Making the case for public spending on physical activity

The public sector plays a huge role in funding and providing the facilities needed to keep a nation active and healthy. From school facilities, swimming pools and race tracks to tennis courts, sports centres and playing fields, the value of publicly-owned (and operated) facilities is immeasurable.

The public purse has, however, come under unprecedented pressure in the past decade. The economic downturn and the resulting austerity measures since 2009 have hit local authorities hard.

According to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, council spending on local services has fallen by more than a fifth since 2010. The limits placed on public spending have naturally had a huge effect on the delivery of public leisure services.

Looking forward, the political instability and uncertainties over Brexit mean that the pressures on public investment are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The worries over cuts in leisure spending were recently summed up nicely by Cate Atwater, CEO of Community Leisure UK – the organisation representing the country’s leisure trusts. Cate said the cuts in leisure investment “worried her greatly” and that public leisure was “in a race to the bottom, driven by procurement practice”.

Sadly, Cate isn’t alone in her assessment. Talking to those working in the sector, it is clear that public leisure services are under significant strain to achieve the same results as (or even more than) before, but with less financial investment.

The challenges are significant. Yet, as always with challenges and threats, they can also be seen as an opportunity.

If the physical activity sector successfully makes the case that investment in sports and play – and getting people more active – can cut local authorities’ social and healthcare costs (a much larger expenditure than leisure), the picture could change dramatically.

If we can convince those in charge of budgets that every pound spent on sport offers a significant return, we could soon see a very different approach to physical activity projects and programmes.

The thing is, much of the evidence is already out there. Figures published in 2018 show that physical inactivity directly costs the NHS £1bn per year, while Public Health England estimates the cost to wider society being £7.4bn.

The Department of Health’s Start Active, Stay Active report, meanwhile, shows that physical activity can help prevent and manage more than 20 chronic health conditions. (Click HERE to see the Report.)

As a sector, we need to highlight – at every opportunity – the benefits that investment in physical activity offers. We must convince policy makers, commissioners and businesses that funding for sport and play should be seen as a preventative health measure – and one which will offer a healthy return on investment.

If we get this right, we’ll be able not only to help local authorities ease pressures on primary services, but ensure stability and growth for sport and play.

About Andy Reed

SAPCA Chairman until the end of 2020.