Angela speaks out on cuts to leisure services

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Westminster Hall Debate, Olympics Legacy and local sports centres, 12th March 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central ( Paul Blomfield ) on securing the debate and on outlining so clearly some of the issues relating to sports facilities in Sheffield. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Betts . Don Valley stadium is in his constituency , as he said, and more than any of us, he understands the issues relating to the role played by the facilities in Sheffield in regenerating the city and in particular, the lower Don valley, as well as what we need to see going forward.

I want to direct most of my contribution to two specific areas of sporting provision in Sheffield: local leisure facilities and sporting provisions in schools, both of which are key elements of sports provision not only in the city but across the country, especially for young people. Unfortunately, both are under attack, because of the self-defeating scale of the austerity being implemented by the coalition Government. However, before I venture into discussing those areas, I would like to briefly reiterate some points made by my Sheffield colleagues.

In my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, we have, as he said, a former leader of Sheffield city council. Although he would not say so himself, more than anyone else, he and Councillor Peter Price, who was deputy leader of the council at the time, are responsible not only for making Sheffield the country’s first city of sport, but for the construction of the original three facilities— Ponds Forge , Don Valley stadium and Sheffield Arena . As my hon. Friend mentioned, there were also other facilities, such as Hillsborough leisure centre. All were built for the world student games in 1991.

Whatever people’s opinions of the staging of those games—I have always been consistent in supporting them, the investment that they brought with them and what they have achieved—I want to pay tribute to both my hon. Friend and Councillor Peter Price for the foresight and leadership that they showed, not only in taking the city of Sheffield through some very difficult times, but in developing a new future for it as a major sporting city. Anyone who remembers the lower Don valley at it was when the steelworks had gone can only agree that it was a major achievement to put in place Don Valley stadium and all the other infrastructure that has developed on a major scale around it. In later years, and thanks to the investment put in place by the Labour Government , Sheffield added the English Institute of Sport and iceSheffield to its portfolio. Of course, iceSheffield and the EIS are in effect next door to Don Valley. We now have an impressive array of facilities in the city. Because of that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said, we have managed to stage national and international events, from grand prix athletics— Kelly Holmes made her last ever appearance at the Don Valley stadium; I was there on the day—to world swimming events. The national junior swimming championships were held at Ponds Forge only the weekend before last.

  As a result of these investments, Sheffield became the first city of sport in 1995. It has seen rates of participation in sport rise—by almost 6% just in the past three years, 3.5% above the national average. One in seven of Britain’s Olympic athletes for 2012 trained at some point in Sheffield’s facilities. Of course, the pin-up girl for Team GB , Jess Ennis , comes from the city and developed her talent in Sheffield’s facilities. I pay tribute to her for being announced as world sportswoman of the year only last night, and I place on the record our congratulations to Jess on that achievement. Next week, she will rightly be given the freedom of the city of Sheffield. We are all very proud of her, and I look forward to seeing her receive that award.

  However, all the developments I have mentioned came at a cost—one that the city and its citizens have borne for many years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central pointed out. We are still bearing the cost, but the cuts being made now to Sheffield’s local government budget makes it all but impossible to keep all the facilities open. In that context, the decision to close Don Valley stadium is inevitable. That is something that Lord Coe sympathised with yesterday. He made it clear that he entirely understood the reasons why the council has taken the decision that it has.

  However, even if the Government’s funding decisions are so careless of the legacy made possible by Sheffield’s investment and by the investment in elite sport put in place by the previous, Labour Government, it is clear that Sheffield is not, hence the alternative proposal now being shaped and taken forward by Richard Caborn , an ex-Sports Minister with a record second to none. I therefore echo the challenges laid down by my hon. Friends; we need to see the Government supporting Sheffield as it attempts to secure its future as a provider of opportunities for elite sport. I look forward to hearing the Minister ’s response on that point.

  The summer of 2012 was probably the greatest summer of sport that this country has ever witnessed, but Team GB’s success in both sets of games—the Paralympic games and the ordinary, if I can call them that, Olympic games—was not built in a day, a week or a year. To develop and nurture the talent that blossomed so beautifully last August and September takes many years. Often—in fact, nearly always—future Olympians start their sport as youngsters, taking up their interest at local facilities and in local schools. It is the cuts in funding for those local opportunities that lead many of us to fear that 2012 might have been a false dawn—a high watermark for British achievement, rather than the first stage in a long-term renaissance of British sport.

We are hearing of local authorities closing leisure facilities throughout the country. For many, the choice is unenviable—close a leisure facility or cut back on adult care or another statutory service. A significant number of local authorities are seeing 30% reductions in budgets. Sheffield has already seen £100 million taken out of its budget. Next year’s budget, as from April of this year, will see another £50 million cut as the council attempts to balance the books and, in common with what is happening in many other local authority areas, it is leisure and sports facilities that are finding themselves in the firing line.

One example is Stocksbridge leisure centre, in my constituency . The centre was paid for by public subscription by local people and opened in 1970. It was a genuine case of local people clubbing together to provide their own facilities—the big society, if you like. However, the local council, because of the financial pressures that it finds itself under, has decided that it will no longer fund the subsidy required to keep the facility open. That is a not inconsiderable sum; it is about £400,000 a year. People will agree that the centre is expensive to run, but most will agree that it still provides a critically important service to the local community. That point was agreed by Sport England itself only yesterday. Sport England has produced a report on sports facilities in the town and has made it clear that there is a need for a facility along the lines of what is already in place in that community. The reasons are clear—they are fairly obvious.

For those who do not know the area, Stocksbridge is a small town some 12 miles from the centre of Sheffield. It is—still—a steel town. It is semi-rural in nature and completely surrounded by fairly intensely rural hamlets and villages. It is isolated in many ways from the urban centre to which it is attached in a local government context.

With good reason, local people have been concerned—indeed, very angry—about the proposal to close the leisure centre. An impressive working group, led by a very capable and dedicated local businesswoman, has opened negotiations with the council on an alternative way forward. I remain hopeful that the council can find a way of keeping the current facility open for a period long enough for the development of a sustainable plan for the future of sports provision in the town. However, that will not be easy, given the scale of the cuts faced by the local authority.

I therefore pay tribute to people such as Emma Gregory and Fay Howard, who have stepped forward—again, it is women who just roll their sleeves up and get on with the job—and shown what they are made of. They are fighting for their community even in the midst of the worst funding settlement for local government in our lifetimes. They are the big society writ large. It is not only the local authority that owes them, but the Government. They are doing that not just because they understand the importance of sport for the health of their children or because they understand that children should be given the opportunity to learn to swim. They are also doing it because they know that youngsters living in their community may well have the potential to compete in future Olympic Games .

Already, the area surrounding Stocksbridge is home to the world downhill biking champion. Already, it has strengths in key areas such as rock climbing, mountain biking and cycling more generally. But, who knows, perhaps the real tragedy will be that if this facility closes, the country loses the next Rebecca Adlington or Sharron Davies . That may happen if the community loses the facility. The council and the community need to find a way forward, and these transitions are never cost-free. Whether or not the way forward is a refurbishment of the current facility or the building of a brand-new facility that is cheaper to run and managed on a community trust basis, which is the most likely way forward, there is a need to invest time and money in establishing a positive resolution to the issue.

I therefore issue a challenge to the Minister . It is entirely in line with Government thinking on finding alternative ways forward in the context of their cuts. We are doing exactly what you are telling us to do—what the Government are telling us to do. I apologise, Mr Leigh.

I am aware that legacy funds have been made available and that NHS moneys are available to invest, but those funds do not address the scale of the threats facing sports facilities created by funding cuts.

There is clearly a problem relating to small, isolated communities such as Stocksbridge. Although the trend towards creating fewer and larger facilities to cover any given area may well be fine for densely populated areas, for rural or semi-rural communities the model falls short of what is needed.

I am therefore adding to the requests that we are making today of the Minister . After all, if we are asking for Government support to find a way forward on Don Valley , clearly it is also imperative that we ask for effective Government support for communities such as Stocksbridge. Will the Minister recognise that point, and will he commit today to looking at the issue and to trying to establish the transitional funds necessary to enable communities and local authorities, working together, to remould their current sports provision in order to develop sustainable solutions to the funding challenges building up in rural and semi-rural areas? It is often forgotten that south Yorkshire is broadly rural. Sheffield is to a large extent rural; one third of the city is in the national park. This is not only an issue for the south of England—Sussex or Kent—it matters as much to south Yorkshire as anywhere else. We may be metropolitan, but we are in some aspects fundamentally rural.

Sport England itself agrees. Its report, issued only yesterday, on the sports facilities in Stocksbridge makes it clear that while it is important to deal with the current situation by developing new district sports centres—there is a clear idea in Sheffield about what those centres might look like—areas such as Stocksbridge need local, albeit small, facilities due to their isolation.

I shall conclude with one more point. The funding problems faced by sports facilities in areas such as Sheffield are being made a whole lot worse because of the coalition Government’s decision to cut funding for school sport partnerships. The £162 million cut to the school sport partnership programme, alongside cuts to specialist sports colleges, was a devastating blow to sport in schools. It means that 60% less time is now being spent on organising school sport than was once the case. Almost half of local authorities have recorded a decrease in the number of school sport partnerships operating, with a staggering one-third of local authorities having no school sport partnerships in operation. Under the previous Government, record investment in school sport saw huge increases in participation, in both competitive and non-competitive sport. The last school sport survey, in 2009-10, found that 78% of pupils took part in intra-school competitive activities, up from 58% in 2006-07. Unfortunately, the current Government do not see sport in the same way, but I would be pleased to hear the Minister prove me wrong on that. They have even axed the two-hour participation target, claiming that it was just a box-ticking exercise.

London 2012 was a glorious achievement. It built on the success we enjoyed in Beijing. It did not, however, happen by accident. It happened first and foremost because of the impressive performances turned in by a talented generation of athletes, but they could not and would not have achieved that success without funding from Government and political will from the Government of the day to achieve great things. However, sport is not solely about winning medals; it is about competing, a healthy lifestyle and having fun. When we, as a nation, should be investing in physical activity to alleviate the obesity crisis, the Government are instead doing the opposite. Cuts to local authorities will inevitably fall disproportionately on our sports facilities—Sheffield is not an isolated case. The Local Government Association has produced a report that says that there is evidence of more participation, but the worst of the funding cuts have yet to come, and if the facilities are not there, participation levels will decrease. Sheffield’s participation rates will almost certainly decrease if both facilities—Don Valley and Stocksbridge—close. Cuts to sporting bodies and Sport England will affect elite and non-elite sport. The cumulative impact of the cuts will, I fear, mean that instead of the London Olympics being the springboard for greater things, they will be seen merely as the high water mark, with a steep decline in performance on the international scene to follow.

 

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