Sport up for grabs

16 Jul 2007 by Cadence

Honeymoon periods can be cruelly short when a long-standing number two takes over the top job. If Gordon Brown has any doubts about this he should take a look how little time it took for, new England Football Manager, Steve McClaren, to be unfavourably compared with his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson.

The state of the England team is perhaps not at the top of the list of the Chancellor's concerns at the moment, especially considering Scotland's recent mini-revival. However, he might still be wise to cast an eye over football and the wider sporting world as part of his settling into the other most scrutinised job in England. Especially when the Conservatives are fishing around for policies that will help build on their new-found ‘just like you' image.

Since New Labour began it has always tried to link itself with sport and sporting successes. The hot pursuit of the Olympics, the rapid bestowment of Honours on the winners of the Ashes, Olympic Medals and Rugby World Cup and the strangely memorable Blair head tennis with Kevin Keegan all reflect the desire to bask in a little of sport's reflected glory.

This infatuation with the power of sport can also be found in the public policy world. Over the years Labour Ministers have claimed sport is the best education, crime and health policy they have. The Government has also said sport is good for community cohesion, tackling obesity and reducing anti-social behaviour. There was also the much publicised game of Buzkashi, a kind of polo involving a dead goat, which apparently signified the beginning of the return to normality in Afghanistan, in 2001...

Sport undoubtedly does have something to offer in many of the priority policy areas of the Government. Labour has made some tangible progress with the Minister of 6 years, Richard Caborn, proving a capable and increasingly respected advocate for sport. The recent inclusion of sports targets in the Audit Commission's CPA assessment of Councils is long overdue, but maybe badly timed in the light of a Local Government paper promising to cull targets. The re-introduction of 2 hours of sporting activity into the school week is very real and creditable big step forward. The appointment of a ‘Fitness' Minister might help begin to strengthen sport's role in the preventative health agenda.

The overall story on sports policy over Labour's time in power is, however, perhaps a bit too much like that of the England football team than is comfortable. While Ministers confidently keep talking up sport, the reality is that the big departments are not using sport to deliver. The Department of Health are reluctant to see increased participation in sport as a way of reducing health inequalities. The Home Office are not using sport to reduce crime (or the causes of crime) or increase ‘respect'. The Communities department is not trying to bring communities together through sport.

So, why when Ministers are so confident that sport promises so much, like the England Football team, does it appear to be delivering so little?

The research in this area reveals that there have been a plethora of pilots and studies ‘suggesting' participation in sport improves health, improves educational attainment, reduces involvement in criminal activity, encourages community cohesion and active citizenship. More importantly, an overall conclusion to be drawn is that there is little robust evidence of sport's direct ‘impact' on existing public policy goals. Also, previous ippr work on the Olympics has suggested a lasting "positive" legacy from London 2012 is far from guaranteed.

It is this apparent ‘lack of evidence' and the potential of 2012 to suck up any ‘spare' sports funding that could make the coming Comprehensive Spending Review a painful one for the DCMS and the grass-roots sporting world.

The Treasury's requirement of proof for example, the health expenditure savings to be gained by increasing funding to boost participation in sport, is in many respects a reasonable and prudent approach. However, is it an approach that Gordon Brown would look upon quite so favourably now he is in Number 10? Some sporting academics certainly feel, predictably perhaps, that this ‘evidence-based' approach is conveniently used to deny funding to sport. They suggest that many other Government activities would go unfunded if they underwent the close scrutiny of their evidence.

There may be some encouragement for advocates of sports as Gordon Brown has already demonstrated that he does have the ability to overlook this evidence-deficit. The way that he appeared to surprise the DfES and DCMS with his announcements of the School Olympics and National Sports Foundation, suggested that those departments had not been engaged in long-term evidence gathering exercises to support their funding claims. He has also recently said more money could be spent on playing fields, to help make Britain fitter. There is also the question as to whether his pledge to raise state school funding to the levels of the independent school sector goes for school sports spending too?

David Cameron of course has no need, yet, to worry about Comprehensive Spending Reviews or evidence based decision-making. He wants to champion areas that make him look in-touch and a ‘regular kinda guy'. After the environment, perhaps sport is the next area for him to grab for the Conservatives?

The Leader of the Conservatives is also probably considering how best to approach the London Olympics. If he thinks he will be Prime Minister in 2012 he might as well get right behind it now and forsake the likely opportunities to question the wisdom of the overall undertaking. In fact he could become more of a champion of the benefits of 2012, than Labour, to deliver increased participation, a healthier nation and legitimate decreases in the funding needed for the NHS.

The new Labour leader will need to develop a more coherent narrative on sport across government. The DCMS needs to keep improving its evidence for the instrumental value of sport. Sport England are already putting together the sort of quantity and quality of data that is so badly needed.

The Government and in particular the Treasury might then start investing in sport to deliver those health and crime savings that so many intuitively believe are there for the taking. What leader could turn down the opportunity to legitimately reduce NHS spending and simultaneously be investing in the nation's favourite past-times? However, just like Steve McClaren, at the end of the day, it will be the results that really matter.

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