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By Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive

With an agility you come to expect from our members, two major new stories regarding the role of the fitness and leisure sector landed on Boxing Day, amidst the continued Christmas celebrations.

The first, in The Times, reported that its own analysis of council accounts showed spending on council-run sports facilities had fallen by two thirds over the past decade, revealing “that local authorities spent £244 million on leisure centres, swimming pools, running tracks and other sports sites in 2018, down from £565 million in 2009 as they have struggled to cope with central government funding cuts”.

The second, reported in The Telegraph alongside all the major national broadcasters, reported NHS plans for newly diagnosed cancer patients to be offered NHS gym sessions before they start treatment, in the hope of boosting the speed of their recovery. The plan is that “thousands will be invited to sign up for a ‘prehab’ fitness programme” following their diagnosis.

Now, have you spotted the inconsistency?

The NHS rightly wants to make our members – both public and private – integral to its operational future, supporting people with long-term conditions to manage their health and wellbeing as best they can.

But part of this provision – funded by councils across the country – has felt the bite of national austerity acutely, and authorities are shackled to the reality that sport and leisure has too often been top of the cuts list given its non-statutory status. An almost impossible situation for authorities to find a solution to.

This contradiction in value, captured in these two stories, must be addressed urgently by our new Government.

Let’s start with the forthcoming Budget. ukactive’s budget submission will provide a comprehensive assessment of the business needs for our sector, documenting the regulatory and financial support required to improve the operating landscape. This will also include the need to address the current provision of sport and leisure facilities across the country, supporting the development of wellbeing/community hubs that see vital services integrated and co-located to the benefit of local communities.

Furthermore, the Government needs to back – forcibly – the ambitions of the NHS to collaborate and partner with our sector. The case study used in the Boxing Day reports documented the positive impact to cancer patients of the brilliant work of Greater Manchester Cancer, working closely with the teams across GM Active.

I also know from the hugely positive discussions ukactive has had with the new formed National Academy for Social Prescribing that there is an urgency to work with the fitness and leisure in 2020 and beyond, delivering social prescribing within our members’ facilities on a national scale.

The conversation is really changing the role our members play, and could play, within the communities in which they operate, and one now backed up by a growing evidence base.

This conversation now needs to be more vocal with our political leadership, both across Whitehall and in every local authority in the country. It needs to value the role the sector is playing in addressing some of the seismic societal issues we face, and back it to do more.

To support ukactive’s policy work, please email the Public Affairs team at publicaffairs@ukactive.org.uk