Andy Reed was the Labour MP for Loughborough until 2010 and is director of the Sports Think Tank.
The arrival of a new minister is always a threat to continuation of a policy agenda – or an opportunity to rip up a failing agenda and delivery, depending on your position. So this week the sports sector is coming to terms with its next ministerial appointment.
Tracey Crouch was well respected – the sector likes somebody who understands and has a passion for sport. She leaves with her integrity intact.
Sport has generally been an area of policy in Parliament with a large degree of cross-party consensus in my 21 years’ experience, so the there is good will ready to welcome a new minister.
However, there were signs that momentum was slipping and the delivery of a shiny new strategy #SportingFutures was stalling. It is always harder to implement a strategy than the preparation and launch. There had been moments when the sector felt Crouch could have done or said more when other departments made cuts – over the Healthy Schools Capital programme for example.
Over the years the most effective sports ministers have been those who know how to make the Whitehall machinery work for the sector – not those who ‘know and love sport’. You could sense the frustration from Crouch in her interviews that she wasn’t able to influence policy enough, even as the Minister responsible.
So, Mims Davies has a hard act at a personal level. But what will be in her in-tray?
The #SportingFutures strategy signalled a big shift away from sport for its own sake, and called for the sector to take on a much broader role in the eider physical activity agenda. Whilst this was largely welcomed, there has been a feeling amongst many that this may have tipped too far away from supporting the grassroots of sport – the 150,000 amateur sports clubs that make up the backbone of the sports infrastructure.
At the elite end of sport, the 2012 Olympics and cross-party support for Team GB funding has given us unparalleled medal success, which every government enjoys. But it has come at a cost, with mental health and bullying allegations now putting greater emphasis on athlete welfare. The drive to medal success has also meant many team sports have missed out on funding to get to the Olympics (and many non-Olympic sports not being funded at all).
One of Crouch’s last acts was to set up a £3 million Aspiration Fund to allow many sports that missed out an opportunity to compete again. It was a slight opening of the door for a more fundamental look at why we fund elite sport at Olympic level. We hope at the Sports Think Tank that the door is opened even more in the future. It will take political courage to accept we might dip in the medal table, but more sports with a broader impact should be competing at future Olympics
The issue of Safe Standing at sports grounds will continue to rumble this year. There is growing grassroots support amongst fans and the English Football League, and Crouch was softening the policy tone from the Department.
She also led the way on governance and duty of care. The new Governance Code for sports has had a big impact already, and Duty of Care has been embedded across the sector culturally, but still many of the recommendations of the Tanni Grey Thompson report have to yet to be implemented
The growing levels of obesity and lack of physical activity amongst children is probably the biggest issue facing the minister. According the ‘Designed to Move’ campaign, the next generation of children could be the first to see a decline in life expectancy by as much as up to 5 years. The new strategy has extended the remit of Sport England to children from age five and upwards (it was previously 16+) – but only outside of school.
The measure of the strategy is how ‘joined-up’ government is or isn’t working. The current funding methodology of giving primary schools around £16,000 each is largely felt to be ineffective. The investment is at about the right level – it’s the way it gets spent we would like to see changed. Whilst it’s another department’s responsibility, the true test for a minister is how they can affect cross-government working and spending.
Finally, the question of resources won’t go away. Austerity has had a big impact on local government spend on leisure – we estimate spending has fallen from a peak of about a £1.5 billion a year to just under £1 billlion last year. On top of this the squeeze on public health budgets at local level has taken out the ability to fund the physical activity commissioning. The Health Foundation and UKActive claim the Budget last week will take another £1 billion from the public health budget at a time we want to grow the preventive health agenda.
The loss of green spaces and the general public realm also impacts on activity and wellbeing, and the single biggest determinant of activity levels for individuals is their income status. So how a sports minister is able to direct the vast spending of other departments is their biggest test. The DCMS budget still remains tiny in comparison, even for sport.
Sports ministers are buffeted around by events like anybody else, anything from doping allegations and safe standing to the sale or non-sale of Wembley, whether or not these things are actually their direct responsibility. But the sport and physical activity agenda is no longer a nice to do around the edges. Our lifestyles are killing us, and the task of a sports minister, working with colleagues across government to get us all moving again, has never been more important.