of achieving the requirements despite remaining at less than half the numbers recommended so far, the Telegraph report.

Obviously this isn’t just a Premier League matter, it applies to Football League clubs as well, and those with promotion ambitions this year in the Championship especially will be following intently, as although they may not be held to the 2017 deadline, accessibility and appropriate number provisions have to met nontheless.

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