Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Community Sport and Civic Society – Charlie Raeburn

Let us be clear from the start. When we discuss ‘sport’, we are talking about life far beyond a pitch, field, court or pool. We are talking about the potential fun of games and activities and their contribution to the overall quality of life for every person, young and old, across every part of Scotland.

During the pandemic there was a great deal of discussion about  physical activity and participation in sport, or the lack of. We saw an  enthusiasm for redefining activities in gardens to online fitness classes, dancing to playing active video games, and cycling and home workouts for the elderly. This might suggest a heightening awareness of our basic need for a sense of belonging, fun and of expression, in finding fulfilment and a good quality of life.

At present “wellbeing” in Scotland is arguably simply a fashionable word lacking real substance. I would argue that some encouragement is needed to help people here see the link between genuine wellbeing and community sport and recreation.

Sport can be so many things, but it has considerable potential for fun, health, education (formal and informal learning workplaces, families, and community cohesion. In a range of countries, the potential of sport has been grasped as key to strengthening society in the same way as music and the arts, faith groups, uniformed organisations, and other aspects of civic life.

It is a statutory requirement of local government in Scotland to provide for “wellbeing” and “adequate facilities”. To date this has yet to be legally challenged, so no-one really knows what this means, and there is great variance in different parts of Scotland.

We note of course that during the period of austerity it has seemed almost impossible for local authorities to invest in non-statutory provision, resulting in the most severe reductions in local sport and culture budgets, and increased costs for participants, and the establishment of more charitable leisure and culture trusts.

Interestingly, in the case of the Netherlands, which had so much to recover from in World War 2, civic society developed very strongly. A quite remarkable growth of strong volunteer-led sports clubs emerged. As health issues around inactivity and obesity reared through the 1980s and 1990s, again they turned to sport for help.

Leadership in the Netherlands was to take on a greater local role through local government and researchers were asked to review the results of this big change over 2014-18. The results surprised them. Despite the local government budget being reduced by as much as 12%, and despite no legal need to support sport, local government spending on sport not only failed to drop but increased slightly, from 2.6% to 2.8%. This stability in funding sport has been present since the global economic crisis of 2008, which sparked periods of austerity around the world, and, in Scotland, led to the opposite trend, of an annual reduction in community sport funding, as reported by consultants EKOS in 2016. The Dutch Government, like New Zealand, viewed community sport for all ages as an aid to recovery, a crutch during times of depression, unemployment, and mental health challenges. National and local government in Scotland has appeared to view it differently, not as a tool to help health and wellbeing but a luxury our communities could do without.

This commitment to community sport and activities is an investment in the health and wellbeing of the country and is hugely valued not only by the government but a wide array of organisations and people across civic society.

The main delivery agencies of community activity in the Netherlands are described as Voluntary Sports Clubs (VSCs). Municipal policy programmes call for a larger role for VSCs and volunteers. Agreements contain language actively encouraging VSCs to take more responsibility for the maintenance of the facilities they use. VSCs were expected to become more financially independent as well.

Scotland has a framework for ‘Wellbeing’, which is something I endorse wholeheartedly. But, to date, it is not that clear that sport is seen as part of the framework. Nor is it clear how that framework is managed and supported. Who is empowering and enabling the voluntary sector? Most of our neighbouring European countries include sport within a vision and support for their civic societies. Currently Sarah Boyack MSP is  developing a Private Members Bill on both Sustainability. Can we try to ensure that Sport and Wellbeing is very much part of this potential new Bill.?

In the first major piece of independent research analysis produced by OSS (Sport Participation in Scotland: Trends and future prospects), Head of Research Nick Rowe identified that Scotland was developing into a marked “divided sporting nation”; clear sporting ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, separated by issues of opportunity and inequality. This intriguing analysis of the Scottish household and health surveys, looking beneath the general headline that our sport participation level has remained static at 53% for the past decade or more, revealed that we are seeing a growing number of people walking, cycling and going to gyms – which is great – but a reducing number of people, and families, doing any sport activity at all, separated often on socio-economic lines. That is a concern.

This was explored in detail for OSS by Professor Tess Kay, Head of Sport at the University of Stirling (Sport and Social Inequality), whose 2020 paper considered the impact of poverty and material deprivation on access to and involvement in regular activity. She concluded not only that it had a significant impact, but that social inequality and deprivation was, in fact, the main cause of sport inequalities in Scotland.

So, can we look in more detail, perhaps with the other component activities of civic Scotland at developing a vision for a happier and healthier Scotland? Can we consider the policies and practices, research and analysis from Scotland and other countries?

Here are my thoughts about how we turn things around:

  1. Asset transfers of sports facilities to community groups.
  2. Restructuring of the management of sports facilities with empowerment and enablement of social enterprises, including volunteer community clubs, and shifting balance between professional employees and volunteers. The UK employs more people in sport than most global countries, and yet there is wide disparity between regions in Scotland.
  3. Recognition of the importance of local provision by increasing cooperation between sports stakeholders and other community activities at local level, closely aligned to the 357 secondary school geographic catchment areas.
  4. Focus on social inequality related issues. Planning must include improved access to sports and community opportunities to take account of poverty, age stages, and local interests/demands.
  5. Sport and recreation in the workplace, including company and employee schemes to boost health and wellbeing. Recent Japanese research into sport in workplace schemes for over 50-year-old employees demonstrated that sport was the main driver of increased productivity!
  6. ‘Senior Sport’, including the wide range of activity in sheltered accommodation and care homes; daytime “senior sports” (commonly for those aged 60 plus) and activity clubs; induction into fitness schemes. Much of this can and is led by volunteers.
  7. Acknowledging the very good examples. Scottish Sports Governing Bodies and their member clubs, and indeed all providers are asked and encouraged to review their “community offering”; length of seasons; types of events/ competitions/festivals; incorporation of family memberships within clubs to encourage participation by parents; and “associations” with other sports.; and finally improving connectivity in general.
  8. Innovation funding could support wider use of expensive capital facilities, to ensure these can be used 24/7/365, and by a wide range of organisations. Such innovations also include smarter use of ever-developing IT.

All these ideas require local leadership to coordinate and develop, perhaps ‘locality regeneration officers’/ planners/and/or “place “staff.  And corporate support through employee volunteering programmes.

Finally, it is essential that the Scottish Government help develop a framework, that allows and empowers local government, community development companies and local sports councils to play a strong leadership role in rebuilding, remodelling and refreshing community sport and the wider civic society. 

Charlie Raeburn is the founder and board member of the Observatory for Sport in Scotland.

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