Places of Sports

The History of Fire Safety in Places of Sport

The Wheatley Committee

The Wheatley Committee was set up in 1972 in response to a large number of spectators who had died in a disaster at Ibrox Park, Glasgow. This was the result of structural failure, the steel barriers on stairway 13 gave way and a total of sixty-six people were suffocated to death and many more injured in the resulting crush. Following the recommendations of this committee the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 came on the statute books. Up to then there was no statute about sports grounds as such, though building regulations had references to specific buildings. Accidents at sports venues were dealt with on the basis of common law principles about occupiers and their visitors.

The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975

The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 applies to all sports grounds with accommodation for spectators. Safety controls are imposed primarily through safety certificates issued by local authorities for sports grounds designated by the Secretary of State

  1. Those grounds occupied by FA premier and football league clubs with accommodation for over 5,000 spectators.
  2. Those with accommodation for over 10,000 spectators where other sports are played, which in practice means rugby, cricket and other football matches including internationals.
  3. A ‘stadium’ was defined as a sports arena ‘substantially surrounded’ by spectator accommodation, the Act was aimed at such a stadium if it had a capacity for 10,000 or more spectators.

The Secretary of State could designate such a stadium and consequently its managers were then under a legal duty to obtain a safety certificate from the local authority. It would normally state a limit to the number of permitted spectators. It would also say how many occasions were covered or it might be for an indefinite number. It would then give details about exits, entrances, means of access, crash barriers and means of escape in case of fire. It also set up procedures to deal with amendments to safety certificates, appeals against refusals to grant them, alterations to stadiums and entry by the police and building authority representatives to inspect the premises.

It created an offence for not having a required safety certificate or for breaking its requirements. A defence was also created if the court was satisfied that the holder took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to comply with the certificate.

Duplication with other Acts of Parliament was to be avoided by providing that sections of other acts would not apply whilst a safety certificate was in force.

There was an emergency procedure available to obtain an Order from a Magistrates Court about crowd limits.

The Popplewell Report

The Popplewell Committee of Inquiry was set up after the fire disaster at the Bradford football ground in 1985. Soon after the Committee of Inquiry had been established a disaster in Belgium occurred at the Heysel Stadium which was visited and implications of the collapse of the separating wall were taken into account also. After taking a great deal of evidence, the Popplewell Committee reached the following main conclusions in its Interim and Final Report :-

  • The sports grounds dealt with by the Act of 1975 was too limited and the problem of crowd safety was serious at many other grounds.
  • The distinction should be abolished between a stadium, as defined above, and a sports ground where sports took place before spectators in the open air. Sports ground should be the general legal term.
  • The Popplewell Inquiry heard a lot about the team of officers who had to work together on the response to an application for a Safety Certificate under the Act of 1975. The Popplewell Report declined to say who should be the lead officer in such an exercise. It did, however, ask for a model Safety Certificate to be drafted, in order to overcome problems found in the differing levels of detail put into sample certificates studied by the Committee of Inquiry.
  • The three main potential hazards at a sports ground were fire risk, structural failure and crowd control. The legislation should be flexible enough to cater for grounds where not all three elements were present.
  • Rugby league, rugby union and cricket were the three spectator sports which were, after football, thought to display the risks for which legislation had to be framed.
  • Because of its anxiety that one authority should be responsible to inspect and certify sports grounds, the Popplewell Report recommended that all sports grounds with accommodation for 500 or more spectators should come under the Fire Precautions Act. In the same spirit the Report urged that structural risks should be handled by one authority, though the Report did not specify which this should be.
  • Because evidence showed that there were fire risks, the Report recommended that indoor sports facilities also, where 500 or more spectators were provided for, should come under the Fire Precautions Act for fire certificates.

The Popplewell Report came before Parliament and gave rise to two important steps:

  • The Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sports Act 1987, and
  • The revision of the Green Guide issued by the Home Office.

The Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sports Act 1987

The Act is in five Parts and is being brought into force in phases. Generally these parts follow the recommendations of the Popplewell Report.

  • Part I contains eighteen sections in relation to fire safety, these amend earlier provisions in the Fire Precautions Act 1971. In particular, they allow more flexibility to the fire authority about fire certificates, charging fees for certification work, power for the Secretary of State to issue Codes of Practice, the use of Improvement Notices to remedy contraventions of fire certificates and also appeals and offences.
  • Part II about safety at sports grounds, is being brought into operation first. It has seven sections and abolishes the earlier distinction between stadiums and sports grounds. It allows the Home Secretary to fix the qualifying capacity, rather than embody 10,000 or another figure in the Act. It also tightens up the law about prohibition notices, enforcement and inspectors.
  • Part III of The Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987 was brought into force in 1988 and it relates to the safety of stands at sports grounds and contains sixteen sections.
    • A stand which provides covered accommodation for 500 or more spectators in a ground which has not hitherto been designated, now needs a Safety Certificate from the local authority.
    • Such a stand is called a ‘Regulated Stand’.
    • It is the duty of the local authority to decide which stands at sports grounds in their area are Regulated Stands and to issue Safety Certificates under the statutory procedure for them.
    • Safety Certificates may in future be general, if for an indefinite period, or special, if for a specified number of activities or occasions.
    • The issue of certificates is to follow a procedure which includes a preliminary determination about a stand being a Regulated Stand and then, after a two month period for representations, a final determination embodied in the Safety Certificate for that stand.
    • Safety Certificates can be amended, repealed, replaced and transferred and there is also an appeal system which may give rise to some of these modifications to the Safety Certificate as originally issued.
    • Appeals go to the Magistrates Court and orders of those courts can be further appealed to the Crown Courts.
    • There are new offences for using a stand without a current Safety Certificate and for breaching conditions in such a Certificate.
    • Offences may be punished by fine or in some cases by imprisonment. Defences are also provided, based upon ignorance of the true situation about a Regulated Stand or on having taken all reasonable precautions to avoid the breach in question.
  • Part IV introduces indoor sports licences. They are for ‘sports entertainment’ but, whilst of general application to sports complexes, do not apply if the sporting event which constitutes the ‘entertainment’ is not the principal purpose for which the premises are used on the occasion in question.
  • Part V has a small number of miscellaneous provisions about entertainment licences. These include power to charge a fee for dealing with a variation in the terms of the licence. In addition, the Royal Albert Hall is no longer exempt from the entertainment provisions in the Local Government Act 1982.

The Green Guide

Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (Fifth Edition, Stationery Office, 1997, ISBN 0-11-300095-2) also known as The Green Guide. This is the Home Office publication which gives detailed advice about safety measures needed at sports grounds. Originally produced after the Wheatley Report of 1972, this Guide has been completely revised in the light of the Popplewell Report and was re-published in 1986.

Its detailed guidance relates to entrances and exits, the structure of stands and buildings, stairways and ramps, the terraces, crush barriers and hand rails and perimeter walls and fences. In addition, the Green Guide discusses management responsibility, inspections and tests, stewarding and crowd control, ground capacity estimates and flow rates for the crowd.

The main paragraph headings in the ‘Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds’ comprise of :-

  • Calculating the safe capacity of a sports ground
  • Management – responsibility and planning for safety
  • Management – stewarding
  • Management – structures, installations and components
  • Circulation – general
  • Circulation – ingress
  • Circulation – stairways and ramps
  • Circulation – concourses and promontories
  • Circulation – egress and emergency evacuation
  • Barriers
  • Spectator accommodation – seating
  • Spectator accommodation – standing
  • Spectator accommodation – disabilities
  • Spectator accommodation – temporary
  • De mountable structures
  • Fire safety
  • Communication
  • Electrical and mechanical services
  • First aid and medical provision
  • Media provision
  • Alternative uses for sports grounds


Safety at sports grounds is usually the responsibility of the Environmental Health Services of the Certifying Authority, and it is they who organise an “advisory group” consisting of themselves, the building authority, the fire service and the police service. The ambulance service may also be represented. HSWA enforcement officers are not part of the advisory group however they should familiarise themselves with the local arrangements within their own area, and should be aware of the certificates for each ground. HSWA enforcement officers, and advisory group colleagues, may wish to consider whether regular, formal liaison arrangements might be helpful, perhaps to coincide with the scheduled advisory group visits to relevant local grounds.

Whether or not these formal or regular liaison mechanisms are in place, it is essential that an authority or department which notices a serious risk, alerts the relevant enforcing authority or department to the problem. They should be informed as soon as possible by telephone, if the risk appears to be a serious threat to life or serious injury, then agreed coordinated action should be taken. It is suggested that local authorities establish, contact liaison points within Fire Authorities, Districts and Counties for this purpose.

It falls to the certifying authority for a designated sports ground, to notify the district council or unitary authority, as the authority responsible for HSWA at the ground, of any serious breaches of HSWA. Conversely, the district council and unitary authority should notify the certifying authority of any serious breaches of the 1975/1987 Acts. Similarly, in London and the conurbations, the certifying department within the borough council or metropolitan authority should notify the department responsible for health and safety, of any serious breaches of HSWA at a designated sports ground, and vice versa.

Action in an emergency

Certifying authorities also have wide-ranging powers to act in an emergency. There may be exceptional circumstances in which Local Authority enforcement officers may want to use their powers under HSWA, for example to issue a prohibition notice in order to protect spectators, and LAs should consider what their policy is in those exceptional circumstances. For example LA enforcement officers might want to use their powers under HSWA if they consider a risk is such that it poses a serious imminent threat to life or of injury and requires immediate remedy in order to eliminate or reduce it.

Taylor Report

On the 15th April 1989, a tragedy took place at the Hillsborough stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday F. C. ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death on the terraces at the Lippings lane end during the F. A. cup semi final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

As a result, Lord Justice Taylor, a High Court judge, was commissioned by the Government:

“To inquire into the events at Sheffield Wednesday Football ground on 15th April and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events.” (Taylor, Final Report, HMSO, 1990)

In Lord Justice Taylor’s Final Report published in January 1990, he praised the football clubs for their positive attitude in implementing the interim recommendations. He then went on to look at the problems facing British football. The report discusses and criticises:

  • Leadership of football in Britain
  • Poor facilities and services at football
  • Old and outmoded, football grounds
  • The lack of consultation between officials and fans
  • The, sometimes, poor behaviour of players
  • The selling of alcohol at football, a possible cause of disorder
  • The attitude of newspapers and television
  • The effects of hooliganism and segregation on the general experiences of football spectators

Lord Justice Taylor then went on to make a total of 76 recommendations designed to improve the state of football in Britain. The most important of these were:

  • The gradual replacement of terraces with seated areas in all grounds by the end of the century, with all first and second division stadia being all-seater by the start of the 1994-5 season and all third and fourth division by 1999-2000.
  • Setting up an Football Stadium Advisory Design Council to advise on ground safety and construction and to commission research into this area.
  • That no perimeter fencing should have spikes on the top or be more than 2.2 metres tall.
  • Making ticket touting a criminal offence.
  • Introducing new laws to deal with a number of offences inside football grounds, including racist chanting and missile throwing.
  • Sending older offenders to Attendance Centres and using new electronic tagging devices for convicted hooligans

Further Legislation

Fire precautions in Places of Sports is also controlled by The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and this order lays down certain requirements.

Further Information Links

Statutory Instrument 1987 No. 1941 – The Safety of Sports Grounds Regulations 1987

Application for a Safety Certificate for a Regulated Stand

Commencement No. 1

The Safety of Sports Grounds (Designation) Order 2002


March 17, 2011[Last updated: March 30, 2019]

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