David Rutley is the Conservative MP for Macclesfield and the PPS to Iain Duncan Smith
Outdoor recreation is good for us. It not only aids our physical and mental health, it also helps to drive the leisure and tourism economy, particularly in our rural areas.
With the consultation on the Government’s new Sports Strategy having just been concluded, and with the Spending Review underway, I was delighted recently to secure a well attended Westminster Hall debate on the economic value that outdoor recreation creates. I had some asks of the Government to maximise those benefits, for jobs and growth, for physical health, and mental wellbeing.
According to evidence cited by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, those who play sport are healthier, happier and more likely to be successful in academic study and professional life. UKActive, meanwhile, highlights how in some parts of the UK more than 40 per cent of the adult population is classed as inactive and 12.5 million people in England are currently failing to raise their heart level for more than half an hour per week over a 28-day period. A Government-sponsored paper, Moving More, Living More, sets out that the costs associated with inactivity in the UK are a staggering £20bn.
The burden that inactivity is placing on limited health resources is unsustainable. We need a fundamental shift in social attitudes to being active, where it is more usual to take part and be physically active than not. But we also need to interpret ‘sport’ in the widest sense of active recreation. Because, while reluctant to put on, say, a pair of football boots, some 20 million people do say they would like to participate in outdoor recreation of some kind. Some we will need to nudge, others we will need to empower and enable to take that step.
But it’s not just about saving money, outdoor recreation makes money too. According to the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s excellent Reconomics economic impact study, the visitor spend associated with outdoor recreation is an annual £21bn – twenty-one billion!
I’m pleased to say that this Government has agreed a new tourism strategy that will help to increase that figure. Under the new strategy, our national tourism agencies are now charged with getting more international tourists out beyond London and into rural Britain. Savvy international travellers are looking for great experiences as well as great photo-opportunities, and our active countryside certainly provides a world-class offer. We need to let visitors know where to go and how easy it is to get there, either for extended periods or as day trips from popular international tourist city bases like London, Manchester and Bristol.
What has been achieved in the tourism strategy can be achieved in a new, wider sports strategy too. Outdoor recreation must, then, receive the utmost consideration from DCMS as it weighs up the submissions to the consultation on that strategy.
In my Westminster Hall debate, I asked for outdoor recreation to be fully integrated into the strategy when it is finalised. It would be positive to see the minister’s job title expanded to include “the Outdoors”, if possible, and I am glad that the excellent current Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage, Tracey Crouch MP, at least promised to see if outdoor recreation could be formally added to her official list of responsibilities. It would certainly help focus her Department on the need to consider outdoor Britain as well as the big indoor cultural institutions it oversees.
Most importantly, all those who attended the debate asked for a cross-departmental approach to be adopted for outdoor recreation. When Northern Ireland agreed its outdoor recreation strategy in 2013, it included input from 117 organisations, showing that it can be done.
DCMS is, of course, the sponsoring body of a whole range of world famous tourist attractions, including the National Museums and Galleries. Many of these galleries receive many millions of visits from overseas tourists. Could they be used as platforms for highlighting our Great Outdoors? Sport England clearly has a role to play in outdoor recreation – but perhaps Historic England has a part to play too.
Beyond DCMS, the Department for Health has its public health agenda and preventative action strategies. There is Defra with Natural England, the Forestry Commission, National Parks and others, who could be brought into greater cross-governmental focus on outdoor recreation. DCLG could be encouraging more local authority action, particularly in any devolution deals.
The Department for Transport is also a key partner, with such measures as the Infrastructure Act 2015 which, for the first time, sets a legal obligation to accommodate walking and cycling in the Government’s infrastructure strategy. This can only help to facilitate active modes of transport to access and enjoy rural areas where outdoor recreation is a growing source of jobs and economic activity.
So, let’s recognise the economic importance of outdoor recreation, and celebrate rural Britain. We need to work together to get more of us out into our green and pleasant gym.