The central theme to the London 2012 games bid was the pledge to inspire millions of people to take part in culture, sport and other physical activities. As London became the host city, it was argued that the legacy focused on the economic, regeneration and cultural benefits for the five Olympic boroughs. The games will bring a number of lasting benefits to the local communities in these boroughs including new multi-million pound transport facilities, new state of the art sports facilities, new homes and a number of new jobs. The nagging question asked by critics from some of the other 27 London Boroughs and the other local authorities around the UK is “how will we benefit from the games and what will the legacy be?”
I believe that part of the answer rests with local government and the role which they play in delivering the wider Olympic benefits and legacy. Across London and around the UK, local councils are responsible for the delivery of the sports, recreation and cultural activities in their respective boroughs. This may be via direct council services or as with a number of local authorities, contracted out to third-party providers.
In London, over £1billion of public funding is invested in culture and sport every year, with local government accounting for half of this funding. The cultural and sporting activities delivered locally attract visitors, promote a positive impact on people’s lives and can also be used to judge the levels of satisfaction that people have with their local council.
Over the last 13 years under the Labour Government, local councils have benefited from a range of additional investment and focus on increasing participation in sports and physical activity. This is not surprising looking back at the decline of participation in regular activities like physical education lessons at school. Back in 2002, it was reported that just 25% of school children participated in two hours of PE and sport in school. We all remember the kid at school who always had a note from his/her parent outlining the number of reasons why they were not able to take part in the weekly PE lessons. This figure has increased to over 93% following Labour investment in areas like school sports coaches and playing fields. But there is still a lot more to be done.
The worrying increase of childhood obesity has sent alarm bells ringing not just for local GP’s, teachers and parents but also for government ministers. It is estimated that over three million children in the UK are overweight and obese. Childhood obesity is a serious health concern with a knock on effect for society, education and the economy.
The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games is an opportunity to inspire people from all ages and different backgrounds across London and the UK to become more active. The games can contribute to improving physical activity, promoting healthy lifestyles, mental health and increasing participation for those at risk of social exclusion.
There are many examples across London, which demonstrate and promote the diversity of the capital. At any one point during the calendar year, you could be spoilt for choice and can usually find a fun run or charity walk to register and join in. I feel proud to have participated in four different 5km fun runs and what struck me from the events was the fact that many people were just having so much fun. Yes, there were the super competitive fitness fanatics who were determined to finish the race in fifteen minutes but the majority of the participants, including a number of first time runners, were just enjoying the event. Our parks and open spaces are one of the most frequently used services locally, demonstrating a strong correlation between engagement in culture and sport. Good maintenance across local authority parks and open spaces is just one example of how local councils are central to ensuring that people continue to try new sports and in creating a lasting benefit to local communities.
A number of councils are already assessing if there will be any additional investment in sport and cultural activities under the new coalition government. The recent announcements from the department for culture, media and sport does not look very promising or support the new culture secretary’s claim of working with local councils to help deliver a lasting Olympic legacy. Jeremy Hunt and his ministers are using the ‘levels of unprecedented debt facing the country’ as a reason to axe a number of key sporting and cultural programmes. The announcement by the DCMS to axe the free swimming for under 16’s and over 60’s weeks before the start of the school summer holidays was met with disappointment from a number of councils and key athletes who had all supported the initiative when it was first launched by Labour back in 2008.
Other examples include the end of the popular a ‘Night Less Ordinary’ scheme which provided free theatre tickets to anyone under 26 in more than 200 venues across England and the scrapping of the capital funding for the British Film Institute film centre. A number of key agencies currently working in partnership with local councils to deliver these initiatives, including the British Film Institute, the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council, UK Sport and Sport England are now facing drastic cuts in their funding and the fight for survival has already begun. It’s not a case of who can get to the finish line, but more a case of who can get past the hurdles and axe along the way.
Local government is already leading the way in delivering a number of sporting and cultural initiatives. The coalition government need to recognise that during this age of austerity, councils have an important role in providing cost effective activities for residents to enjoy. The evidence already highlights the positive impact on individual’s health and well-being that can be achieved from culture and sport. Once the glitz, glamour and gold medals of the games is finished, it will be local authorities leading the way in delivering the real lasting benefits. This can only be achieved, however, through continued investment and support from central government.