As the Chancellor worked his way through the Autumn statement one aspect of life went unmentioned. For this Government, like most of its predecessors, sport is simply a leisure activity and should be paid for by those who enjoy it. Meanwhile the nation grows ever fatter and more sedentary and its young people increasingly demonised.
This weekend was the fourth in succession on which my son’s morning football match was cancelled due to a waterlogged pitch. The field he plays at hosts nearly 400 boys and girls each Saturday; or rather, it does when there has been no rain for a week and the temperature is well above freezing. So instead of running around, getting fit, raising their self-esteem and inter-acting with friends the boys and girls either stayed in bed, watched television or switched on the X-Box.
The lucky few
It is a scenario that will have been repeated across the nation. So dire is the combination of bad weather and playable sports pitches in parts of northern England boys’ leagues are experimenting with summer football which not only encroaches on cricket but also means for several months of the year there is no organised football. In the past that did not matter as much. Children played for their schools, or on the streets and in parks on their own. For a variety of societal reasons that no longer happens and the change is unlikely to be reversed.
A few lucky children will have played at the weekend. They are the ones with access to a 3G pitch, the third generation artificial surfaces that mimic a good grass pitch and can be played on in most weather conditions. However, of the 38,000 football pitches in England only 400 are 3G. The Football Foundation, the charitable body set up in 2000 by the Government and football industry to improve stadia and facilities at all levels, estimates 2,000 3G pitches are required to enable the nation’s 120,000 football teams to play and train.
A 3G pitch, with floodlights to enable maximum usage, costs £600,000 and would service 60 teams of all ages and both sexes (many boys and men are prepared to change in the mud but most girls, whose sports participation the Government claim to want to increase, will not). These can be self-financing once built without charging excessive hire costs. To build the 1,600 pitches England lacks would cost just under 1bn, or around one per cent of the NHS budget. In the long-term that money is likely to be recovered and more in lower healthcare costs and savings from the law and order budget.
But Governments tend not to look long-term. Remember the promised Olympic legacy? Like the Games themselves, that is just a memory.
Building football pitches is a hard sell as the industry seems awash with money. The Premier League will reap £5bn from the next cycle of television deals (2013-2016). Yet the Premier League is an extremely successful umbrella organisation of 20 private companies, many of them foreign-owned. They are no more obliged to provide sports facilities for the nation than the banks are expected to pay for classes in maths and economics. As it happens the league does invest £20m in social programmes, usually in partnership with Government agencies, and pays the Exchequer £1bn-a-year in taxes (notably income tax despite various avoidance schemes).
I have argued elsewhere that the game not only has some moral responsibility to improve grassroots facilities but should also seize the opportunity to do so. However, primarily it should be the remit of the Government – whose income dwarfs football’s – as it is on the Continent.
In social provision Britain, as in so much else, lies between the US and western Europe. In America taxes are low and there is little welfare support, but there is a tradition of philanthropy, admittedly not always targeted where it is most needed. On the continent and in Scandinavia taxes are higher but so is state investment, from nurseries to transport to sports facilities, as anyone who has driven around the smaller towns and villages will have noted.
Here taxes are high enough to fund universal healthcare and a welfare state, albeit one which is shrinking, but not to provide sports facilities. Even maintaining them is a struggle with one Council recently threatening a three-fold increase in pitch-hire fees and maintenance cut-backs expected in the wake of the latest reduction in local authority budgets. Government does provide the Football Foundation with £10m (via Sport England), but at the risk of sounding like a Philistine it does seems small change compared to the annual £42.3m funding provided to the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.
Britain has some of the worst sports facilities and highest obesity rates in western Europe. Perhaps those facts are related?