It is no secret that the country is experiencing a health crisis. COVID-19 has not only exacerbated many health inequalities that already exist, from soaring rates of obesity and diabetes, but the virus itself also remains a challenge as we work to understand and mitigate the implications of long COVID, on our already over-stretched resources.
Councils play an integral role in delivering health goals for their local areas and the new report from APSE, the Local Government Association and the Chief Leisure Officers Association identifies that, with the right investment and support, councils can be empowered to build on their existing work to ‘level up’ the health of their communities, complementing national efforts to tackle arising issues.
However, this cannot be achieved without a national strategic plan and partnership working between central and local government, and key sector stakeholders.
Councils are currently the biggest investor in sport, leisure, parks and green spaces, spending £1.1bn per year in England. However, the pandemic has resulted in a severe funding crisis. While the Government has made significant amounts of funding available including the £100m National Leisure Recovery Fund to help support some providers, councils still face a £600m revenue deficit in the sport and leisure sector alone. With council budgets stretched and increased demand on statutory services such as adult-social care, public sport and leisure services are at risk of further cuts.
The report highlights how community-based sport and leisure services provide a unique offer, reducing the pressure on the NHS and public health services through their social prescribing activities and outreach services.
Regular physical activity is shown to reduce the risk of serious illness and disease and with increased obesity rates forecast to cost £9.7bn per year by 2050, councils are key partners in responding to this crisis and delivering the Government’s obesity strategy, with many offering local weight management and exercise referral programmes.
Targeted outreach programmes and engagement can also tackle issues such as loneliness by encouraging isolated residents and groups to participate in the community while working towards a healthier lifestyle.
With low cost or free facilities and activities, councils ensure sport and leisure opportunities are accessible to everyone, from grassroots clubs, to those on lower incomes, and those living in deprived areas. This provision can also support the development of elite athletes, including our future olympians and paralympians.
However, these offerings are at significant risk as providers have to focus on income generating activities in order to remain open and operational.
The loss of these of services would be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of our communities and to our national recovery from the pandemic: there has never been a more important time for us to work together to secure their future. I hope that this report will enable local and central government and key stakeholders to come together to protect these services and ensure they continue to play a unique and vital role in the lives of our communities.
Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson is a crossbench peer and president of the Local Government Association
The joint report can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3hkjBtj