LPFF Blog

LPFF's response to the government's sports strategy

The Government’s new sports strategy “Sporting Future” and its ambition to transform people’s well being and create a fitter, healthier and happier nation has much to commend it. Guided by five key outcomes of physical health, mental health, individual development, social and community development and economic development, its vision is clear and simple. It recommends targeting investment at sports projects that have a meaningful, measurable impact on how they are improving lives with a remit to cater from everyone from five year olds to pensioners. There is a huge shift away from the historic obsession with numbers to a focus on how sport and physical activity can improve the lives of local communities. Encouraging Sport England to back successful projects run by charities and organisations outside the traditional NGB structure is also great news for London Playing Fields Foundation. The determination for government departments to work collaboratively to link sport, health, social and environmental policies also makes good sense and is indicative of where sports projects will have the best chance of qualifying for funding.

Wider benefits of sport

However, if the Government is to realise the full social and health benefits of sport it needs to ensure that there are accessible, affordable and attractive facilities where activity can take place. Without a place to play a child will just switch on their tablet or computer. At least Tracey Crouch and her team are listening and, from a position during the consultation process when playing fields were only mentioned as a figure of speech, the strategy now acknowledges that “playing fields are a vital part of the sporting infrastructure”. However, the strategy is thin on detail of how these fields should be managed and protected in the face of the enormous pressure to build more new homes.

The threat to playing fields

The ramifications of the recent Government Spending Review mean that local authorities are more cash strapped than ever and one easy way for them to balance the books is to sell off prime pieces of open space to developers. But this is such a false economy. London Playing Fields Foundation, which in 2015, celebrates 125 years of providing a place to play sport, recently published a piece of research entitled Fields of Dreams which calculated that the minimum annual savings to the public purse of one of its playing fields in Walthamstow was a staggering £4.8million.

Investment in artificial turf pitches

News that the Premier League will double its investment in grass roots football over the coming three seasons and that the Government will support the FA’s Parklife scheme is welcome but the focus should not be entirely on the installation of artificial turf pitches (ATP’s). They are an excellent resource but they are certainly not a panacea and should not be built at the expense of natural turf pitches. Furthermore local authorities must not be given the impression that they can sell off a playing field for £10million in return for building an artificial turf pitch for £850,000. Artificial turf pitches can breathe life into large playing fields and we support the strategy’s recommendation that investment should be made in multi-sport sites so that a winter rugby or football pitch can become a cricket outfield in the summer. Nor should we forget hockey. Seventy-six per cent of new or replacement artificial turf pitches are of the third generation type which are unsuitable for hockey. This rate will increase when Parklife kicks in so England Hockey will need to take urgent measures to ensure it retains its pitch stock.

Supporting volunteers

There is a golden thread that links grass roots and professional sport and it is reassuring that the Government wants more of the broadcasting revenues swilling around at elite level to percolate downwards.

Sustaining a commitment to sport is much harder to achieve than stimulating initial interest and, whilst the new focus to attract new participants and switch them on to a more active lifestyle has to be supported, we must not ignore their progress once they have adopted a sporting habit. For some time there has been a haemorrhage in participation of our national sports when a young person reaches 16 years of age with the main underlying causes being cost and the quality of local facilities. This elephant in the room is not adequately addressed in this strategy or in the FA’s recent National Game Strategy. The biggest purveyors of participation at grass roots levels are the local leagues run by volunteers so why can’t some of the revenues from the richest league in the world be used to sustain them and to create bridging competitions between youth and adult levels: leagues such as the LPFF’s London Communities League which provides weekly 11v11 football opportunities for young men from some of our most deprived neighbourhoods? The social return on this league in terms of its impact on crime and anti-social behaviour is enormous but every year the league faces extinction because of a lack of funding. Providing sport for economically disadvantaged communities can never pay for itself but the penny has never dropped with the powers that be.

Sport and its impact on mental health

Confirmation that the strategy will support projects that can deliver measurable improvements to mental health is great news to London Playing Fields Foundation given that it has, in partnership with the NHS and Leyton Orient Trust, have been delivering the award winning Coping Through Football project since 2007. The project is a graphic demonstration of how sport and health can work together to transform lives and simultaneously reduce the reliance on acute care services.

Summary

Having contributed very comprehensively to the consultation process, London Playing Fields Foundation welcomes the final document. Its vision is clear and bold and the directive to invest in projects with tangible health and social benefits run by charities and organisations outside of the governing body structure marks a sea change in government policy and one that will lead to a more active nation.

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