The new sports minister delivered a damning verdict of the country’s “severely outdated” sports strategy as new figures reveal almost a quarter of a million people have stopped taking part in regular activity over the past six months.
The figures, published on Thursday by Sport England, show an alarming drop in adults participating in sport on a weekly basis and delivered a major blow to those who insisted there would be a strong legacy effect felt after the London 2012 Olympics.
Alarmingly, while four years ago 23.6 million adults in England failed to take part in any sporting activity each month, that number has now risen to 25.2 million, an increase from 55.4 per cent of the adult population to 57.7.
Swimming, the country’s most popular sport in terms of participation numbers, has seen the biggest decline with 144,200 fewer people visiting their local pool in the past six months alone.
With millions of pounds piled into ensuring the legacy of the London Games did not end after the competitors went home, Tracey Crouch, who has held the ministerial role for just a month, has now questioned why record investment has resulted in a decrease in participation.
The Government is expected to cut the budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by up to a quarter at the next comprehensive spending review and with Crouch insisting a complete overhaul is needed, Sport England is bracing itself for the difficult task of halting the drop in participation while working with a smaller budget.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said Crouch. “We’ve seen a continued downward trend in the number of people who are participating and I want to discuss with Sport England why, when we’ve invested record amounts of money in sport, we’re not seeing an increase in participation rates. The current approach has had its day. It’s not the return we expect to see for a large investment of public money.
“A lot of people are to blame. Government is in part to blame in that we have got a sport strategy that is very much out of date and that is the strategy that Sport England is designed to deliver. I’m saying that I’m going to rip up that strategy and start again.”
The statistics, which cover the period from October 2014 to March 2015, show that 15.5 million adults participate in some kind of sport once a week, every week – a figure 222,000 fewer than six months ago.
As well as the decline in swimming, which still attracts more than 2.5 million people every week, the most notable drop comes in the ‘keeping fit and gym’ category with 153,000 people lost in the same time period.
Badminton, the biggest racket sport in the country, and cricket have also seen numbers fall by 31,000 and 40,300 respectively.
Worryingly the decline is highest among those earning the least, with the percentage of lower income adults in regular sport reaching its lowest point since the survey began.
Clive Efford, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Sport, said: “These are fairly disastrous figures. Worst of all, many of the sports that are showing the biggest drop are those that you would relate to facilities provided by local government; things like gym and fitness, swimming and dance.
“These are all activities that require local facilities and the falling participation shows that there is a clear connection between the cuts being imposed by the government and the number of people getting active.
“Yesterday [Thursday] we heard that a new strategy will be put into place but let’s see what the strategy actually is. We’ve heard about these types of initiatives before and they’ve all run into the ground and achieved nothing.
“So as much as I welcome the fact that they are looking at reform, the main issue in my eyes is who is going to draw it up.”
There are some positives, with notable increases for athletics, up 65,900 to 2.2 million per week, tennis, up 38,200 to 422,400 and basketball, up 21,800 to 152,900.
Insisting it is too early to reveal concrete plans to tackle the falling numbers, Crouch remains adamant she wants to wipe the slate clean and start again. “I am going to develop a new strategy for sport, as a matter of urgency,” she said. “I will consult with the sector on a new approach that will strengthen sport across the country, focus support on those that can deliver the goods and look to take a more joined-up approach to sport and physical activity across Whitehall.” Falling short of guaranteeing the future of Sport England, Crouch said she “expects” it to remain in place as an arm’s-length branch of the DCMS once the new strategy is formally adopted.
Jennie Price, Sport England chief executive, told The Daily Telegraph that the results were “disappointing” but she welcomed Crouch’s strong words because “change is needed”.
However, she denied that the recent decline showed the mission to create a lasting legacy from London 2012 had failed. “We had growth in the build-up to the Olympics and immediately afterwards, which is great,” she said. “But if we want to see growth that is really resilient then we do need to move on.
“A lot of sports have got to learn a lot more about what people actually want. Some sports have been transformed forever [by London 2012]. Cycling, for example, has seen a steady arc of growth both before and after the Olympics. So there are examples of real success as a result of the Games.
“What it has proven that it cannot do forever is create long-term change after the initial lift. We need to kick on and respond to modern consumer demands.”
Still the most popular mass participation sport, swimming has continued a steady downward trend which has meant it has lost a considerable 729,000 regular participants over the past decade.
Earlier this year Sport England claimed women were being put off the sport amid fears about how they looked in the pool.
Admitting that a lack of innovation and increasingly poor facilities were hampering their attempt to attract people to swim regularly, Adam Paker, Amateur Swimming Association chief executive, said action was already being taken to halt the decline.
“There are lots of questions being asked,” he said. “Are we building enough facilities as the pool stock is getting older? Have we kept pace with other sports in terms of innovation and technology? What exactly do consumers expect in the environment that they take part in swimming?
“We are taking a hard dispassionate look at everything we do and how it impacts on participation levels.”
First published www.dailytelegraph.co.uk, 12 June 2015, written by Ben Bloom