Promoting Sports in the Community

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at your at your event tonight.

Sports have an important role to play in our society. They keep people fit, teach people to work as a team, and are an important factor in promoting community cohesion.

Sports are an investment in our communities. The emotion and feeling of belonging which they bring are worth far more than the economic cost of putting them on. We only need to think back to the day when the Olympics were announced to be coming to London in 2012 – the jubilation in the streets, the triumphant crowds in Leicester Square, in Manchester, in Birmingham, and across the rest of the UK. Sport bring us together.

I am very glad to have been asked to speak on promoting sports in the community tonight. I believe that inclusion in sport at a young age is one of the key building blocks to forming a sense of identity about yourself.

I must applaud the work the that Government has done in improving sports in schools. Investment has increased by almost £1.5 billion since 1997, a mixture of state and Lottery money, and rightly so.

Our lifestyles have changed in the late 20th century. Our economy has moved from manufacturing and the physical demands of heavy industry to the service culture which we have today. Our work is now generally desk-bound and less physically demanding.

At home, technology has changed our lives immeasurably. Labour saving devices litter our homes, adding convenience to the most arduous of tasks. At work and away from it the number of calories we burn doing tasks has decreased, whilst the time we have for ourselves has only got larger.

I’m not advocating throwing away the dishwasher, but the point is that our lives have changed. Most of these changes are welcome, but modern life brings with it many unintended consequences.

Prosperity has taken cars from being luxury items to common ones, needed for the daily commute. No one considered it at the time, but it meant that the tradition of walking to school ended quite suddenly.

That walk – on average a twenty minute stroll – doesn’t seem that far, but if you consider your own life you’ll realise that it is. If you picture parking your car twenty minutes walk away from your office and hiking the remainder of the journey twice a day, every day, you’d be fitter. Convenience has removed simple efforts such as this from our lives.

On top of this, the erosion of teacher’s salaries in real terms meant that the vast amount of goodwill which allowed them to run after hours sport in our schools began to erode. We can’t forget that in many communities it is our schools which provide the land and facilities for the wider population.

For too long the Government has allowed our school playing fields to be sold off. Schools should not be placed in the position where the best way for them to raise badly needed funds is to sell of their land. To do so is to sell off the well-being of the children they are meant to guide.

Thankfully this trend has now changed, and we are finally seeing more playing fields created than lost. This, tied with the regeneration of our public spaces, is essential.

Sport is by its nature competitive. Many have argued that the more competitive sports are actually damaging for children, though I believe that they teach people to co-operate and to work in teams.

We have seen recently the sad case of the murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones. The media likes to talk about the gun and gang culture which is growing in modern Britain. I deplore these gangs and the pervasive criminal activity which many indulge in. However, we must understand better what it is that drives them – the sense of belonging which they get from being a part of such a group.

I believe that this need to belong could be channelled into sport. Being part of a team, be it winning or losing, is hugely important in forming an identity. Working together and being as strong or as weak as each person in a group teaches you about life.

The Government needs to work harder at understanding this, and listen to the ideas of the voluntary sector who have actually put them into practice. Young people want to belong and to have fun and excitement – sport is the ideal channel for this.

We should consider sports as a catalyst, whose benefits are huge.

Obesity is a problem which this country needs to face up to. There have been many and active debates about our lifestyles, the food that we eat, and the problems of our culture in tackling this. Purely on an economic basis, obesity related health problems cost the NHS an estimated £3billion each year.

I believe we have been too focussed on diet when we consider tackling obesity. The conspicuous change in the country has not been the amount of calories which we take in, but rather the lower amounts of physical exertion in our day to day lives.  We are a sport-loving nation. With the right initiatives, people will turn to community sports.

The Government needs to listen to the ideas of local communities and voluntary organisations. If we don’t tax gym memberships, those expensive private gyms would be accessible to more, and the cost benefits for the health service far greater than the money spent on the scheme.

In addition, it is usually the community and gym notice-boards that advertise local, team sports. Funding must be provided to keep these essential local facilities open. There is an obvious link between physical health and mental well-being. Cultures around the world appreciate this, but the UK does not.

The special place that sport occupies in our national life makes it a great catalyst for other benefits. Manchester United, reportedly the most popular football team in the world, runs an educational foundation for example. Children from the local area are coached in numeracy and literacy, learn about citizenship and racial equality, and work with the police. Other large clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham for example, run similar schemes.

This extra-curricular work is of enormous benefit to children who do not succeed at school. The Playing for Success scheme, praised by Tony Blair whilst he was still Prime Minister, establishes study support centres at sports grounds. 15 sports are involved and 19 Premiership clubs are signatories. An amazing 180,000 students have been helped so far.

It is the work that you do, that organisations such as Playing for Success, do that should be praised and appreciated.

Sport is the lifeblood of the voluntary sector. There are over 106,000 sports affiliated clubs in England, serving over 8 million members. With the Olympics coming, there is far more to be done. We need to use the example of the Olympics to create a culture of sport, promoting the local community’s work in the field.

One of the reasons that Britain won the Olympic bid was the emphasis on legacy. The bid team were right to emphasize the importance of leaving improved transport links and community in Stratford, but it is essential that we also leave a sporting legacy.

We must ensure that the interest in sport created by the Olympics is converted to increased participation in community sports. Holding the Games will not change people’s behaviour by itself. A sea change is needed to ensure that we change from a nation of spectators to one that is actively involved in sports.

We need to re-divert money from the National Lottery back to sports. The original four pillars of Lottery funding stated that money raised should go to sport, the arts, heritage and charities. Too much is being syphoned off to pay for Government schemes.

Last year the sports received £264million in Lottery funding – a shortfall of £133million. This is simply not good enough. In the run up to the Olympics this link needs restoring so that local communities can better take up the mantle of sports champions and guide people towards participation.

We also need to consider the benefits of publicising community heroes in getting people interested in community sports. The Olympic bid used that fact that David Beckham came from Stratford to great effect in their presentations. Similarly we need to look at figures who are heroes to our communities and publicise the great work which they have done.

Again, this calls for Government and voluntary sector to work together. We must consider that for our local communities figures such as boxer Amir Khan and the cricketers Monty Penesar and Sajid Mahmood are potent symbols for the power of sport.

We need to use these icons to get more people interested in community sports. The Indian community in particular has a wealth of figures who have represented England prior to the granting of Independence. We should consider linking education and sport, and tell our young people about figures such as Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji and Kumar Ranjitsnhji.

In the British Indian community too there is an opportunity to use sport to bring people together and foster a greater British identity. Many young Muslims face an identity crisis. Most regard themselves as British, but struggle balance the difference between the older generation and the wider British public. I believe that team sports can be a key factor to bridging that gap.

Sports bring people together, and help them work as teams across the boundaries which normally blind them. I have long argued that a holistic approach is needed when dealing with the problems caused by isolation in our communities. Encouragement to sport should be one such approach.

Using the example of the many sports trusts, football clubs, and other sporting organisations which run after-school clubs teaching maths, English and science to our children, we need to look at how we can use sports to bring people together and unify them.

Team work and a sense of belonging are only two of the benefits of increasing participation in community sports. Involving people in their communities is key to breaking down the barriers of isolation.

Government needs to talk more about the benefits of community sports, and about our past success stories.

With the Olympics on the horizon, we all need to look at how we can best seize the growing interest in sports, and get people of all ages involved. We need to speak to people of different backgrounds using different languages, and we must ensure that the funding is there to help community sports grow.

This means restoring the link between the national lottery and community sports – something which I hope the Government will do. This also means looking at community sports as not just a means to themselves, but also within the wider context of fitness and success.

Greater involvement in community sports will mean less money spent by the NHS on obesity. It will mean that the Government and local authorities have to spend less on other schemes for community cohesion. It makes sense.

Modern Government is a partnership. It needs to work with organisations such as yours to ensure that the good work which has already been done continues. People from all walks of life need encouragement to take up sports and engage with their local communities.

To do this will require time and money – something which organisations such as this give generously. I applaud your work – too often it is overlooked, but it plays an important role in bringing people together, and benefiting Britain.

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you tonight.

Updated: 27/08/2009 — 4:27 PM