Caborn's regional plan leads to fresh concerns

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Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, attempted to articulate his vision of the future yesterday, but for those who heard his speech at the Central Council of Physical Recreation, that vision remained something of a mystery.

The MP for Sheffield Central told delegates at the annual conference in Grantham that he intended to modernise the sporting administration of this country, a process that would involve altering the structure of Sport England. He also spoke of funding initiatives being taken over from some governing bodies by nine regional boards.

But his claim that such a move would lead to less, rather than more bureaucracy was challenged by several representatives, including John Crowther, the chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association.

"The Minister is clearly very keen to go down the regional path, but for the moment it is unclear exactly what he means by that," said Crowther, who is also a director of the CCPR, which is effectively sport's equivalent of the House of Lords.

"Tennis, for example, has a national plan that it is delivering through the regions. I don't want to have to sell the plan nine times. The Government's plans are still being formulated, but we expect them to be published at the beginning of next year. The Minister assured me that they will mean less bureaucracy. I hope that is the case."

Clearly the regional mindset works for Caborn, who was Minister for the Regions between 1997 and 1999. But Crowther's CCPR colleague Nigel Hook, head of policy for the organisation, spoke of widespread concern over the Minister's direction.

"Sport is not clear about it," he said. "People can't understand what he is saying. The last Government White Paper on sport back in 1975 attempted to encourage regional development, but that idea has been largely scrapped since. Sport doesn't fit with regions. It's national, and it's club.

"As for the issue of bureaucracy, the Minister denies that his plans will make it worse. But I can't see it. I believe his agenda is being set by Downing Street, and by Europe. The idea is to access the European funding streams currently on offer to Regional Development Agencies."

Caborn echoed the message that his immediate superior, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had put across four days earlier to the UK Athletics annual conference when he emphasised the need to increase sporting opportunities at grass-roots and school level.

"We believe every school child should have a minimum of two hours' sport or physical recreation every week and we aim to put this in place in the next two to three years," he said.

He also reiterated Jowell's statement that coaching needed to be put on a more businesslike basis. "We want to see coaching as a real profession with real qualifications and give them the support they need to find and nurture future champions," he added.

Clearly the Government is planning to put more money into coaching, but Crowther, for one, is waiting to see exactly what that means.

"I would be very surprised if the Government starts paying coaches' salaries, although I would obviously welcome that," Crowther said. "But if they mean to put money into coach education, coaching standards and career development then that would be a positive step as well."