Sport and physical activity have a key role to play in supporting and leading communities through COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the positive impact of sport and physical activity on local residents’ lives.
The Government’s urging of individuals to exercise during the crisis, coupled with more free time, encouraged 30 per cent of people to be more active during lockdown, making widespread use of parks and green spaces.
However, the services that will help sustain these increased levels of activity have also suffered badly from COVID-19. Barely half of the public leisure estate has reopened, with 20 per cent of memberships already cancelled.
This has a major impact on leisure providers, with more than two-thirds saying their future is insecure and facilities are at risk. One in four community clubs report they may close, with more than half of those most at risk located in deprived areas.
The LGA and Sport England have developed a COVID-19 response programme to give local government officers, leisure trusts and active partnerships the leadership skills needed to address these new local challenges.
Early discussions from this programme have offered valuable insight into the future challenges and opportunities facing public leisure, and why investing in physical activity is important in a post-coronavirus world.
Deprived communities and black, Asian and minority ethnic groups have been most affected by COVID-19, and these groups are more likely to have health conditions that put them most at risk.
Conditions such as diabetes and obesity can be prevented and managed through physical activity, but lockdown highlighted that not everyone has access to a garden, online classes or parks and green spaces.
While the sector adapted to online delivery, those with no or limited access were left behind. Participants on our programmes shared how new partnerships with public health and local charities were quickly forged, enabling new routes into communities felt to be most at risk.
As facilities reopen, we must enact a bolder vision for encouraging inclusivity and narrowing health and social inequalities. This means maintaining the benefits of an online offering while ensuring that residents have access to an integrated option of local leisure facilities, green gyms, GP health referral and social prescribing schemes.
We must also change our programming to support new behaviours, such as an increase in families exercising together. Similarly, blended in-person and at-home classes will help people sustain new behaviours, while also integrating those who prefer or need to exercise in a facility.
This new vision brings opportunities to explore delivering sport and leisure services outside of traditional facilities, and cementing its value in wider council agendas.
Councillors play a key role in articulating sport and physical activity’s contribution to national and local priorities, such as reducing obesity, mitigating climate change, active travel, high-street regeneration, and reducing pressures on adult social care services.
Officers will need to be strategic with financial planning over the immediate to longer term, using data insights to demonstrate value and seek new funding opportunities.
Recent research demonstrates how investing in sport and physical activity boosts the economy, levels up inequalities, creates stronger and healthier communities, increases consumer expenditure and productivity, improves educational attainment, and reduces crime. For every £1 spent, £3.91 is generated.
The LGA is lobbying the Government for an emergency funding package to stabilise the leisure sector – but we also want to create space and time for people to think about the longer-term vision for public leisure.