Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19 — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:14 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley 5:14 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Mr Stringer. Hundreds of my constituents signed this petition, and that does not surprise me, because football is the beating heart of Burnley and always has been. Anyone who has ever been to Burnley will know that the Turf sits iconically in our town centre. When fans were there for every home game, the atmosphere was something to behold. The anticipation could be sensed in the air, and it brought everything to life, but it did much more than that. It also stimulated our local economy. Thousands of fans would come into Burnley from across the country. They filled our hotels, ate in our local restaurants and drank in our local pubs.

Burnley is not a city like Manchester or London, where a football club is simply a nice addition. For us it is one of our main economic drivers, so taking fans away does not just change the optics of a match for us; it changes the whole town. It closes hotels, restaurants and pubs. That is to say nothing of the direct economic cost to the club itself. Broadcast income is much needed by us, but ticket sales play a huge part too. They cannot simply be discarded without that having an impact.

I want to commend Burnley football club for the huge support that it has given to the whole borough, not just during the period of covid but before—despite the significant financial hit that it has taken. It has shown, throughout, what being a premier league community club means. I know it is ready and willing to bring fans back, too, so I urge the Government to treat football clubs like any other business: give them the guiding rules, and they will meet them. They are best placed to determine how many they can safely welcome back, based on their own capacity. Let us not forget that the events in question are always outdoors, where transmission risk is lower. Clubs are ready to step forward. The Government do not need to answer every question or find every scenario. Give clubs the ability to innovate, control the flow of people, invest in new infrastructure and space people out—because that is what will get the fans back.

Burnley is not the only club we have, however. We also have Burnley FC Women and Padiham football club, both of which play at the Ruby Civil Arena. Padiham was able to get some fans back under the FA’s limited return of spectators, and it proved a big success. The club operated safely. Spectators were able to enjoy the game and income started to pick up. That showed, as the pilots did, what is possible. So I urge the Government to look now at how on 2 December football fans can make a meaningful return. It is not just about the optics of seeing fans in the stadium. It is about giving people back their passion, bringing back the atmosphere, and bringing back the essential economic activity that our town relies on.