Local authorities: responsibility vs money for public health

It’s probably bad form to start a blog post by being vaguely offensive, but it’s easier if it’s the truth at least – we’re all too fat. Around two thirds of adults and around a third of children are either overweight or obese and the numbers have been steadily increasing for years. Although it’s widely acknowledged that most of this excess weight is caused by consuming too many calories, it’s also well-known that increasing physical activity, especially amongst children, can play a part in helping keep us trim (and, crucially, away from the NHS).

So getting children running around and being involved in sport is hugely important. As with eating, the earlier in life you can impress good habits, the more likely they are to be carried on into adulthood. But whilst (outside of school hours at least) it surely must be parents who have to be responsible for ensuring that boys and girls are wrenched away from their computer games and sent outside, who’s going to provide the facilities for these children to enjoy?

Good question, say the Local Government Association, at their two-day conference on Culture, Tourism and Sport. The LGA points out that councils are responsible for an awful lot when it comes to promoting sports participation: it’s mainly them that provide the swimming pools, the leisure centres and the football pitches that adults and children use. It is also councils that, since 2013, are responsible for the broader public health of their populations. But the money is not following these responsibilities.

That’s why the LGA is calling for national funding to be devolved via the central Government’s quango Sport England down to local authorities. They accompany this with a warning: with further cuts to council budgets coming, and with arguably more pressing financial commitments to meet such as in adult social care, it’s likely budgets for sports facilities will be squeezed. The impact can be imagined. Who will want use a swimming pool that hasn’t had a lick of paint for years? Who will want to play football on an overgrown pitch?

The timing of this plea is no coincidence. Sport England is consulting on a new Sport Strategy right now, the Premier League – the country’s richest sporting organisation – has a new TV-rights bonanza to distribute and we are, of course, in an Olympic year, when people tend to worry about the UK’s sporting prowess (or lack thereof) the most.

The LGA is surely right though when it says that councils are best placed to know how to allocate money locally. Some do very good jobs at working with local sporting teams, national organisations and central Government in securing money for local sporting facilities. My own council, Islington, has worked with Arsenal, the Premier League and Sport England to completely overhaul football pitches near where I live (the pitches also host American football practice, in at least a nod to the fact that other sports exist).  Giving local authorities responsibility for helping their population live healthier lives is one good step – giving them the money to do this is the next.