Local Government Funding of Community Sport & Leisure

Local authorities have a central role to play in the provision of community sport and recreation facilities. From the local parks to leisure centres, local councils enable a huge range of leisure activities and sport to happen. They also have an important leadership role to play, bringing schools, voluntary sport clubs, National Governing Bodies of sport, health and the private sector together to forge partnerships, unblock barriers to participation and improve the local sport delivery system.

In recent years, the current Government has been committed to decentralisation and empowering local communities and local authorities to make the best and most suitable decisions to react to local need. The Government's sports strategy argues this approach is appropriate for sport and leisure too: that markets vary locally and therefore different places require their own unique strategies. For this reason, central government has devolved many areas of decision making to the local level.

As a result, local authorities have also taken responsibility for the health outcomes (Public Health Outcomes Framework 2016 to 2019). Research shows that exercise is one of the key determinants of health along with the strength of our personal social network – recent research suggests that it is more important to health outcomes than levels of smoking or obesity. Community sport contributes to both. Local authorities are also responsible for the broader welfare of their communities. Volunteering, community resilience and economic development – to a greater or lesser extent community sport also contributes this.

Since the devolution of public health from the National Health Service to local authorities in 2013, many councils have taken the opportunity to integrate physical activity into public health policy as part of a fundamental shift from a system that treats ill- health to one that promotes wellbeing. In many areas, local Health and Wellbeing Strategies have highlighted physical inactivity as an issue that needs to be tackled and agreed approaches to tackling it.

Local authorities also have responsibility for wider policy areas, which can have a significant impact on the physical activity of the local population, including management of rights of way, parks and other green spaces. High quality multi-use local green spaces can play a key role as sporting venues and as alternative settings for sport and healthy activity especially for those less likely to use traditional sports centres. The opportunities to realise the multiple benefits that can be achieved for communities by investing in green spaces and other local locations as venues for sport and healthy activity are being actively encouraged to be considered whenever they arise.

As a result, Local authorities have, and will continue to have, an absolutely crucial role to play in delivering local community sport and physical activity opportunities. Yet despite local authorities duty to promote healthy lifestyles, and the government's renewed commitment, in its cross-government strategy to tackle flat lining levels of sport participation and high levels of inactivity, to use sporting activity to achieve five key outcomes - physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development and economic development -, there is no statutory provision for sport: there is no legal requirement for local authorities to provide facilities or sporting activity.

Local authorities have also, to date, been the biggest public sector investor in sport and leisure, traditionally investing over £1bn per year. The funding structure is often complex with different departments funding local authorities for different outcomes and local budgets funding different activity health and wellbeing budgets, youth provision and other funding streams all contributing to providing sporting activity and facilities.

Furthermore, central government does consider how national government works with local authorities and where the two can work in partnership to maximise the impact of collective spending. The primary area this happens is in investment in capital facilities. Sport England continues to work for example, with a number of local authorities to co-fund new infrastructure projects, including many that have sought to house a number of different services within the same facility.

However, over recent years, local authority community sport and leisure have been operating in a challenging environment. In many areas, funding and support for sport and recreation are being drastically reduced as a result of local government spending cuts as the central government delivers its spending plans to help it achieve one of it key policy priorities, to reduce the national debt. Unfortunately, local authorities, with no statutory duty to provide sports or leisure activities or facilities (like they do with rubbish collection or libraries), have more incentive to sell or close facilities, which are used by clubs and stop funding for local community sporting activities often deliver through their youth departments.

While the government has advocated and encouraged both new models of funding, through social impact bonds and social commissioning; and new models of ownership with leisure facilities being run by Trusts and passing community assets into local ownership, there are serious questions about whether this approach will succeed or, sporting and leisure provision at a local level will just cease to exist in any meaningful way.

Evidence is emerging that these cuts are starting to have significant impact on local sport and physical activity provision and delivery. Martyn Allison's thought piece (2015) provided an initial analysis of the situation and a number of academics are also researching into the impact of local government funding including:

We are currently supporting new research exploring the impact of funding cuts across a wide range of related local authority funding streams to assess the impact on A Sporting Future's outcomes, which we will publish in 2018.