Dear Sport England, all we want for Christmas is...
The final phase of Sport England’s consultation on their new 10-year strategy, due early 2021, is coming to a close. Their purpose to “transform the nation’s relationship with movement, physical activity and sport” got us thinking about what we would like to see in the new document, especially in relation to our shared interest in inclusive community sport practice.
Firstly, we hope that this strategy builds on what has been learnt over the last four decades of community sport development. Projects like Action Sport in the 1980s, the Sport Action Zones in the 2000s, and Doorstep Sport in the 2010s, have all highlighted the importance of locally directed, flexible, and consultative approaches that build local capacity. Lessons that are often neglected when previous strategies and initiatives have been rolled out.
It’s not only about learning from the past. We also hope that recent insights from Sport England’s Local Delivery Pilots (LDP) are recognised. For example, Active Calderdale has provided crucial insights into the adoption of a whole-systems approach in the creation of places, spaces, and activities that make it easier for people to be active. A whole-systems approach facilitated the co-design of physical activity nudges with stakeholders across multiple environments, organisations, and services that an individual comes into contact with. Such insights have reinforced vital lessons that local knowledge and solutions are fundamental to addressing inequalities through sport participation. This means working with education, community, health and other local stakeholders during the change process, as they work closest with communities and can monitor where the need is greatest.
In other research we have illuminated the importance of community assets in creating sustainable opportunities for participation, especially in deprived communities (Partington and Totten, 2012; Bates and Hylton, 2020). Asset-based approaches can provide a more sustainable foundation upon which projects for change can be built, providing a counter to needs-based provision that can unintentionally create a culture of dependency on public services and support. Support that may not be sustainable or feasible in an era of scarce public sector funding and resources.
Having said that, we also hope that Sport England’s new strategy recognises the contribution made by local authorities to the provision of accessible sport and physical activity opportunities in local communities. In recent years, local authorities have often been the ‘forgotten partner’ (Houlihan & Lindsey, 2013); their contribution to physical activity often being overlooked in national sport policies. The impact of central government austerity measures and more recently the Coronavirus pandemic, have placed significant strain on the ability of authorities to provide sport and leisure opportunities either directly or via the outsourcing of provision to third party providers such as leisure trusts.
Closures to leisure facilities are a visible manifestation of such financial pressures, but equally concerning is the negative impact on community sport development provision, a more invisible aspect of many local authority sports services. This work is often vital in engaging inactive members of local communities in physical activity, and support provided by community sport development officers to local community groups is central in encouraging and facilitating an asset-based approach. At a more strategic level, local government officers bring together key stakeholders at a local level, often facilitating the design and delivery of programmes such as the Active Calderdale LDP. We welcome the recent announcement of financial support from the government to support local authorities and leisure providers to mitigate against the losses incurred as a result of the pandemic. However, we would welcome a longer-term strategic approach that invests in and works collaboratively with providers to develop more sustainable approaches to tackling inactivity and promoting inclusive sport and physical activity in communities.
A focus on community assets in developing local solutions reflect a concern for the ways in which top-down driven initiatives often fail to sufficiently transfer power and resources at a local level. The role of external sport and community agencies in this process is not to determine the agenda, but to facilitate opportunities for meaningful participation, decision making, and action. Thankfully there seems to be a growing recognition that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to tacking inequalities in sport participation is ineffective. We hope that the new Sport England strategy provides flexibility for local knowledge to pave the way for change, and support communities and organisations in their recovery from COVID-19.
Bates, D. and Hylton, K. (2020) Asset-Based Community Sport Development: Putting Community First. Managing Sport and Leisure, pp.1-12.
Houlihan, B. & Lindsey, I. (2013) Sport Policy in Britain. Abingdon, Routledge.
Partington, J. & Totten, M. (2012) Community Sports Projects and effective Community Empowerment; A case study in Rochdale. Managing Leisure. 17 (1), January, pp. 29-46.
Dan is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Development, with a teaching and research focus in community sport development. His work is informed by critical social theory and explores the potential of community-based sport programmes for social change.
Alexandra is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working on the Active Calderdale Sport England funded Local Delivery Pilot (LDP). Alexandra works to evaluate system changes within the LDP and document these alongside case study stories.