At the Armory gym in north London, they are still offering yoga for the visually impaired, free classes for seniors and free membership for the homeless. All the important and inclusive stuff, in short, that leisure centres should offer to their communities. But when the not-for-profit organisation that runs the gym stares at its balance sheet, and particularly the additional £350,000 on its annual energy bill, it wonders how it is going to survive.
Sadly there is nothing especially noteworthy about the Armory’s story. It is one replicated up and down the land. But when I learned about its struggles, on the same day that the Premier League kicked and screamed against a new football regulator, it neatly illustrated a tale of two sporting Britains. One awash with money from billionaires and dubious petro-states wanting to blunt government intervention. The other desperately pleading for help while trying not to go under.
According to UK Active, 29 leisure centres, pools or gyms have closed in the past year due to the energy crisis, while dozens more are at risk. But the scale of the problem is far greater still. This week the charity Sported will report the findings of a survey of its 3,000 grassroots clubs and youth centres – many of whom use sport to tackle issues such as homelessness, youth unemployment, knife crime and gangs. Tellingly 53% have suffered a reduction in their income in the last quarter.
The knock-on effects are devastatingly predictable. A quarter of these clubs have had to cut back on the sessions they offer, with 37% seeing a reduction in kids participating. Meanwhile 12% fear they may close down because of financial pressures. In short, a national tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. Only most of us don’t yet see it.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve spoken to MPs, government advisers and national and local bodies such as London Sport and Sported to try to understand what can be done. There is hope that the government will use next month’s budget to extend its energy support scheme to the leisure sector. That will help. But it would only be a short-term fix.
Instead, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way we view and fund grassroots activity – and better appreciation of how it benefits society.
As one smart insider put it to me, every person that goes through a gym or pool and gets active is someone who is less likely to be a call on an NHS treatment budget. Yet the system doesn’t account for that.
As things stand, leisure is treated more like a discretionary fund that local authorities can choose to provide if they want – rather than a fundamental part of our health architecture.
But what urgently needs to happen is for the government to accept that gyms and pools are as fundamental as a GP surgery or a pharmacy. That would give access to much greater pots of money – perhaps through the Department of Health and Social Care.
A few years ago Tracey Crouch MP floated another solution: having a department of wellness, to specifically focus on getting people active, happier and healthier, which would hopefully also reduce the health department’s budget.
If the government needs any persuading, a recent report by State of Life found that Parkrun alone “could be up to 25 times more cost-effective in generating health and wellbeing improvements in the population than the NHS”.
Meanwhile Sport England’s Active Lives survey – which polls around a quarter of a million people a year – has found that those who exercise regularly “are happier and more satisfied with their lives – and are less likely to experience anxiety”.
A new study suggests that translates into happiness at work too. The research, which was based on detailed data from Germany between 2001 and 2019, found those who exercised at least once a week reported higher levels of job satisfaction as well.
Of course, government money is not the only solution. Sometimes unprofitable leisure centres have to do more to reform themselves. While I have also heard influential voices champion the idea of private pension funds being given better incentives to pay for new sporting facilities, in exchange for a yearly long-term profit, as another way of helping.
Yet I can’t help wondering whether elite sport should be asked to do more. One of the original proposals from Crouch was for the football regulator to be able to apply a 10% levy on Premier League transfers to help the grassroots. It was, she said, an opportunity for top-flight clubs to demonstrate their “moral responsibility” to English football.
Sadly that proposal did not make the government’s white paper. But just imagine the good that could have been done helping the most needy with the £280m acquired from the £2.8bn spent on transfers in the 2022-23 season. Especially if it was directed across grassroots sports and not just football.
As I write this, I can’t help thinking back to what Sir Keith Mills, the founder of Sported, told me a few years ago. “There’s a whole chunk of sport which has enormous value to society but isn’t talked about because it’s not sexy enough,” he said.
He was right, of course. Yet what does it say about our society when we struggle to keep our pools heated and our youth clubs open? And when the default position of the United Kingdom, the world’s sixth richest country, seems to be one of managed decline?