Edition number 81; dateline 9 February 2016

A strategy in which the deeds can't match the words

Anyone taking to the pages of a magazine or journal to express a view or argue a case cannot help but wonder how many people might read it and how many of them might actually take the points on board, particularly when the topic is government policy. We were somewhat taken aback, therefore, to find that the new policy for sport seemed to have paid close attention to Martyn Allison’s recent article in the Leisure Review, which was titled Dear Minister… We Need to Talk About Sport. As Martyn puts it in his follow-up article in this issue: “You can imagine my surprise when reading the strategy I saw far more synergy in thinking than I expected. As I tweeted on the morning of the publication, ‘Right words, now we need the right actions’.”

While only the minister and her advisers will be able to tell us how much influence Martyn’s article had on the development of national sport policy, the initial response to the strategy within the sport, leisure and culture sector seemed to be positive. Here was a strategy that at least appeared to understand some of the fundamentals of how sport and physical activity are linked, and how sport could be developed, promoted and managed to maximise its contribution to the health of the nation and the wellbeing of communities around the UK.

But for all the approval with which the minister’s presentation of the strategy has been met, there are still a number of caveats. Most obvious is the role of local government. The strategy discusses the role of local councils but local authority finances have now been scraped bare by the imposition of austerity. There is now no way local authorities can deliver the totality of the aspirations expressed within the strategy. The reality is that the chancellor has required that access to much of local leisure provision will be now decided by the market irrespective of the ambitions of local authorities or the minister for sport’s strategic ambitions. Those that can afford to will: those that can’t won’t.

And while we may feel obliged to welcome a sports strategy that recognises the causes of under-representation and the need to tackle the problem, all this is not news; these have been the issues for decades. The likelihood of this strategy being delivered is remote. After all, how much faith can we have in the government’s ability to understand how service delivery works when the same government is led by prime minister who signs petitions against the effects of his own policies?

The ambition of the strategy is admirable and displays an understanding of the possibilities. For instance, it states: “As local government evolves, we need to think about how best to get local organisations to work together to deliver the priorities in their areas so that local people can get the most value from sport.” But this a pretty good summary of how local government works – or should be able to work. Evolution in this case sounds like a euphemism. Forgive us if we interpret this as likely to mean ‘is eroded’ or even ‘disappears’.

Strategies are all very well but experience tells us we can only judge the effectiveness of a policy by what it delivers: deeds not words; the walking not the talking. Part of the Leisure Review’s job is to hold up a mirror to the sport, leisure and culture sector and those who work with, in and around it. Having read a lot of government policy documents in our time, the minister will forgive us if we don’t hang out the bunting just yet.

The strategy also has implications for CIMSPA as the professional body for the sector. As Leisure Review readers will be only too well aware, much water has flowed under the bridge since the creation of what was envisaged as a single body for the sport, leisure and culture sector. Some good people have been involved along the way. A lot of faith has been placed in and expended by the project. God knows an awful lot of money has been spent. The mention of CIMSPA as the only professional representation game in town is a reflection of some impressive lobbying by those involved with the institute but it also represents the last chance for an organisation now ten years old in its various guises to show that it is at last in a position to deliver effective representation, let alone game-changing leadership. It is also the last chance for the sector the institute serves to confirm its commitment to professional status. We wish them every success but again we’ll keep the bunting dry for the moment.

Jonathan Ives



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