It is one hundred years since the Titanic set sail. Watching a television documentary recently on the reasons why it sank led me to draw parallels with research I’ve been undertaking for a professional body on the plight of local authority sport and recreation services in local government.
Most UK local authorities had a ‘golden age’ of service expansion in the 1970s when sport services proudly set sail like the Titanic with much fanfare. By the mid-1990s, the ship was taking in water as it collided with market forces. The first to drown aboard the Titanic were the Third Class passengers on the lower decks. Similarly, as a welfare-orientation was replaced with a market-orientation in sport services, authorities ceased to focus on services for all. Today, as survey findings highlight, only 20% of authorities support Sport for All with mainstream budgets and the first for the axe following recent reductions in local government finance have been the developmental services targeted at the low-incomed. To be fair, some authorities have attempted to defend social policy objectives within a model of the ‘ensuring state’ where, in a sense, the period 1997-2010 represented the last throw of the dice for the idea the local authorities exist to provide services for local populations. Under the current government, advocates of an ‘enabling state’ prefer local authorities to offer only residual ‘safety net’ services and all other provision can eventually be externalised to private sector operators, contractors in a Trust model, or Third sector providers within a Big Society model.
Over the next five years, those local authorities who are ‘failing’ to adapt and change in line with social trends, political whim and free market forces may choose to ‘ride the storm’ until a more favourable context for innovation and expansion emerges as has been the case in the past. However, looking forward, for the period 2010-15, survey respondents were pessimistic. For example, 89% foresee revenue budgets falling and affecting programmes; 86% anticipate further staff cuts; 84% expect to raise charges for services potentially affecting participation among the low incomed; 71% anticipate a negative impact on other service areas where alignment across service areas has occurred, for example, on health; 67% expected a reduction in the opening hours of facilities and 47% anticipated facility closures; 53% expect to reduce financial commitments to parks, fields an pitches utilised for both organised and casual participation; and only 50% expect to continue to distribute grants or provided match funding where ‘widening participation’ is a policy objective. Moreover, where services have been externalised, only 32% of respondents believed that leisure trusts ‘defended’ Sport for All.
As a result, service reviews and inquiries have begun as has ‘the blame game’. As sport services sink, who, if anyone, is to blame? Consider this question: was the sinking of the Titanic the fault of individuals? For example, the captain who inexplicably changed course, poor leadership among senior officers, cruise liner management for not implementing the latest safety guidelines, the financiers who cut corners with safety resulting in a shortage of lifeboats, or a spat between under-pressure signalling officers that led to a loss of contact between the Titanic and a nearby ship that could have rescued everyone on board. Alternatively, we can focus on the historical, technological, political, economic or social contexts in which the vessel sailed. For example, a rigid class system affecting decision-making, institutional failure and a culture of complacency in the industry, the limitations of the technology of the day, the adversarial political system where politicians sought popularity and credit from the launch of the venture and quickly sought blame when over a thousand lives were lost, or public expectation that demanded ‘grand projects’ within an optimistic expansionist pre-war zeitgeist. Or was it happenstance? For example, unforeseen delays in launching the ship, and once it set sail, the missing binoculars for the lookout, or an iceberg seriously off course for the time of year. The research points to a range of factors that combined and intertwined to sink the unsinkable. It is easy to play the blame game when times get tough. And for local authority services, particularly discretionary services, times are getting tough. The scramble for the lifeboats has begun.
In responding to the current crisis, authorities can be characterized as ‘pre-emptive’, ‘reactive’ or ‘defensive’. Those who can be defined as ‘pre-emptive’ have critical advantages over the others including stability of political support; a stronger resource base; and embeddedness of sport services into the authority, in terms of and alignment with corporate planning objectives, personal and professional networks and the culture of the authority. Further, these authorities tend to be in localities where there is a politically active, healthier and wealthier local citizenship and a robust voluntary and private sector sporting infrastructure. From these parts of the UK (and little has changed) were the First Class passengers on the upper decks of the Titanic who had longer to contemplate their circumstances in lifeboats fleeing the scene. (A few from the ‘squeezed middle’ made it as well). In a series of interviews, representatives of ‘pre-emptive’ authorities blamed those struggling for their lack of ‘wherewithal’, pro-action, innovation and ‘business acumen’. Moreover, officers argued that many leisure professionals have not ‘made the case’ for services either in financial, social or political terms, leaving services as ‘easy targets’ for cuts and it was noted that only four in ten of authorities have a dedicated sport strategy. But is this the fault of service professionals? Were politicians listening to the case for sport and where was the political leadership? On-going reviews of services resonate with the Titanic Inquiry where the blame fell on specific individuals in junior roles and on the captain, in his absence, who unlike a cruise-liner captain in the news recently, went down with the ship!
Since the mid-1990s, leisure departments in local government have been marginalised, endlessly re-organised, under-resourced and under-valued. Discretion and autonomy have been curtailed in an auditing culture where staff are required to follow the funding rather than have the opportunity to develop a strategic plan and must chase unrealistic targets to meet conditional funding criteria. The bottom line is that leisure professionals have been disempowered over time by successive governments seeking to undermine the resource base of professionals and an apathetic public who, on the whole, do not want to engage with the public sector offer, no matter how it is delivered or who it is delivered by. In fact, what is often missing from an analysis of decisions and events is the role of the general public. It could be argued that a politicised citizenship, through struggle and dissent, may prevail in demanding that their local sport facilities and programmes be retained. However, do we have a politicised citizenship across most of the UK? The case for retaining services would also be stronger if communities and individual residents actually made use of services and participated, both in terms of physical activity and local politics. But where public apathy rules, and tastes and preferences are for ‘bread and circuses’ where spectating overshadows participation, political apathy follows. Consequently, sport services, and the professionals that manage them, will suffer the full force of the cuts. So are we the public to blame? Perhaps the private, voluntary or community-led offers are now our preferences, assuming we can afford to pay to take part. Are local authority led services ‘fit for purpose’ today given an aging stock of facilities and short-term programmes with variable and sometimes negligible impact?
One way forward suggested by some interviewees is for local authorities to adopt a capacity-building agenda in local communities where officers enable residents to manage services or even take ownership of them. Self-reliant self-organising communities will, it is believed, form mutual bodies, cooperatives and social enterprises in a bid to be active citizens. However, this capacity-building agenda is clearly easier to achieve in parts of the country where community engagement is already high and there is the capacity and will to contribute to society. Where there is a democratic deficit and an expectation from a largely disengaged resident base that services will be provided for them, rights and entitlements dominate rather than responsibilities. In these localities, local authorities have extended resource dependency on the state through subsidy out of political expediency. In these localities, building capacity takes decades of investment and targeted support. Given the whims of an unregulated free market economy, the short-termism of an adversarial political system and the disinterest of a public defined by consumerism, the prospects for a profession in decline leave little room for optimism.
Unlike the demise of the Titanic that resulted in public outcry, several inquiries and a number of changes to seafaring practices, the demise of sport and recreation services may not be on the radar of most people until community facilities begin to be boarded-up and fields sold off to developers. Free market supporters will refer to a ‘necessary restructuring of the market’. Big Society supporters will state that communities must steer services, not local authority providers. Private sector operators may see a gap in the market, although the research did not find much of an appetite for managing leisure services. Instead, money is to be made in an expanding health and fitness market for those who value physical activity and can afford to take part. As for local authority sport services, it drifts rudderless around in circles seeking a rationale and remit for its product in increasingly choppy waters or has begun to sink. Worse, the ship has been boarded by pirates seeking to asset strip what is left of its treasure. But maybe I’ve taken this metaphor a little too far! It is perhaps only when the ship is at the bottom of the ocean that we will appreciate the value of at least those local authority services that did offer ‘guarantees’ that other sector providers do not offer, around accountability, equity, quality and sustainability. In the end, the public must decide whether services are worth fighting for, and critically, whether even the ‘guarantees’ cited are valued and worthy objectives. Maybe it’s time for a re-launch – a new ship – one that has political and public support, a business case, strong leadership and one that we all can get on board.