Barnsley Football Club

– in the House of Commons am 10:18 pm ar 22 Tachwedd 1994.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. Wells.]

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central 10:19, 22 Tachwedd 1994

I would like to declare an interest in the matter that I intend to raise. I own a share in Barnsley football club, although I derive no benefit from that club whatever. On 24 June, the football club was refused a temporary exemption from the licensing requirements of the Taylor report. That report required that Premier League and Endsleigh League first division clubs were to have all-seater accommodation in place by 1 August 1994, or to have closed down that accommodation which was not seated. I hope to persuade the Minister this evening to change that decision in view of the changed circumstances at the club since that decision was taken earlier in the year.

I should say at the outset that Barnsley football club is committed entirely to the Taylor requirements. Its request, which I am echoing tonight, is for a temporary exemption only from those licensing requirements, until the end of the season. Both the club and I accept that the move to all-seater stadiums should continue.

Since the start of the season, the club has required home spectators to use the brand new 7,000-seat east stand. Those seats were planned and built into the ground this year. That large number of seats was planned to maximise the number of seats for the expenditure which the club had to outlay. It needed a large number of seats as quickly as possible and it wanted those seats to be a permanent structure—a permanent stand and a quality building. That is what the club has achieved with the east stand, which is a quite remarkable building. The remaining 2,000 or so seats on the opposite side of the ground have now been reserved for visiting spectators.

Many fans chose not to use the east stand. Some were reluctant to move from their former seats and some fans, in opposition to the requirements of the Taylor report, chose not to be seated at all at football matches, which has resulted in decreased attendances at home games. The club desperately needs to attract those spectators back to the ground to maintain its financial viability. In June, I and representatives of the club predicted that attendances would fall and it appears that that is exactly what has happened.

Those falling attendances have been quite dramatic. The home gate this season has fallen to below 4,000, compared with last seasons's average of around 7,000. At the same time, the team is performing very well and is placed ninth in the Endsleigh league first division. Therefore, the reduction in attendances can only be related to the problems of accommodation at the ground and not to the performance of the team. The current attendance levels, at below 4,000 for a home match, means that the club will face financial problems unless that figure can be improved and improved very quickly.

I am sure that neither the Minister nor the Football Licensing Authority want to see the club's future jeopardised for the sake of a temporary exemption to last, perhaps, until the end of this season. The club is confident that it will have seating installed at the south side of the ground—known locally as the Pontefract road end—by the end of the season. That will provide cheaper seating than the east stand at the favourite end of the ground. I stress that because many fans, who stood previously at home matches, like to stand at that end. Now that that end of the ground cannot be used, many fans have chosen to stay away.

Until the new south stand is built, the club would like to use the existing terracing, which is in front of the old stand. Even then, the numbers standing would be limited. That is because the club will be undertaking work on the construction of new seating at the south end of the ground. That for which I and the club are asking is limited in any event.

The Government's arguments were advanced in June and encapsulated in a letter sent by the then Secretary of State to the club. The arguments were based on the criteria laid down by the Football Licensing Authority. The criteria provided that any exemption from the requirement of licensing had to be the result of wholly exceptional circumstances or unforeseen delay, and not through any inaction on the part of the club.

A wholly exceptional circumstance for Barnsley football club is a covenant on the playing surface at the ground. The family which gave the club the ground—it originally owned the brewery that adjoined the ground—placed a covenant on the land when it was given to the club. The covenant provided that the land could be used only as a football pitch. That meant that if the club wanted to dispose of the ground it had to face the covenant on the pitch. That meant, in turn, that the club could not relocate to another ground without substantial problems in disposing of the playing area. Relocation was not really an option for the club. I suggest that that is an exceptional circumstance.

The club's other problems are to a great extent exceptional and unique to it. They began about 10 years ago with the miners' strike, which ended in 1985. Since the end of the strike there has been a rundown in the coal mining industry in Barnsley, with the result that the economy has been depressed for some years. The club's gates prior to the strike when compared with even those of last season reveal a substantial difference. They were about 17,000 before the strike, when the club was in a lower division, whereas they were about 7,000 last season. They are now below 4,000.

The ground has limited road access. There are difficulties in accommodating visiting spectators. Those spectators could not really be accommodated in the new east stand, which has 7,000 seats. I know that the Government were critical of the club for concentrating on that stand, but if away supporters were not to use it they would have to mingle with home supporters in the stand leaving the stand as well as passing through the car-parking area. There is no other egress from the stand that could separate home and visiting spectators.

I remind the Minister of the Barnsley against Stoke City Football Association cup replay match some years ago, when 2,000 Stoke City fans arrived at the ground very late, escorted by South Yorkshire police. The officers ordered the club to open the gates to the ground and the Stoke City fans were admitted without payment and in a hurry. The same force was involved at Hillsborough. Indeed, the match to which I have referred took place six weeks before the Hillsborough tragedy. That relates to a policy that was being pursued at the time. We are conscious of the problems that are involved in accommodating away spectators.

The development of the south side stand was delayed. That was referred to in the then Secretary of State's letter. There was a hint that the club could have speeded up that development. I was involved in persuading the brewery company to sell land to enable the club to build the 7,000-seater east stand. Not all the land that was sold to the club was required and so the club, after building the stand, had to sell the residue of the land.

Money was tied up in that residue until such time as a buyer was found for it. The residue was subject to planning restrictions which were completely outside the club's control. As a result, the club could not proceed to enable it to meet the deadline because of the tie-up of money from the land that the club had to sell and because of planning permission difficulties.

I want to quote from two letters that I have with me. The first is from my letter to Courage in July 1991. In it, I wrote: The purpose of my letter is therefore, to ask whether the Brewery would be willing to negotiate the sale of the land in question to the Football Club in order that steps can be taken towards the building of a new stand. As you are probably aware, the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor specifies that clubs within the first and second divisions of the Football League"— as they were then— must have a certain proportion of seated accommodation within their grounds. Barnsley, sadly, is well below the proportion stipulated by Lord Justice Taylor and, therefore, the question of new facilities is a pressing one. I wrote that in letter to the brewery in July 1991 to try to encourage it to sell the land which the club needed to allow development to take place. The reply from Courage in August 1991 stated: Following the merger with Grand Metropolitan Brewing we are currently engaged in a major restructuring exercise and we are not in a position to release any part of the brewery for the foreseeable future. I am sorry that we cannot offer a more optimistic response to the Football Club. It is clear from that that, at the end of 1991, the club could not acquire the land to build the east-side stand let alone build the south-side stand. That caused the club several problems in relation to tying up money that the club needed to build the south-side stand.

I am pleased to say that the planning matters have now been resolved. The club met the Football Trust last week and it has met the various financial institutions to ensure that funding for the new south-side project is now available. That funding is no small amount of money. It is a £2 million development. It is not just a question of installing seats into original terracing; the structure of the stand must be made safe. The project is rather expensive.

I suggest that the delay in respect of the south-side stand was unforseen and not due to inaction on the club's part. As the Minister can see from the correspondence that I have quoted, the brewery was unwilling to relinquish the land until well into 1992. The club has been doing all it can with limited resources.

Once the south-side seating is completed, the club will be able to maintain cheaper seating accommodation at the favourite end of the ground for the home fans. Hopefully, that will resolve many of the problems, but that is obviously a season away.

The Secretary of State said that the all-seater policy was flagged up as long ago as 1990 and that the club should have acted sooner. However, Barnsley simply did not have the money to implement more than the one-seater stand scheme. It could not implement the south-side scheme and the east-side scheme together. The east-side stand, the large 7,000 seater stand, took precedence to obtain the maximum possible number of seats in one development. No one foresaw the fact that the gates would fall as dramatically as they did.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State maintained in his letter, the club has not been too ambitious. It wanted to build a quality development and it wanted the fans to have a proper well-built stand. The facilities that are being removed comprise old wooden stands similar to the stand that so tragically caught fire at Bradford City football club. The club wants to avoid temporary botched accommodation. It wants to build quality accommodation for the Barnsley fans.

In his letter, the Secretary of State also maintained that the club could adequately accommodate away fans and home fans together and avoid possible disorder if the club employed very careful planning. As I have pointed out, the limited access to the ground from several sides made that difficult, although I am pleased to say that the Government have given the go-ahead, under the city challenge scheme, for a new road to be built as part of that scheme. That road will relieve some of the problems facing people leaving the football ground. That road is somewhere in the future, but we look forward to it being built.

Although this point has been made before, it is worth repeating that Barnsley must be an all-seater stadium. No one complains about that. Its current gate is fewer than 4,000. The neighbouring Rotherham team, which is in a division below Barnsley, does not have to have all-seater accommodation, but its average attendance is about 6,000. Preston is also in a lower division, but it is not required to have an all-seater stadium. It recently hosted a match with an attendance of about 14,000.

I have already said that the club is doing all it can to provide all-seater accommodation. The finance, the planning and the developer are all in place and work is due to commence as soon as the final matters are tied up. I think that it is worth comparing its position with that of other clubs that were granted exemptions—Sunderland, Grimsby, Derby, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Newcastle.

I understand that, although those clubs were granted exemptions on the ground that they were relocating to new stadiums, some of them have not yet begun the necessary work on building them. Indeed, in some cases the decision to relocate has been changed to refurbishing the existing ground. It is worth noting that Barnsley has tried its level best to accommodate the Taylor report and to get the money to build the seated accommodation, while some of the clubs that had exemptions seem to be, for whatever reason—and I know that some of them have problems—dragging their feet.

The club made the point earlier this year that gates would fall, which might jeopardise its revenue. That has happened and the fall in gates has been quite dramatic, despite the fact that the team are doing well. Fans have not been able to use their favourite area of the ground. In fact, I had to give up the seat that I have had for a number of years to move into the new stand. All that was predicted earlier this year has happened and the club is facing financial difficulties, despite the team doing well. I urge the Minister to look again at the matter and find a way to grant a temporary exemption, perhaps until the end of the season, to ensure the financial viability of the club.

Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Harwich 10:36, 22 Tachwedd 1994

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate and on his admirable persistence in trying to seek an exemption for Barnsley football club from the all-seating requirement imposed on premier and first division football grounds. The debate closes at 10.49 pm, so I may run out of time. However, I shall come to his last sentence, even if it is in mid-sentence, before I sit down.

I am aware that this is a very strongly felt issue with many football supporters throughout the country and that has been proven by the hon. Gentleman's speech today. I know that many football fans prefer to stand on the terraces rather than sit down. That point has been made forcefully by several hon. Members in the past. Converting stadiums to all-seating can also be very costly and can create problems for some smaller clubs.

In recognition of that, and having listened carefully to all the representations received, the Government reviewed the all-seating policy and, in July 1992, announced that only premier and first division clubs would need to convert their stadiums. Clubs in the second and third divisions of the football league are being allowed to retain their terracing, provided that it is deemed safe by the local authority and the Football Licensing Authority. I hope that that shows that the Government have not acted in an inflexible way, but have responded, to a considerable extent, to the legitimate concerns and wishes of the supporters and the clubs.

Before I deal with Barnsley's particular circumstances it may be useful to remind the House why the all-seating policy was introduced and what its benefits have been. All hon. Members are, of course, aware of the Hillsborough tragedy and the consequent report produced by Lord Justice Taylor, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We should also remember earlier disasters, such as those at Ibrox in 1971 and Bradford in 1985. Decisive action was needed to ensure a sea change, not only in the safety and quality of the grounds, but in the attitudes of the clubs to make them put crowd safety at the top of their list of priorities.

It is all too easy for some supporters to think, "It could never happen at our club." They should remember that Hillsborough was selected by the Football Association because it was one of the best grounds in the country and had hosted safely an identical fixture the previous year. As Lord Justice Taylor commented: I have little doubt that if the disaster scenario had been described to the management at Hillsborough prior to 15 April, they too would have said, 'Of course, it couldn't happen here.' We should also remember that other blight in the game of football, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s—that of thuggery and hooliganism. The combination of poor crowd behaviour and dangerous facilities could not be tolerated any longer and action had to be taken to ensure the very survival of the game. I quote again Lord Justice Taylor's report. He said: There is no panacea which will achieve total safety, and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control. But I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure". That 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.

Photo of Mr Terry Patchett 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.

Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Harwich

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 1–0 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. Indeed, 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.

I 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. Many 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.