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Do our policymakers value sport and physical activity? Is our lobby working? - John Oxley

Posted: Fri, 05 Mar 2021 09:20

Do our policymakers value sport and physical activity? Is our lobby working? - John Oxley

The last twelve months have allowed us to examine and get an appreciation as to how policymakers view society, and the relative value judgments that are made, as our lifestyles are controlled in a way that few of us have ever experienced before.

When you're passionate about sport and physical activity, and you've devoted much of your waking hours (professionally and voluntarily) to it, the notion of 'good' health at a time of ill-health takes on a particularly personal dimension.

So how do we think sport and physical activity has been valued over the course of the last year?

Back in the spring of 2020, we were swept along in the words "hospitality and leisure" as restrictions that were applied, treated a sports and activity space the same as a pub or a club. At the time, I was quite affronted, and many who know me will have heard me utter the phrase, "to the government we're about as much use as a couple of pints on a Friday night!"

The sector's narrative, led by ukactive, pushed back after lockdown 1.0 announcing that 'gyms' should be open because they're safe – pointing to the Covid incidence data that was available. Followed by 'gyms' should be open otherwise businesses will fold, and finally 'gyms and leisure centres' should be open because they're good for the health of the nation.

On a Panorama programme of the time, the 'sector' was represented and depicted by a weights-oriented gym in Liverpool.

The sports lobby messaged separately, and in an attempt to re-affirm our contribution to good health, ukactive ran a piece led by Professor Greg Whyte, that two-thirds of the UK's cancer pre-hab and re-hab support is provided through leisure centres.

To the outside world and to policymakers our communication was confused and facility-centric.

Separately, representations have been made to parliamentary select committees. Frankly, in part this came across as a rally-cry from the low-cost budget sector, and CEO of Pure Gym, Humphrey Cobbold has fronted much of the sector's media exposure. Whilst articulating opinion very professionally and capably, I fear that the lens presented has been one which portrays sport and physical activity as being a commercial commodity which resides in premises on the high street.

I guess this portrayal sounds harsh, and in no way is it meant to be disrespectful to the leaders and professionals who have fought so hard in exceedingly challenging circumstances over the course of the last year. Its just representative of where we are and our natural evolution.

And progress has been made; I detect subtle changes in our language and a great many people have sought to apply their minds to how we can change and grow in the future.

The words 'sector' or 'industry' are more frequently being replaced by 'eco-system'; recognition that there is a richness and great variety of opportunity that allows us to slot some physical activity into our lives.

The Sport England strategy has a 10-year timeframe and sets out to be a physical activity strategy delivered through collaboration and an appreciation that 'place-based', 'whole-system' thinking is likely to connect and engage communities to move about a little more to a far greater degree than has been achieved before.

The Health White Paper, whilst not referencing physical activity per se, talks positively about the need for a collaborative preventative health approach which pushes the door ajar for us to engage and develop more obvious and sustainable activity interventions to promote good health.

And there are initiatives that 'get' all this and are arising via new thinking. I give you:

  • Mel Spooner's CAWS programmes – upskilling professional trainers to meet the cardio-respiratory needs of those recovering from Covid – connecting science and behavioural change for habitual good health.
  • Andrew Wilesmith's endeavours have seen Ipswich Borough Council and the local Clinical Commissioning Group collaborate and launch a series of targeted health programmes across the town.
  • Hayley Lever's 'whole system' approach in Greater Sport, Manchester, that is truly starting to build connections across communities and think laterally about how we re-engineer activity into daily lives.
  • Heath Harvey and the £5bn Brent Cross Park Town development that is arguably the most courageous and inspirational initiative that will position sport and play at the very heart of the community
  • And a general 'shout out' to all those that are appreciating that we live in a digitally connected world and embracing and exploiting technology is a component of 'nudging' behaviour.

These are just three of many throughout the UK and are an illustration of great initiative and leadership that can make a difference and are representative of the impact physical activity can make across communities.

However, we must accept we are on a long haul and we should treat it as such. That means when there are bumps in the road, we hold tight to our beliefs and trust that they see us through.

One of those bumps could be perceived as the Chancellor's failure to utilise health, well-being, and physical activity as notable features of his 'recovery' budget.

In my view it's not wise to throw our arms in the air! The policy asks, headed by ukactive, appear to have fallen on deaf ears but we should remember that 'members' of facilities (gyms and leisure centres) represent just 15% of the population. A colleague of mine took a call from the Cabinet Office and was asked whether there was any evidence to indicate that those who attended gyms were any healthier than those that didn't. The fact that we can't swiftly provide such evidence and have to rely upon implication, says everything we need to know and also confirms why the Health profession has in the past been sceptical about the robustness of our value.

A number of years ago, I led a re-launch of an organisation that sought to challenge convention and was inspired by the following phrase:

"If we don't change, we don't grow; and if we don't grow, we aren't really living."

So, some thoughts to improve our lobbying position:-

  • Do we have courageous leadership?
  • Can we talk more about 'health' and less about 'fitness'?
  • More about 'communities' and less about 'markets'?
  • Embrace sport as an opportunity for physical movement and not as a preserve of the elite?
  • Find ways of connecting with other parts of the system?
  • Genuinely become part of a preventative health service?
  • See ourselves as 'activity enablers' not 'facility operators'?
  • Embrace and exploit technology and the digital environment?
  • Work to address health inequality and avoid just enabling the fit to become fitter?
  • Appreciate that wherever we are in the system, we are just a component of something bigger and that we must share an understanding of each other and our common purpose?

And what if:

  • We re-imagined and re-purposed our facilities so that they had wider appeal?
  • We up-skilled or re-skilled the enthusiasts and empathisers in our workforce to deliver different and improved services to our communities?
  • We thought about mental and social health as much as we do physical?
  • We improved the digital connectivity of our communities so that they could be inspired, motivated or nudged along the behavioural change journey?
  • We encouraged the greater use of open space for 'free' activity or 'led' activity?
  • We supported and exploited the passion and energy that exists within voluntary sports clubs?
  • Our indoor and outdoor facility assets formed a 'hub and network' of opportunity around which all physical activity and community sport could thrive and where other parts of the 'whole system' could co-locate?
  • We thought about the whole system as a contributor to physical activity connecting health care, social care, education and travel with the physical activity and sport landscape, so that moving about more was available to more, understood by more and ultimately became a habitual part of more people's lives?

Then, I believe

  • If such principles were established cross-department at a policy level, if they were embraced by the rich breadth of delivery partners within the physical activity and sport eco-system, and if they were supported by a meaningful 'Wellness' budget, then maybe that would stimulate a new, value-led, whole system approach to the health of our society.
  • My anticipation is that this would provide new purpose to the physical activity agenda and it would re-define the role of physical activity leading to a transformational effect upon lives throughout our communities.

Tags: DCMS, Featured, Sport England, Sports Policy, Sports Think Tank, Uksport, sport policy