Let’s see some fair play

By Paul O'Brien and Debbie Kaye and Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson | 14 September 2021
  • Paul O'Brien

W hen asked about his hospitalisation experience fighting coronavirus, Boris Johnson quipped back with a simple message ‘Don’t be a fatty in your 50s’. It was to many a typically disarming response, but there was a serious underlying health message. As many in the field of public health, sports and leisure services have argued, the UK is sitting on an obesity crisis. In a post-COVID world we also know that the underlying health inequalities, across the UK, have not just been exposed by the pandemic but have been made much worse.

Age, ethnicity, gender, and poverty were all factors in a greater number of COVID deaths and infection rates. The results of ONS data starkly reveals that during the first wave of the pandemic, the rate of death involving COVID-19 was highest for Black African males with 3.7 times greater risk of death than for White British males, and was 2.6 times greater for Black African women. This was closely followed by three times the risk for men of Bangladeshi backgrounds and near to double for women within that group. The risk of death for Black Caribbean men was three times higher than other groups. The Health Foundation response to further ONS datasets cited that people who live in the poorest areas of the UK are more than twice as likely to die from COVID than those in better off areas.

As distressing as these statistics are, some may question why they are so important to local authority sports and leisure services? The simple answer is that they can be part of the solution to the health and wellbeing challenges, but only if they are properly resourced, valued and recognised as such. A new research report from the Association for Public Service Excellence, the Local Government Association and the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association set out to explore these challenges. Its findings are something of a wake-up call to ensure we can secure the future of public sport and leisure services.

Long before the health pandemic, the role of local authorities, as part of the eco-system of local sports and leisure services, had fundamentally changed. From its early origins in the 1800s, with the development of public baths and playing fields, the unique role of local authority public sports and leisure services has been recognised, but over a number of decades that role has been undermined by systems and financial models which have destabilised its basic purpose. For too long council sports and leisure services have had to rely upon inadequate levels of finance and streams of income generation, models developed under compulsory competitive tendering, and maintained as a response to funding pressures. This approach risks ignoring the unique role of these services which is the provision of different options for physical activity, which is distinct from that offered by the private sector. This is not simply a cost issue on gym membership, but much wider participation issues. The public sector offers a range of services which do not fit within commercial operators. Sports hall hire for local sports clubs, bespoke services for older people, disabled groups and services to local schools are part of that unique mix.

Take swimming as an example. Few private operators are able to offer wet facilities and yet access to local swimming pools is the pathway by which most primary children will learn to swim. There is therefore a reliance upon local authority school swimming programmes. And with obesity getting worse as a public health issue, resulting in seismic increases in type 2 diabetes and hypertension, it is the public leisure provision which is stepping up to help GPs and other public health professionals, with exercise on prescription schemes. However, the contribution of these services is not reflected in resources, with most councils regarding their sports and leisure services as being in a perilous financial state – even before the impact of COVID-19.

The health pandemic has exacerbated these systemic issues with an estimated £90m of lost revenue for every week of lockdown. That income has not been fully recovered, resulting in a longer-term impact. It is not yet known when, or if, the numbers of users of paid-for services, such as gym membership, will return. Many councils continue to face operators who are no longer deemed to be financially viable. In some cases councils have resorted to the emergency insourcing of services, with rapid interventions becoming necessary to save facilities from closure.

Our report, launched on 14 September, is therefore calling for a radical new approach. The starting point is a recognition of the problems and a call for greater coordination and collaboration at a government level. Physical activity and the local authority role straddles three Government departments; the Department of Health, the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This, our research finds, has led to disjointed approaches and funding issues. At a local level there is also frustration at the ability to exert a much more focused, and arguably place-shaping role, on the health and wellbeing of local communities. We need a much more collaborative, systems-based approach to addressing physical inactivity between local councils and stakeholders. With powerful influence, local authority sports and leisure services are in a unique position to fundamentally re-shape the look and feel of a locality, bringing about a healthier, more sustainable, economically stronger and more inclusive place.

A further finding of the research is the need for long-term capital investment in the fabric of the services. There is an opportunity to decarbonise the leisure estate with ‘Passivhaus’ style standards for new facilities. In some areas, councils are reporting that up to 40% of their carbon footprint stems from older leisure facilities in need of significant refurbishment or rebuilds; this provides opportunities for local investment in jobs and green skills, as well as the ongoing value of community sports and leisure industry jobs, which have a value of some £85bn across the economy.

Local authority community-based sports and leisure services take care of their residents from the cradle to the grave through the services they provide. We need to secure their future with a reset of the systems that undermine their work. It’s time for fair play for local authority provision.

Paul O’Brien is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson is chair of the Local Government Association’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board and Debbie Kaye is chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association

@apsetweets @geraldvjuk @debbiekaye

The joint report can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3hkjBtj

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