POLICE may be forced to withdraw their support from high-profile football matches in light of a landmark legal battle between Leeds United and Yorkshire’s biggest police force.
The club scored a significant victory last year when a ruling at the High Court said it did not have to pay for crowd control away from the immediate footprint of its Elland Road stadium, leaving West Yorkshire Police to bear the costs.
The force is appealing to have some or all of the verdict overturned, with a hearing scheduled at the Court of Appeal next month.
But in a major escalation of the dispute between club and force, a senior officer, who did not want to be named, has warned that if the appeal fails it may have to reconsider whether it sends officers to big games at all.
He said the force had to consider the impact of football policing on its duty to the wider community, and that the increased costs of football were becoming harder to justify at a time when the police budget was being slashed by 20 per cent.
Football is one of the biggest drains on the force budget, and it is thought the club is also seeking to recover about £1m it has spent on Special Policing Services since the launch of its legal proceedings three years ago.
The officer declined to confirm the figure, but said: “If you multiply that out we are going to be very interested whether that’s the right way to spend public money when you are faced with taking a PCSO from someone’s neighbourhood policing team. I think it’s an important point to make because you are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
There is little doubt what the consequences would be for a club such as Leeds if police decided to stay away.
“If we are not providing policing to them it’s hard to conceive how they could ever run a football match,” the officer added.
An increasing number of regulated football matches are now “police-free”; deemed to be of low enough risk to be entirely policed by club stewards. But there are very few matches at Elland Road where there are no arrests, and the officer described the prospect of police-free football at Leeds as “cloud cuckoo land”.
The cost to West Yorkshire Police of policing high-risk games, known as “Category C”, are about £100,000, and since the High Court ruling, the force has only been able to recover about half that.
When Leeds’s arch rivals Manchester United last visited Elland Road for a Carling Cup Third Round tie in 2011, the costs of policing the game were £170,000. The force was able to recover £130,000 of that under the old arrangement.
It is not clear how much the force was able to recover from the recent visit of Chelsea, although the costs of policing that match were £100,000.
West Yorkshire Police Commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said he fully supported the force on the issue.
He said the force was nearly halfway through a four-year programme of Government funding cuts that will see the force lose £100m from its budget and 2,000 jobs go.
He added: “These organisations need to take more responsibility for their policing needs and I believe it is right for the force to point out the risks associated with losing the court case at this time.”