Richard Arnold 'proud' to oversee changes to improve access at Old Trafford
Manchester United managing director Richard Arnold is proud that he will soon be welcoming more disabled fans to Old Trafford, with the planned structural changes seeing the overall capacity reduced to between 72,500 and 73,000.
Over 300 new positions for disabled supporters are to be built by August in line with the Accessible Stadia guide, following consultation with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Manchester United Disabled Supporters' Association.
As the changes are being phased in, the design will incorporate reversible platforms and from next season 100 of the 300 new positions created will be used for Premier League and some cup games.
However, the plans mean 2,600 season ticket holders will need relocating as the current East Stand accessible platform is to be extended across and into the Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton Stands.
United group managing director Arnold confirmed Old Trafford's overall capacity will be reduced from 75,643 to between "72,500 and 73,000" as a result of changes he is proud to help implement.
"We're really pleased to be able to announce the provision of the facilities in time for the start of next season," Arnold told Press Association Sport.
"To have the compliant number of spaces available is a great achievement and something we not only believe was the right thing to do, but are proud to be able to be provide to the disabled community."
Asked about the financial hit of the changes, the United managing director said: "Money hasn't been a factor in looking at this issue. It is something we felt was the right thing to do.
"We wanted to make sure we were compliant for the start of next season and we wanted to make sure that we did this in a way that was sensitive to the existing fans in those seats.
"I think what you'll see is that it underlines that commitment we've made to the disabled community over the last 25 years."
Arnold says the relocation of supporters has "weighed very heavily" on their mind and is behind United's three-year phased programme.
The managing director also points to a goodwill package that includes covering ticket price differences for the first season and free cup tickets for all home ties, but t here are naturally disgruntled supporters and some have raised concerns over the number of cheaper tickets that will be lost as part of the changes.
"This location for us was chosen because it was the fastest way of implementing this and minimised the number of seats affected," Arnold said.
"What you will see is that the phasing of the relocation we are doing is actually the most expensive seats will be moved first from the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, giving us the maximum amount of time to find an equivalently-priced seat for those in the cheaper seats.
"So I think within the context of needing to move fans - which is something we are always reluctant to do given how long so many of our fans have held their seats - we think that we have found a fair way of looking after those fans, who ultimately are making that sacrifice for what is obviously the right thing to do in terms of expanding the capacity we have for disabled fans."
The Manchester United Supporters Trust has called for the club to extend the one-year price freeze to the 2,600 relocated as "no supporter who is compulsorily relocated should suffer any financial loss".
The trust also said it will be making a "strenuous argument" for the general expansion of Old Trafford, not only reclaiming the lost seats but making the ground's capacity "the largest in Europe."
"We are in a very fortunate situation in terms of the capacity we have, the low churn we have, but also the situation we find ourselves in with regards to the waiting list," Arnold said when asked about expansion plans at Old Trafford.
"You'll be aware of the complexity of any further changes to the stadium in terms of the impact of the railway line and consequence need for any work to overhang the pitch.
"So whilst we continue to look at the long-term vision for the stadium, what we're focused on today is delivering this platform and the associated expansion in capacity for our disabled fans."
The stadium accessibility plans were welcomed by Penny Mordaunt, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, and disability charity Scope, which has called for "more clubs to follow suit".
However, Level Playing Field - a charity promoting good access for all fans and one of the stakeholders United worked with - has mixed emotions about the plans.
"Level Playing Field would like to express disappointment at the news that Manchester United are set to miss the Premier League pledge to achieve Accessible Stadia minimum standards by August 2017," he said.
"The club have confirmed that whilst Old Trafford will have the infrastructure in place to achieve the minimum standards required by the deadline, they will be using a phased approach to minimise the disruption caused by relocating existing season ticket holders.
"It is anticipated that all planned wheelchair user spaces will be in full use by the 2020/21 season."
The Premier League later on Tuesday issued a statement applauding United's proposals.
"The Premier League welcomes Manchester United's commitment to enhancing disabled fan access at Old Trafford," the League's executive director Bill Bush said.
"Improvements are being made across the Premier League in one of the largest disability programmes ever undertaken by a sport or other entertainment industry.
"As demonstrated today, and as is the case across the League, cost is not the determining factor when considering extensive stadium improvements.
"Clubs are working through issues relating to how to deal with new stadium development plans, how best to manage fan disruption or, in certain cases where they don't own their facility, having to work with third parties."