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Unlocking the Future from Martyn Allison

Posted: Mon, 11 May 2020 12:36

Unlocking the Future from Martyn Allison

Before anything else a big thank you to all of you helping and supporting communities. I've heard so many powerful stories this week that are a credit to you all. You really are making a difference to people's lives.

No heavy push on data this week but a more gentle reflection on what feels like a turning point but in reality is just the beginning of the end. The week began in a context of optimism that the government are going to start the unlocking of the economy but ended with a realisation that any move out of the current scenario was going to be gradual, take months not days and would involve many of the current restrictions remaining. For the behavioural scientists this weekend will be a challenge in terms of how people behave in the light of what has clearly been mixed messaging. Some people clearly have had enough and are happy to now start breaking the rules whilst others are both fearful and angry that they are doing so. How will they behave when we let them back into our pools and gyms? But if next week we are allowed to exercise freely but not in our facilities will that simply intensify the new habits so they won't want to come back?

I have been a party to many conversations this week and what is now very clear is that the sector has been immense in its support of communities and individuals that need help. People have been re-employed, their services have been re-purposed and furloughed staff have been volunteering. What is also clear is just how much people have actually enjoyed it. In some conversations you could feel the Adrenalin flowing, the sense of pride in what they have done and I was pleased to celebrate with them the resilience they have shown and created. Quite a number I listened to were suggesting that the way the sector has engaged with these support programmes has started to change perceptions of them by others in terms of their importance and benefit. The fact that they were often the only direct route to sections of the community and some individuals or only they knew how to engage directly with some communities has made a real difference to how they are being viewed in their organisations and by partners. The key of course will be how these changed perceptions play into future discussions about priorities and budgets.

Many have also talked about how organisational behaviours have changed. Decisions have been made much quicker, normal rules have been put to one side and traditional governance barriers removed, people are working together across boundaries and new and different relationships have been formed. Many have talked about how they are recognising that they do work in a bigger system and they are actually involved in system change. They are seeing how they are making the system work better because everyone shares a common purpose.

What has struck me most is that's people are more empathetic to each other but more importantly to those in need. They can now see how some people are really struggling with feeding their families, accessing help and support and perhaps now they are really starting to understanding how they live their lives, which is very different to their own. Over and over again people have talked about seeing the inequalities first hand. Interestingly people have talked about a new digital inequality perhaps realising that whilst some of us have iPads, smart TVs and multiple computers to entertain and teach the children and do our exercise on line many others don't even have a phone. Most talked about how these inequalities were about to get worse as people were loosing their jobs or re-employment was unlikely for some time. They were openly speculating how they can continue to help and support them when they are back running their services. The announcements in the week that more disadvantaged people were actually dying from the virus and more BAME people were dying were stark reminders of the reality they were now dealing with daily. What we are seeing across much of the sector are changes in behaviour, a growing sense of empathy and people reassessing or reasserting their values. But I did ask in one conversation, why is it we can identify and respond to need with empathy and with quickness of thought and action in a crisis, but we cannot do it all the time. What is stopping us simply extrapolating these behaviours to how we work in the future?

There have also been some other quite interesting discussions about the other changes people are seeing. Lots of recognition of how much better it is to walk and cycle round without cars and how much safer it is to exercise on the roads and footpaths without being choked by pollution. The air is cleaner and the colours greener. One person really felt that the issue of climate change was now far easier to talk about in this context and perhaps this was the real issue in front of the sector rather than health inequalities. Working from home is actually not as bad as some feared and its so much nicer without the daily commute. But whilst the opportunity was now in front of us to talk about active transport and changing travel behaviour one person remarked that the person responsible for transport policy was actually focused on the traffic problems created by reopening tips, once again showing the delicate balance between the urgent and the important.

People have noticed and valued our green spaces more and women have commented on how they feel safer in them because there are more people around. People are exercising more as a family not on their own. But then once again the discussions are brought up sharp when people quickly realise that if you live in poverty in deprived communities you might not have nice safe green space near by, the chances of working at home are non existent and as the data has shown women may in fact be exercising even less because they have not got the time or space to separate themselves from dealing with working at home, teaching the children at home and the normal chores. Is this vision of a car free, stress free, exercise filled family life yet another middle class concept not one available to us all.

For me all these discussions are incredibly positive because they set the context and foundations for doing things differently and hopefully better as we enter the recovery phase. But there are also other darker forces that offer a very different context and which is now arriving like a nasty storm on the horizon.

When this crisis started those parts of the sector with interest in our facilities were quick off the mark to tell government there was a problem that needed fixing with an injection of money. If not forthcoming, contracts would fold and facilities not reopen. Although it had good coverage in the leisure press it took a while before it had a bigger landing ground but it was then badly positioned against the plight of professional sport clubs so perhaps generating less understanding and sympathy than it deserved. It was being seen as a commercial business problem caused by a lack of income rather than a loss of social and health opportunities in communities. The publicity was great but the messaging was all wrong as was so much of the fitness imagery going with it.

Meanwhile councils themselves are struggling just to cope with the urgent issues of community need and economic support. The leisure issue was still to get onto the Chief Executives desk let alone the Leaders and if it did the employee subsidy scheme was readily available so perhaps there was no real emergency. Despite the fear two or three weeks ago, to date I have not heard of any contract actually collapsing or operator or trust going into liquidation but maybe these situations remain invisible as councils and consultants supported by Sport England are starting to work through the problems.

Councils have been offered £1.6b more funding but I was regularly hearing that the money offered by central government was unlikely to cover more than 25% of actual costs incurred and still no mention of the leisure contract problem. On Tuesday the picture became a little clearer. At a select committee, Robert Jenrick the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government made it very clear that they would only cover the costs of what they had requested local government to deliver on their behalf and not general losses caused by Coronavirus. He suggested district councils had already been given additional funding including a contribution for lost income from car parking and leisure centres. That seemed to imply that no more money was coming just for the leisure contract issue and councils would be left to solve these problems themselves with the funding issue not looked at again until the next spending review in the autumn. This standoff may not last but I doubt if ring fenced financial support for contracts will appear. https://www.lgcplus.com/politics/coronavirus/jenrick-warns-not-all-costs-will-be-covered-as-lost-income-estimates-branded-highly-speculative-05-05-2020/

By the end of the week the storm clouds gathered even more as it became clear that places like gyms and leisure centres would not be allowed to reopen any time soon and when they were allowed to open they would still be subject to restrictions including social distancing. To add to the problem, public opinion polling was showing that many people were cautious if not frightened by the thought of re-entering enclosed spaces and older people may be encouraged to stay at home until a vaccine was available. The only good news seemed to be the rumours that the employee subsidy scheme might be extended again and available for those businesses remaining in lockdown and the arrival of the new "bounce back loans" from the government.

Whilst we await the Prime Ministers road map out of lockdown on Sunday it's now clear to me that we have a huge problem ahead of us and we are going to need to find our own solutions to it. Even if some additional funding becomes available I doubt it will get anywhere near what we might need to maintain the status quo. Repair I fear has now gone as our route out of this and some radical and innovative ways of working will be required.

A few other observations on last week. I have as you know been calling for a clearer vision and sense of direction towards the future and a greater collaboration from our lead bodies on forming and communicating this.

I shared links in the week to the blog by Darren Henley the CEO of the Arts Council. It was a brilliant message to the cultural sector. Ambitious but very realistic. Empathetic and recognising that as a sector it has differences that need different solutions. A recognition of the value of place and the purpose of culture in that place. But above all a recognition that whilst things were still uncertain and challenging now was the time to start shaping the future. This was what I had been looking for, for the sport and physical activity sector and it must come soon. https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/end-beginning

Tim Hollingsworth was at the DCMS select committee on Tuesday and he was clear about the importance of addressing the widening inequalities gap which I was warmed by even though others representing elite sport and professional sport seemed to go with their begging bowl. I was pleased Tim confirmed the next batch of relief funding was £20m for community sport which would be specifically directed at those working with deprived communities. In my opinion this should have been allocated first but at least the issue was now being addressed. Proportionate universalism at work?

On Thursday CLOA released its first statement on the crisis which showed a real sense of clarity and purpose for how the sector goes forward including a call for a "coalition of the willing" to start to shape and deliver it. https://cloa.org.uk/2020/05/06/call-to-action-an-appetite-for-a-rethink/

So together these are for me the green shoots of leadership starting to emerge from dealing with the urgent to addressing the important. I suspect Monday will be for many the trigger to really start thinking about what we do next. Do we simply try to repair a broken system or do we work together to change the system and try to make it better.

So six weeks into lockdown and eight weeks into the pandemic where are we as a sector. Well we have made a terrific job of helping and supporting individuals and communities and in doing so we are reasserting our values, demonstrating greater empathy and changing our behaviours to change the system and make it work better. Our management skills have come to the fore and we have built credibility and new relationships. But we have made no real inroads into thinking about the future and how we might shape it. The dark clouds of the financial challenges are forming as we speak. The ability to sustain our existing business models whether in facilities, clubs or community sport settings is fractured by the ongoing challenges of a pandemic that will continue well into next year and both central and local government will face limited resources and competing priorities. The next few weeks will be critical in resetting how the sector can work going forward and I fear some of the decisions we will have to make will be painful. This is the moment when leadership is required both nationally and locally. It will not be an easy journey but if we apply ourselves to recovery the way we have applied ourselves in the crisis itself I have every confidence we will come through it different but better. I really do believe as I said last week proportionate universalism can be our new normal.

Martyn Allison

May 8th 2020.

Tags: Featured, Policy, Sport, community sport

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