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Sports strategies and the local government

How do local councils stand up when it comes to their sports strategy. Publishing Editor Steve Rowley reports.

When it comes to sport, no matter what game you are playing, there is always a strategy behind the play. From football to cricket, basketball to hockey and rugby to swimming, coaches and their assistants are consistently arming themselves with a playbook for virtually every outcome.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport published the government’s new sport strategy, ‘Get Active: A strategy for the future of sport and physical activity’ in August 2023.

Following its publication, Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of Sport England issued a statement: “The government’s new sport strategy, with its strong focus on increasing participation and ensuring sport and physical activity is accessible to everyone regardless of background or postcode, is hugely welcome and comes at an important time for our sector.

“It is a highly ambitious document that clearly understands the role activity can play in the health and wellbeing of our nation, and how sport can be a force for good by reducing pressures on the NHS, improving educational attainment and bringing our communities together.

“We welcome the inclusion of ambitious overall targets for participation, and the acknowledgement that no single organisation can deliver the scale of change needed. Instead, this strategy will require significant and sustained commitment across the public and private sector.

“The recognition that a new, cross-government focus to better coordinate departments is key to unlocking these benefits is also welcome, as is the commitment to strengthening integrity in sport and the determination in particular to ensure welfare and safeguarding issues are dealt with and best practice promoted.

“Some serious consideration of reform is vital; especially given the high-profile examples and challenges we have seen across multiple sports in recent years. Working through all the options must be a priority now if we are to ensure that sport is a safe and welcoming environment for all.

I will pull one sentence from his comments and that is that ‘this strategy will require significant and sustained commitment across the public and private sector’. Indeed it will!

It is pleasing to hear that central government has finally understood the role activity can play in the health and wellbeing of the public, and how sport can be a force for good. But what it does next will really tell us all we need to know. Will there be enhanced funding for local authorities to contribute to local sports facilities, groups and individuals, or will our local councils simply stick to the same aged plan they have been pushing for decades. They literally need to be told what to do with the funding.

Sport For All
The huge step taken in 1972 by the UK Government’s Sports Council (now known as UK Sport) launched the ‘Sport for All’ campaign. The aim behind it was to promote wider public awareness of the value of sport across the United Kingdom.

‘Sport for All’ wielded a dual message; it wished to promote access to sport for marginalised or disadvantaged groups, such as women, the disabled or those
of a low socio-economic status, furthermore ‘Sport for All’ wished to promote sport as a part of everyone’s day to day life. Over the course of the campaign new facilities where built to offer sport provision, or there were improvements made to existing facilities.

However, after 50 years, one look at the UK Sport website we should be appalled at what they’ve done with the place. It clearly states that UK Sport is ‘the nation’s trusted high-performance experts, powering our greatest athletes, teams, sports and events to achieve positive success’.

What part of ‘Sport for All’ did they not understand? They proudly announce that they are funded by the UK Government and The National Lottery, working with Team GB, the British Paralympic Association, the UK Sports Institute, Sport England, Sport Northern Ireland, Sport Wales, Sport Scotland, UK Coaching, Sport Resolutions, and the British Elite Athletes Association.

As a sports journalist I feel a little self-contradictory, having reported on the success of local Olympians over the years, and I completely understand that Dame Kelly Holmes, Lizzy Yarnold, Tom Bosworth, Joe Choong, and even 2025 Winter Olympic hopeful Issy Fassnidge, have all been helped by UK Sport over the years, with great success. However, where is the money for the common man or woman?

For too many years now, local authorities have relied on their local sports clubs and independent gym companies to provide ‘Sport for All’.

When we peel back the local authority sticking plaster over sport, we see nothing but an open wound where we should be seeing a scab, if not a fresh scar. This is because after years of neglect, many local authorities are not doing enough for their public.

In 2019, I asked the CEO of Sevenoaks District Council (SDC), Dr Pav Ramewal, for a copy of their current sports strategy. His reply was to inform me that they owned three leisure centres, a golf course and an indoor bowls facility. Sorry, but since when was ownership of a property a strategy?

It is preferred that SDC own these facilities, but where is the roadmap to sporting success that should accompany them. Why do we not have up-and-coming youngsters utilising the golf course at Lullingstone on a regular basis for free or at a reduced rate? Why is the Sevenoaks District Sports Council only given £2,500 per annum to distribute amongst the public? (that’s just two pence per person in the district if you were wondering).

A couple of times a year SDC will announce that they have launched free tennis or swimming lesson for local individuals to take part in. However the truth behind these propaganda messages is that there are only a handful of appointments available and by the time it has reached the media for release, all spots have been taken.

It’s not just Sevenoaks which falls short on sports strategy, in Tunbridge Wells, we hear constant groans and concerns over existing (council owned) facilities going to ruin, whilst private companies get paid to run their leisure centres, and not very well either, but that’s a different article.

Where is all the money going? Do they really need to wait 12 weeks discussing a leaky roof over six meetings before action is taken? This is what happened to one such sports club in Tunbridge Wells this year, however we have since learn’t that the council has now started to take action in this matter, including the installation of a brand new portacabin for the clubs’ near 500 members. But it really shouldn’t take effort of this magnitude to look after the one area of our lives that so many enjoy and benefit from.

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council does not currently have a Sports Strategy in place since their last one lapsed in 2021. But even when they launched that strategy in 2016 they admitted that it no longer has the resources to deliver on the full range of ambitions of local groups and residents, and has positioned itself as an ‘enabling council’,
seeking to support others where it can.

All this really means is that they are sign-posting people in the direction of National Governing Bodies and local partners such as Fusion Lifestyle who operate their leisure centres.

Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council also seem to be in need of a sports strategy. They boast that they own two leisure centres (Tonbridge and Larkfield) and have a large number of recreational grounds available for hire throughout the borough. However there is a distinct lack of the word sport in any of their official documents.

Like Tunbridge Wells, they are sign-posting people to other organisations to fulfil the requirements placed on them by the government.

2022 active rate numbers across West Kent were extremely positive, with an average of 66.4% of the local population doing exercise for more than 150 minutes a week. The 2022 figures across the three councils were as follows:

• Tonbridge – 67,800 (66.8%)
• Tunbridge Wells – 62,400 (66.7%)
• Sevenoaks – 62,800 (65.8%).

Moving forward
The dream would be for all local authorities to have a designated department to deal with such sporting matters, and whilst everyone will not be happy with the way in which money is handed out, the majority would start to see improvements at the local park and a difference at the neighbourhood sports club.

Until local authorities get to grip with the state of the sporting landscape, there is very little to get excited about. A few pennies here and there and then bang, a great big new sports complex! That is not the ideal solution here. They need to take responsibility back for all forms of sport across all demographics, and that needs a strategy before it can even get going! What do you think about the state of local leisure facilities in West Kent? Please let us know your thoughts by emailing us at the address below.

• If you are part of a sports club or local community organisation that would like to feature in West Kent Sport & Wellbeing magazine, then please do get in touch with us via our email address at editorial@oneteammedia.co.uk. We will be more than happy to publish your news.

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