Banks must fight to avoid a fund farewell

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, returns to his desk from South America, where he has been canvassing support for England's bid to stage the 2006 World Cup - a wild goose he is tirelessly pursuing around the globe - I trust he will catch up on a matter far more vital to Britain's sporting future than the fleeting glamour and glory of one tournament.

The National Lottery Bill now heading towards its second reading in the House of Commons next week contains within its various clauses the clear danger that sport could lose its Lottery funding after the year 2001. The Bill would give the Government enhanced powers to direct the distribution of the Lottery proceeds wherever they choose and so far they have refused to give a guarantee that either arts or sports would receive any money at all in three years' time.

When the Bill received its first reading in the House of Lords two weeks ago, Lord Skidelsky concluded the debate with the sombre words: "We are witnessing the Government's determination to annexe for their own purposes the money which was originally intended for arts and leisure activities in this country."

Those of us who warned at the start of the Lottery three years ago that this could happen unless the operation was run as a charity away from the grabbing hands of the politicians will get no comfort from this confirmation of our fears. Their reticence to make even a vague promise is ominous but thus is created the ideal opportunity for Banks to demonstrate that there is a hard edge to his ministerial nature; a chance to jettison once and for all the jester's hat that capped his slapstick introduction to the job and become the strong and eloquent champion that sport needs for a fight we cannot afford to lose. And true heroism is required because we all know the penalty for trying to buck this Government's intentions.

It is fair to point out that in their dealings with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the overseers of the Lottery, the English Sports Council, who are the biggest of the sporting purseholders, have noticed no indication that sport will be cut off without a penny. Indeed, Banks' boss, the DCMS Secretary of State Chris Smith, spoke proudly of the Government's commitment to see sport at the heart of every community when he launched the Millennium Youth Games earlier this month and announced that the ESC Lottery awards now exceed pounds 669m.

But who will be in charge in 2001 by which time sport will have received about pounds 3bn? The suspicions are that unless it is protected in the new Act we could well be told that it was now the turn of some other worthy cause, like a new aircraft carrier, to be the recipient of sport's share of the Lottery largesse. Banks has to pre-empt that attitude by stressing that even pounds 3bn over that length of time doesn't get near compensating for the chronic underfunding from which sport has suffered over the years.

We still lag woefully behind other countries in the provision of sporting opportunities for public use. At the moment we spend a total of pounds 1.5bn a year on sport, including the Lottery contribution. On a per capita basis, New Zealand spend the equivalent of an annual pounds 3.5bn. That's just one example. In any comparative evaluation of sporting facilities we come way down the list and this is despite the catching up we've been able to do since the Lottery money began to flow.

The pace of that flow is another contentious issue and of great concern to a small but influential group of enthusiasts who have been operating as volunteer Lottery watchdogs. They are led by Denis Vaughan, an Australian- born orchestral conductor who did more than any other individual to persuade the Government to set up the Lottery in the first place and is now lobbying furiously to prevent its original aims being fudged.

Together with such worthies as Lord Birkett and Sir Eddie Kulukundis, he has formed an organisation called the Lottery Promotion Company Limited which they finance themselves and is probably the sharpest thorn the Government are ever likely to find in their backside.

One of their latest missives is an open letter signed by Sir Peter Yarranton, a former chairman of the Sports Council who was president of the Rugby Football Union back in the old fart days of 1992. Claiming that our Lottery is not only the largest but the most inefficient, Yarranton points out that after three years less than a third of the funds raised have actually been paid out. A total of pounds 3.5bn is sitting in the Treasury waiting to be used and the sum is growing by around pounds 80m per month.

Much of that figure is committed to projects and is waiting for matching funds, planning permissions or for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to grind it out when it should be out working for the good of the nation. "The system is clearly cumbersome and unmanageable," he said.

The English Sports Council don't quite agree. David Carpenter, the director of the Lottery for the ESC, says that the money can only be paid out as projects start and while they are in progress. Of the 2,550 capital projects so far approved, 1,300 are already finished, 800 are being built and 700 have yet to be started.

Over the next few days, the forking out of pounds 120m for the national stadium will begin and in the autumn pounds 160m will be on its way to the UK Sports Institute to be built in Sheffield. The World Class Performance programme to help top-class athletes will shortly require its first annual instalment of pounds 24m and big investments in two other talent development projects are to be announced later this year.

The ESC are happy that 70 percent of the funding they have passed on has gone to community schemes with young people as the main beneficiaries. And there is clear evidence that participation is on the increase as a result. But, as Yarranton points out, the ESC have still parted with only 30 per cent of the cash they have available. If they could speedily utilise that backlog, we'd be seeing even better results.

Britain is so far behind the rest of the world in grass-roots sport, he says, we could put all the Lottery money into it and still not measure up. Vaughan's group have already prepared a master plan for sports funding for the next 10 years that could be put into immediate action. Under the chairmanship of Sir Eddie Kulukundis, the governing bodies of 20 leading sports have prepared a detailed and carefully costed programme of grass- roots coaching that could transform our sporting base. If endowments totalling pounds 1.2bn, money already available, were to be made now to the various sports plus organisations such as the YMCA, Clubs for Young People, Duke of Edinburgh's Award, Crime Concern and the Youth Sport Trust no more funding would be required by them for the next 10 years.

If Tony Banks is prepared to fight sport's corner and ensure that the new Act safeguards the Lottery's original intentions, he is not going to be short of ammunition. We have started to scrape the rust off this nation's sporting potential. He must convince his colleagues that to abandon the job at such an early stage would be criminal.