Is Anybody Listening? THIS ISN’T POLITICAL POSTURING; THIS IS SERIOUS - John Oxley.
Posted: Fri, 28 May 2021 15:14
I was struck by the relatively quiet response to two most dramatic news pieces that have hit the
headlines over recent days.
First the context; the sport and physical activity eco-system – that plethora of assets and stimuli that
help us move about more and so increase our resistance to major chronic disease – has been
amongst the hardest hit over the course of the last twelve months. A substantial part of that eco-
system are the public facilities owned by local authorities and in some cases, operated by them, and
in others out-sourced to specialist and often 'third-sector' organisations. These local community
assets provide accessible and, largely, affordable swimming pools, gyms, studios and sports courts
and pitches. They are likely the place where most children first learn to swim, and where many
others are introduced to sport and gymnastic activity for the first time. They also are home to a
substantial chunk of the UK's health intervention programmes that transform the lives of many
people in the community who have experienced cardio-respiratory, cancer and obesity issues and
who have found that exercise really is 'medicine'.
So, I was alarmed that the District Council Network announced that it expected that one third of
leisure centres could be forced to close permanently and that in many cases this could be
imminent – within three months. Almost all the 180 District Councils said they expected to have to
reduce the services of those that remained open.
This was followed by an impassioned plea from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Chair of ukactive,
who highlighted, again, the perilous state the sector found itself in and pointed out that such a
situation was 'at odds' with the narrative of the Queen's Speech which aimed to "create a stronger,
healthier, and more prosperous society."
If this wasn't enough, the news then reminded us that the pandemic has had a profoundly deeper
affect on those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, and those who have underlying
health conditions, including those who are obese.
There have been many individuals and representative bodies over the course of the last twelve
months that have articulated the case for sport and physical activity. Much of the 'noise' has been
within sector in attempt to rally around a common cause, some national media exposure has been
achieved and there has been representation to policymakers in parliamentary settings.
We ran the risk during 2020 of a 'mixed-narrative'; both economic and health-oriented. Of course,
both are relevant, but I firmly believe that our focus should be fairly and squarely on the
contribution that sport and physical activity can make to the mental, social and physical well-being
of our communities. What follows is the positive impactive that has upon the productivity and
'wellness' of our society.
Simply, elevate the appreciation of sport and physical activity in the nation's consciousness and
policy and economic prosperity for our eco-system will follow.
So, here is my FOUR-pronged riposte to decision-makers:
1. Understand VALUE – for our local authorities it is critical that we apply a value to the sport
and physical activity agenda, not just a price. The driver cannot be how efficiently can the
service be provided but how effective we can be in increasing participation, contributing to
population health, and reducing health inequality. If it remains only about price (the
management fee), then operators will have nowhere to go other than continue to focus on
satisfying the needs of those who are already committed to exercise and who can most afford it. Operators are in no position after 2020 to shoulder more of the financial burden that public leisure service is carrying. Their accounts show heavy losses and they have exhausted their reserves. If it remains about price, then health intervention programmes and sports development activity will continue to feature but it will remain as a marginalised part of the proposition.
2. Become part of the HEALTH pathway – for our operators they must be allowed the latitude
to continue to deliver to the parts of the community that their proposition appeals to AND
they must be prepared to expand their role in health intervention. They must commit to
learning a 'new language', to collaborating in an environment that is unfamiliar, and to
playing a role in the emerging Integrated Care System. This will be a stretch, it won't be easy,
it will be uncomfortable, and it will feel unnatural, but the partnership must be prepared to
broaden its purpose and therefore widen its reach.
3. Accept a MIXED ECONOMY – we must be courageous enough to rid ourselves of this sector-
centric obsession of commercial provision versus public provision. For local authorities that
means understanding the activity habits and trends of their whole community and
appreciating the choice that the community makes as to where it participates in sport and
physical activity – a high street gym, a community leisure centre, a sports club, a local park
or even a digital environment. The customer will choose, and those choices shouldn't be
denied. If that means that unattractive and out of date public facilities should close that will
release resource to be committed to things that could be more effective, then let's not fight
it. If it means we can attract new commercial investment to create modern and more
dynamic facility provision in public-private ventures, then let's embrace it. If it means
operator consortia collaborating and existing in a single venue – a sport and physical activity
village if you like – let's explore it. If it allows us to explore rich partnerships with education,
social care, and health, then let's do it. And for operators it means broadening horizons;
accepting that in the future we will 'co-own' the customer relationship who will engage with
built, digital and free-form suppliers in the eco-system. This is about commercial, public,
third and voluntary sectors adjusting and modifying their proposition so that the whole eco-
system is the richer for it, and its about the local authority sector playing its role to balance
and optimise that mixed provision for the benefit of the whole community.
4. Look through the lens of PROPORTIONATE UNIVERSALISM – this means acknowledging
deepening health inequality and applying new thinking and system thinking to ensure
opportunity is universal. It means applying resource where it is most needed without
stigmatising those in need or disenfranchising those more fortunate. It's a chance to
challenge convention and to rid ourselves in the public sector of legacy approaches to
pricing, programming and marcoms. It is to recognise the unconscious instincts we have
accumulated over time and that have become norms, and it is to challenge them through
improved leadership, innovation, and collaboration.
I don't pretend that any of this may be easy, and I acknowledge that some steps have been taken
already towards the things to which I refer. However, there are bigger tests to come, harder pills to
swallow, deeper change to be made. I applaud Sport England's Uniting the Movement Strategy, and I
applaud the intent of 'Moving Communities'. The strategy needs coherent implementation and
Moving Communities needs innovation and drive to enhance its richness and quality; it could
provide the level of insight that will make all the difference to our policymakers in the future.
What binds all of this, is an unequivocal commitment to the value of sport and physical activity for
the benefit of society, wherever its done, however its done and whoever provides the opportunity.
By John Oxley.