Closure of cold pools and youth clubs – the story of two sporting Brits puts us all to shame | Sport

AAt the Armory gym in North London, they even offer yoga for the visually impaired, free classes for seniors and free membership for the homeless. All that is important and inclusive, in short, what leisure centers should offer their communities. But when the non-profit organization that runs the gym looks at its balance sheet, and particularly the extra £350,000 on its annual energy bill, it wonders how it will survive.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Arsenal’s history. It is a replicated up and down on earth. But when it learned of their struggles, on the very day the Premier League kicked and screamed at a new football regulator, it perfectly illustrated the history of two British sports. One awash with money from billionaires and dubious petro-states who wish to prevent government intervention. The other desperately begs for help while trying not to sink.

According to UK Active, 29 leisure centres, swimming pools or gyms closed last year due to the energy crisis, while dozens more are at risk. But the scale of the problem is much bigger. This week, the charity Sported will present the results of a survey of its 3,000 clubs and youth centers – many of whom use sport to tackle issues such as homelessness, youth unemployment, knife crime and gangs. Significantly 53% 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 reduce the sessions they offer, with 37% seeing a reduction in child participation. Meanwhile, 12% fear they could close because of financial pressures. In short, a national tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. Only most of us still don’t see it.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking 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. It will help. But it would only be a short-term correction.

Instead, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we view and fund grassroots activities – and a better appreciation of how this benefits society.

As a smart insider told me, every person who walks by a gym or swimming pool and works out is someone who is least likely to be called out for an NHS treatment quote. However, the system does not take this into account.

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 healthcare architecture.

But what urgently needs to happen is for the government to accept that gyms and swimming pools are as fundamental as a doctor’s office or a pharmacy. That would give access to much bigger pots of money – perhaps through the Department of Health and Social Care.

A few years ago, Tracey Crouch MP came up with another solution: having a wellness department, to focus specifically on making people active, happier and healthier, which would also reduce the health department’s budget.

Tracey Crouch MP suggested creating a welfare department. Photography: Will Palmer/

If the government needs some convincing, a recent State of Life report found that Parkrun alone “could be up to 25 times more cost-effective in driving improvements in health and well-being in the population than the NHS”.

Meanwhile, Sport England’s Active Lives survey – which polls around a quarter of a million people a year – found that those who exercise regularly “are happier and more satisfied with their lives – and are less likely to experience anxiety”.

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A new study suggests this also translates to happiness at work. The research, based on detailed data from Germany between 2001 and 2019, found that those who exercised at least once a week also reported higher levels of job satisfaction.

Of course, government money is not the only solution. Sometimes non-profit leisure centers need to do more to reform. Though I’ve also heard influential voices championing the idea that private pension funds are given better incentives to pay for new sports facilities, in return for a long-term annual profit, as another way to help.

However, I can’t help but wonder if elite sport should be asked to do more. One of Crouch’s original proposals was that football’s regulator could apply a 10% levy on Premier League transfers to help the grassroots. It was, she said, an opportunity for top clubs to demonstrate their “moral responsibility” to English football.

Unfortunately, this proposal was not included in the government’s white paper. But imagine the good that could have been done helping those most in need with the £280m acquired from the £2.8bn spent on transfers in the 2022-23 season. Especially if it was aimed at grassroots sports and not just football.

As I write this I can’t help but think about what Sir Keith Mills, the founder of Sported, said to me a few years ago. “There’s a huge chunk of sport that has enormous value to society, but it’s not talked about because it’s not sexy enough,” he said.

He was right, of course. Yet what does that say about our society as we struggle to keep our pools warm and our youth clubs open? And when the default position of the UK, the sixth richest country in the world, seems to be one of controlled decline?

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