Community sports in an age of austerity

Sport and recreation are good for us, and good for our communities – making us happier, healthier, and wealthier. Local clubs and facilities can provide a focal point for a community, bringing together volunteers, participants and supporters of all ages and walks of life.
Grassroots clubs do tremendous work bringing a wide range of value to local communities and they do it, often, on very limited budgets. This puts them in a very vulnerable position – vulnerable to spending cuts, legislation changes, and, as we have seen this winter, vulnerable to the weather.
Gaining support
At the Sport and Recreation Alliance we work with our members and government to ensure that grassroots sport and recreation is protected and provided for. We provide an independent voice as the umbrella organisation for the national governing and representative bodies of sport and recreation.

Most of our work involves engaging central government through discussion and dialogue with policy makers, consultation responses, campaigns and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport for which we provide the secretariat. But some areas of our policy work undoubtedly have an impact at local level.
The most significant of these is our work on the Community Amateur Sports Club (CASC) scheme. The scheme was launched in 2002 by central government to recognise grassroots sports clubs in the tax system and enable local authorities to grant clubs relief from business rates.
From the beginning it has provided great benefits for clubs, including 80 per cent mandatory business rate relief and up to 100 per cent discretionary relief, amongst others. For many local clubs this can mean the difference between surviving or having to close.
But the scheme was not perfect – we identified some problems that were causing issues for clubs and deterring others from joining, and following a long period of close engagement with officials in HMRC, we succeeded in negotiating changes to improve the scheme.
The recent announcement of these potential improvements has been a significant boost to community sport in this country, and demonstrates how our engagement with central government can have a great impact at local level.
Another related area of work is some research we undertook at the end of last year into the discretionary rate relief that local authorities grant to sports clubs – a tax break which can be granted to not for profit organisations, such as community sports clubs, to help reduce business rates.

Rate relief
Through the Government’s increasing focus on localism, the responsibility for making decisions about offering discretionary rate relief has shifted almost entirely to local authorities. Our research, published in December 2013, represents the most in‑depth and up-to-date analysis in this area.
We found that there are pronounced differences in the amount of discretionary rate relief offered by local authorities across the country. Some local authorities grant this relief to a large number of clubs, while others seem less willing. We also found stark differences in the criteria used to assess whether a club is eligible for relief, as well as the level of budget set aside to provide this support.
We recognise that this inconsistency is a symptom of increased local control over budgets and that what we are seeing is a nuanced picture of the support given to clubs. Local authorities differ in geography and population size, as well as demographic makeup. Such inconsistencies may simply be a sign of local authorities responding appropriately to differing levels of demand.
Discretionary rate relief is the primary way that local authorities can give support and help to ease the financial burden on community clubs. We continue to encourage both clubs and local authorities to take full advantage of what can, for many clubs, be a lifeline.
But local authorities are facing increasing cuts to the amount of money they have to spend and this inevitably has a knock-on effect on community sport. Where clubs operate on very limited funds and rely on volunteers, even small reductions in their funding can have disastrous consequences.
When other factors play a part as well, community clubs can find themselves really struggling. At the end of last month we carried out a snapshot survey to find out how the spate of bad weather had affected grassroots sport fixtures.
We asked 460 sports clubs and 105 grassroots football leagues about how the bad weather had affected them. The results showed that 60 per cent of sports clubs and 96 per cent of grassroots football leagues had to cancel fixtures this season due to bad weather affecting the pitches they play on.
In addition, out of the respondents who said they paid for pitch hire, 50 per cent of clubs and 60 per cent of grassroots football leagues said their pitch hire costs had increased since last season.
If clubs are unable to organise training sessions or play fixtures then they will soon find themselves losing members. And when that happens in numerous sports across the country then we see national participation figures declining.
In some cases cancellations are unavoidable but much of the time smarter investment in maintenance or in more modern pitches would have allowed play to continue. We understand that many councils are facing local funding cuts, and as sport is not currently a statutory responsibility, increasing disinvestment by local authorities seems likely.
But investment in sports facilities should be seen less as spending money to allow people to have a good time and more about making a long-term investment in the health and wellbeing of communities.

The benefits of exercise
Physical activity can have huge effects on society – our Game of Life research showed the impact that sport and recreation has on physical and mental health, education and employment, anti-social behaviour and crime, and social cohesion.
Doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity five times a week reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by 40 per cent. Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants for those with mild clinical depression. And 81 per cent of sports club members say they make friends through their exercising.
At all stages of life, physical activity can have an amazing impact – elderly people with low physical activity levels have more than twice the risk of Alzheimer’s,  and at the other end of the spectrum, seven out of ten teenagers believe that antisocial behaviour occurs because they are bored.
Physical activity cannot be ignored as a wonderful solution to many of the problems that we face as a nation. Investment in sport and recreation is needed to help community clubs innovate and thrive and continue to bring a whole range of benefits to society. But where local authorities are under pressure from budget cuts, there is a risk that these clubs won’t get the support that they need.

This is where our members, as the national governing bodies of sport and recreation, have a crucial role to play. They are an important source of support for community clubs. National governing bodies have instigated a number of great schemes to increase participation in sport and recreation – schemes such as Back to Netball and Cardio Tennis. Schemes like these help to drive people back into physical activity and provide an avenue to guide participants towards local clubs.
In addition, schemes such as England Netball’s Club Action Planning Scheme provide important support to individual clubs. This scheme helps community netball clubs to increase membership numbers, develop coaches, volunteers and links with local schools, and improve aspects of club management. It also provides financial rewards when clubs achieve different levels of the scheme.
So with local authorities likely to face increasing pressure from funding cuts, our members will become more and more important in supporting community sport.

Continued efforts
For our part, we will continue to support and encourage national governing bodies to help maintain the structure of community sport in this country. We will also continue our work with government at national and local levels to ensure that sport and recreation are not harmed by legislation.
Sport and recreation are a vital part of our local communities and we want to make sure that clubs can continue making us happier, healthier and wealthier.

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