The GMA's response to the Government's Strategy for Sport

While the Government’s new strategy for sport – ‘Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation’ – does, indeed, mention groundsmanship and the need for well-maintained playing surfaces (and I’d like to think that the GMA’s submissions played some part in that!), its main thrusts include:

[] Recognition of the contribution of the Voluntary Code on Broadcasting to drive re-investment in grassroots sport and ensuring the widest viewing audience for sporting events;

[] Broader and deeper talented/elite support for non-Olympic and Paralympic sports;

[] An extension of Sport England’s remit for children from age five;

[] The considerable role and potential of outdoor sport and recreation in promoting good mental health;

[] Local strategies for physical activity;

[] A single, unified governance framework for UK sport;

[] Support for new investment, particularly from commercial and social finance sources.

The fact that there is a strategy at all is a positive move, as is the firm commitment to cross- government department working; a more cohesive approach can only benefit our industry. The strategy – which is comprehensive and very ambitious in scope - has been developed against a framework of the key themes of physical and mental wellbeing, as well as individual, social, community and economic development. There will be a much greater focus on funding those things that ‘work’ and on inactive people. One opportunity here for our sector is that this engagement includes extending the reach of sport to develop coaches and referees as well as, yes, groundsmen. I can’t think of a more active role that has such a direct and influential role on the outcome of sports. This does mark a significant shift from the current strategy where sports NGBs have been the main conduit for funding and there is clear ambition to measure the impact of sport differently and more accurately.

There is no doubt that reduced public investment will continue. However, the report does reflect a need to benchmark services – which aligns with both the GMA’s call for a national framework for natural turf pitches and with the work of the Grounds and Natural Turf Improvement Programme, which works closely with the FA, the ECB, RFL and Sport England. Indeed, by continuing to demonstrate good practice, and improve efficiency and reduce costs – and in turn, help raise participants’ performance - our industry can play a key role in achieving the huge social and economic gains that a more active nation brings.

A section of the strategy on artificial pitches starts encouragingly with ‘playing fields are a vital part of sporting infrastructure up and down the country and will always remain so.”  That’s good, but it does not necessarily reflect how. Sport England retains its statutory planning role in respect of the protection of playing fields from development, but the report then clearly states that ‘artificial surfaces are an increasingly vital part of any infrastructure strategy…when so many hours of playing time on grass pitches are lost to bad weather over the winter, but also because artificial pitches can handle far more playing hours than grass pitches in general”.  Government clearly still needs more education in this respect and, importantly, needs to know that rather than writing off the asset of natural turf should invest in it. As the Grounds and Natural Turf Improvement Programme is demonstrating, poor surfaces can be transformed into excellent ones; with more than 60,000 pitches in England alone, if sports’ NGBs invested more into natural turf then more participants would experience better surfaces and the pitches’ carrying capacity would also increase – gaining just one more game per pitch per week would have a dramatic effect on usage at a fraction of the cost currently being ring-fenced for artificial turf. The GMA will continue to raise this with Government and those responsible for the delivery of grassroots sport – especially the sports NGBs.

That said, ‘maintenance’ is recognised, if only fleetingly. To quote the report, ‘a larger number of respondents commented on the importance of providing facilities in the right place at the right time, offering the right opportunities at the right cost and maintaining them to a good standard”. This has been highlighted in the initial outcomes from the Grounds & Natural Turf Improvement Programme and has been fed back to all stakeholders, including Sport England.

Overall, the strategy provides much to be positive about, and we will now await with interest Sport England’s consultation and its plans (along with those from UK Sport, other government departments, local councils and others) to develop the more detailed means for implementing the ideas. The overall message, though, is that our industry will be tasked with doing more for less since the strategy will be initiated in what continues to be a challenging period with public finances remaining tight. But that has been our lot for some time!

By GMA CEO Geoff Webb