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Should safe standing be included in a new Posh stadium?

The introduction of safe standing is inching ever closer. Our reporter, Paolo Iantosca, looks at why safe standing could be an essential feature inside Peterborough United's proposed new stadium and whether we are close to the government reversing their decision.
Hannover rail seats sweeping shot
An example of safe seating at Hannover

If you're a football supporter, you would have probably heard calls to the government to reverse their decision to allow football clubs to introduce safe standing within their stadiums.
 
Peterborough United are one of the many clubs across the bottom two divisions to still have a standing terrace in their football ground, with over 2,000 budding Posh supporters filling that stand every match.

It has become a unique and historical part of the Weston Homes Stadium, alongside a fundamental part of the atmosphere we see today when supporting Darren Ferguson's men.

In August 2020, following a short delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the club was given the green light to resume planning to build the 23,000 all-seater stadium, with a moving in date scheduled for 2023 should permission be granted. However, the club will have no choice but to ditch the famous terrace standing and possibly losing that unique atmosphere that every Posh supporter adores on matchday. 

Though, it's not all doom and gloom, as the club has the obvious solution to introduce safe standing within their stadium that has become a popular feature across Europe, allowing supporters to stand safely. 

Posh's co-owners Dr Jason Neale, Robert Stewart and Darragh MacAnthony have all voiced their support of safe standing, with the latter even confirming on Twitter in February 2019 that the new ground will include the feature if "legally possible".

Peterborough Independent Supporters Association (PISA) would be massively disappointed not to see safe standing in the new 23,000-seater stadium, saying a large number of supporters will demand the feature. 

Adi Mowles, chairman of PISA, said: "If POSH does not take this opportunity, it will be a massive disappointment to a large number of supporters, and frankly in our opinion, a mistake that would not show the club in a good light when it comes to the narrative they have used when talking about any future plans, which they described as progressive.

"We at PISA 2000 are encouraging them to be as progressive on this front as they have promised, but as ever with these things, only time will tell."

While safe standing is seen as a safety improvement, preventing surging or stands from getting overcrowded, supporters are wary of whether that safe standing can still maintain the atmosphere we see within the Weston Homes Stadium. 

Kelan Sarson has watched Posh for the past 13 years, mainly sitting in or around the main Family stand, but knows how important the current standing terrace at the Weston Homes Stadium is to create a unique atmosphere. With the new stadium turning into an all-seater, he believes safe standing could be a necessary inclusion.

He said: "I think a safe standing section in a new Posh ground would be ideal as it means you can still have a feel of the London Road terrace with you, keeps that old-school element alive but with modernised additions. 

"Also, to have that safe-standing possibility means you can avoid the fear of moving to a new stadium and lacking atmosphere due to it being a bowl rather than a football stadium designed for fans.

"Atmospheres can still be created when sitting down, but the freedom of the safe-standing lends itself to a less restricted atmosphere, one that feels easier and less restrained."

Posh supporters have yet to experience safe standing in their football ground, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see some supporters anxious about whether the inclusion can maintain that electric atmosphere that we see on the terrace.

To get an accurate idea of what safe standing could bring to Posh's new 23,000-seater stadium, we spoke to Jon Darch. He is the owner of The Safe Standing Roadshow, where he travels across the country to showcase what safe standing is all about, showing clubs, supporters and councillors, including Peterborough United's CEO Bob Symns in September 2011.

Darch has also travelled across Europe to attend stadiums that already have safe standing installed in their grounds, including Borussia Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park. He has a pretty clear view of how the incorporation of rails seats can maintain that terrace feel.

"In my opinion, it's all about maintaining the slightly spartan, rugged feel of a terrace. You also want to avoid feeling cramped.

"Given some of the hybrid rail seats that have emerged in the UK over the last couple of years, I can see why some fans might fear that they'd lose the terrace feel. They take up a lot of room and give you the impression that you're in a seated grandstand that just happens to have some rails rather than in a "proper" standing area.

"The sort of rail seats that Bob Symns saw first-hand in Hanover nearly 10 years ago and that are widely used throughout the Bundesliga and other European leagues, is, however, a very functional design. No bulbous plastic seat to get in your way. Just flat steel, folded up flush between the uprights, giving you plenty of space and creating a feeling of a rugged, non-nonsense area purpose-built for standing."

However, while we can continue to discuss whether safe standing would be an influential feature inside Posh's new stadium, nothing can happen until the government pass a new legislation allowing clubs to use safe standing.

So, how close are we to seeing safe standing within football grounds across England?

Baron Foater of Bath Don Foster, a member of the House of Lords, was one of the first ministers to challenge the government to reverse their decision, introducing a private members' bill in 2010 to propose safe standing inside football grounds. When introducing his legislation at the House of Commons, he told parliament that no evidence properly designated standing areas were inherently unsafe. Before adding that all football clubs should have 'the freedom to build or maintain existing, safe standing sections if they choose'.

Unfortunately, the proposed bill was blocked at the second reading after a discussion and vote inside the House of Commons in which majority MPs voted 'no' on The Safe standing Bill.
  
Incredibly that hasn't stopped some of Premier League's biggest clubs from installing rail seating into their stadiums over the past few years. Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers already have rail seatings introduced, with Manchester United also looking to install safe standing in their terraces once supports are allowed back in their ground.

Yet, the government continue to enforce that standing is a safety hazard within football stadiums, including in April 2018 when they rejected an application for a safe standing area inside West Brom's The Hawthorns, stating that all-seaters remain the best for safety.

Darch explained why he became such an advocate for safe standing at football grounds, highlighting that previous legislation brought in after the Hillsborough disaster had no logic behind it. 

He said: "Because the ban on standing was simply illogical. If it is safe to stand on a terrace at London Road, why is it unsafe to stand in 70-odd other football grounds around the country?

"If it is safe to stand at a ground when it hosts rugby or a pop concert, why is it unsafe to stand at the same ground when it stages football. There's simply no logic involved."

In the last year or so, football supporters have begun piling pressure on the government. In January 2018, Owen Riches led calls for safe standing at football grounds in England, starting a petition online that gained over 112,026 over six months and led to a parliamentary discussion on June 25, 2018. 

While calls for a new legislation passing through parliament had gone quiet over the past year, mainly due to COVID-19, it looks encouraging that we could see safe standing in the next five years, with Darch confident of seeing it at Posh's new stadium. 

"It's going to happen in much less than five years, I'm sure. Had it not been for the pandemic, I think we would already have had trials in the Premier League this season. As it is, clubs can already install rail seats. 

"Clubs governed by the all-seater policy, however, cannot yet formally operate rail seat areas as standing. But that will come within 12 months and certainly in good time for the new Posh stadium."