National Conversation On Sport: Call to put community sport at heart of Covid recovery plan

Scotland is being split by a growing and damaging divide which sees almost half of Scots take no regular part in sport despite a growing crisis in the nation’s health and wellbeing.

There are falling rates in sports participation across Scotland. Picture: Getty

As the country looks to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, there are mounting concerns about the toll which it has taken on the mental and physical heath of many Scots as well as the number of young people in particular who have fallen out of the habit of taking part in regular sport.

The restrictions of lockdown have exacerbated worrying, existing trends identified by the leading think-tank the Observatory for Sport In Scotland (OSS) which has seen falling rates of participation in sport among many Scots with poverty identified as a major barrier to taking part.

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At the same time, there are concerns that without action the situation will grow worse as pressure on public funds leaves many local sports centres facing an uncertain future, with rising entry prices to facilities and poor maintenance also a significant issue.

Today, the OSS in partnership with The Scotsman launches its ‘manifesto for sport’ calling on the next Scottish Government to put community sport at the centre of its post-pandemic recovery plan.

Ahead of next month’s Scottish Parliament elections, we are asking the next government to lead a national conversation about the role of sport in our society and to make meaningful change which will result in Scotland becoming a more active nation.

While our elite sportsmen and women continue to perform on the world stage, success stories mask a growing problem with the grassroots of sport.

Although Scotland ranks favourably with the most active countries in the world for participation in sport up to the age of 11 - and with no difference between girls and boys - the subsequent decline is so dramatic that by adulthood we are among the least active nations on earth.

Research by the OSS, Scotland’s only research think-tank on sport, shows that almost 50 per cent of the adult population take part in no regular sports activity and poverty is now the main barrier to participation in Scotland. Further research also demonstrates direct links to health, education and the economy, with obesity recently linked to high rates of Covid-19, and expectations that these impacts will be exacerbated by the pandemic.

In a bid to counter this, and lay the foundations for a brighter, healthier future, the OSS has drawn on research, views and opinions from over 2,000 stakeholders across Scotland and globally, to look at how Scotland can address key concerns. Together, we are calling on the new Scottish Government to:

Launch a ‘National Conversation into the Role of Sport in Scottish Society’: a nationwide consultation to engage people from national to community levels - notably including non-sport organisations - in discussion on how community sport can and should support health and wellbeing, education and the economy.

Appoint the new Health and Sport Cabinet Secretary to chair a multi-stakeholder National Sport Forum which will focus on ‘Building Back Better’ with sustainable delivery models of community sport, leisure and recreation. This should engage all partners to transform Scotland’s health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on inactive and vulnerable people, and create a ‘National Sport Agreement’. This would be similar to national agreements introduced by the Netherlands and other nations to bring joined-up thinking and clarity to how stakeholders fund and deliver community sport at national and local levels.

The third ask is to underpin sport policy with the same commitment to research and evidence as in other areas of government policy, and properly investigating participation, local provision, delivery mechanisms and real and perceived links to health, education and the economy, with international comparisons. With a system to monitor change and adapt policy, this will create a more informed narrative around sport activity.

Martin Gilbert, co-founder of Aberdeen Asset Management and a founding funder of the OSS, said: “The value of sport to the economy in Scotland is significant. It is most obvious in the international sporting events we bring to the country, and the benefits of international competition, but it is more valuable for the cohesion it brings to Scottish communities, to the physical and mental resilience in the population, and in underpinning a strong workforce and improving productivity.

“If we can address the barriers to sport that nearly half of the population now experience how much of a boost would that provide to our public services, our local, national and international business, and the Scottish economy as a whole? A National Conversation would investigate that and I am delighted to offer my and the OSS support.”

The concept of a nationwide consultation would seek views from across health and social care, education, business and the third sector on how community sport activity could better support health and wellbeing, education and the economy, and Scotland’s recovery from Covid.

The OSS has investigated changes made in European nations to sports development where it has been pulled more centrally into government priorities to help tackle a wide range of problems, with health, social and economic benefits as a result.

A high profile example of this was a shift in the Netherlands in response to the economic crisis of 2008, where the Dutch government used research into sport’s links to health to justify investment in community sport as a way to mitigate the worst effects of unemployment, mental health and social exclusion.

It is hoped similar benefits can be achieved in Scotland, amid growing concern about the crisis in both mental and physical health following more than a year of the pandemic and the lockdown measures taken to stop the spread of the virus.The OSS proposals seek to do this to address inequalities, with claims that a more cohesive and joined-up approach to community sport can ease the immediate burden on local authorities and significantly reduce the mid to long-term financial burden to the Scottish Government, through prevention.

Conversations among more than 2,000 OSS stakeholders points to a broad agreement in the public and private sector that Scotland has a unique opportunity provided by the Covid pandemic to re-think its approach to community activity, and use sport more effectively and strategically as a tool for improving population health and wellbeing, and creating stronger levels of resilience.

Frances Simpson, CEO of Support in Mind Scotland, said: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of access to community sport has severely impacted on people’s mental health, underlining the value of sport and its social connections to health and well-being.

“We have a strong evidence base that sport, fitness and regular exercise provide enormous benefits to the mental health and well-being of people of all ages, as a proven way to reduce stress, lower anxiety and improve mood and confidence.”

It is also an issue that stretches across age and social boundaries, with concern over sporting activity among youngsters, people of working aged and elderly, as well as people who have experienced difficult childhoods and backgrounds. That would appear to make a comprehensive strategic plan, which uses sport activity and engages stakeholders across sectors, crucial for tackling a problem contributing to health and social care crises.

Brian Sloan, Chief Executive of Age Scotland, said: “Social isolation has been highlighted as a major issue for older people during Covid, but it’s always an issue for older people and as the Scottish population ages the problem is growing.

“Inevitably, the lockdown periods significantly increased sedentary behaviour, increasing muscle deterioration and loss of social connection, and the potential for long-term damage. Sport activity creates a powerful ‘pull’ that has a massive impact on physical health, balance and confidence, but also mental health, friendships and community benefits.”

The OSS is working across social groups and the National Conversation will spotlight successful attempts to use sport to engage people with dangerous and challenging lifestyles, and drive learning in order to widen their impact.

Street Soccer Scotland is one such partner, and CEO David Duke commented: “Since 2009 we have harnessed the power of sport to create lasting change in the lives of thousands of adults and young people across Scotland. Many of our players have experienced homelessness, mental health, addiction or have been involved in the criminal justice system. Often people’s challenges are complex, but the solution isn’t.

"Creating access to sport allows connections and relationships to be formed as well as provide support networks, all of which are needed to move forward. We also use the platform of sport to connect people with additional services they may need. We have developed a good partnership with the Observatory for Sport who will help us to properly monitor how we do that and bring scientific research to understanding how it changes behaviour, where it doesn’t, and how we adapt what we do to sustain the life changes and improve not just whole families but whole communities.”

Scotland has always been a nation obsessed with sport - just witness the national celebrations that greeted Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory, or the fever-pitch anticipation for our national football team finally making a return to a major tournament later this year.

But what of the activity below that level? Why are people walking away? And what impact is that having on Scotland’s population? The best of sport has long been known as a social glue that can improve physical and mental health, education, community cohesion and the economy, but have we taken our eye off the ball in Scotland?

Sport once crossed social divides in Scotland, but the research suggests that is becoming a thing of the past and that inequality is growing and being exacerbated by the pandemic, but perhaps the fact that our community spirit has been coming together provides a shining light.

Whoever forms the next government has the opportunity to think differently and stop taking community sport for granted. We join the Observatory for Sport in calling on the government to act, so that we can use the power of sport to build a better, healthier and more engaged society for everyone.

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