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Ed Warner: What politicians get wrong on policy and how I would fix it

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Britons may now be only four months away from their day in the polling booth. Policy wonks will be doing their wonking, party manifestos in early draft form, PR grids being re-written daily. 

Sport will barely feature beyond a sweaty MP or two getting down with the kids for a fleeting photo op at a carefully chosen school or club. (Or even the back garden at No10, which is where I remember cringing as a dripping Ed Balls, tie intact, once busted karate moves).

Way back when, I was roped into a group of apparent sporting experts to help shape a few paragraphs in one party’s manifesto. The MP in the chair appeared starstruck by the couple of Olympians in our midst. 

His party leader then jumped the gun with our ideas so as to fill a gap in the grid and to be snapped alongside one of the said gold medalists. None of our best recommendations has ever been enacted; all are still valid.

Sport simply isn’t deemed a vote winner. Health clearly is. The two should be entwined, but the common sense required to link the nation’s fitness with the cost of addressing its physical and mental wellbeing appears singularly lacking in politicians of all parties.

Battle of the bland: 2019 election manifestos

“We will invest in primary school PE teaching and ensure that it is being properly delivered. We want to do more to help schools make good use of their sports facilities and to promote physical literacy and competitive sport.” Conservative

“Sport must be accessible and run in the interests of those who participate in it and love it.” Labour

Policy matters

I’m very happy to acknowledge that sport had it good in the years running up to London 2012 – certainly relative to other Western nations and if measured in hard cash investment into the hunt for elite success. 

Grassroots sport arguably not so much, given the steady decline in the quantum and quality of the nation’s sporting infrastructure — from playing fields to leisure centres and swimming pools.

In recent years, however, the twin economic chisels of public deficits and resurgent inflation have been hollowing out British sport at every level. 

Sporting bodies have been encouraged to celebrate flat public funding as a positive result given the austere times. But flat in nominal pounds sterling has necessitated severe cuts in the real world, such is the scourge of rising prices.

Take, almost at random, a major Olympic sport such as hockey. In the four-year cycle up to London 2012, it received a total of £11.9m to prepare Team GB’s two Olympic teams (the players themselves receiving individual grants directly on top). So, an average of £3m a year. 

For Paris 2024, this has grown to £3.2m. However, if the earlier funding had expanded in line with UK inflation since the London cycle began in 2009 it would be worth £4.5m today. On my (admittedly rough and ready) calculation, that’s almost a 30 per cent real cut.

Faring worse

Other sports have fared worse, some better as UK Sport has juggled the allocation of scarce cash in pursuit of continued Team GB success. Swimming’s elite funding is down 40 per cent in real terms, for example; triathlon’s has beaten inflation by 12 per cent.

None of which is to criticise the bureaucrats carving up the pot. UK Sport’s leadership has the unenviable task of satisfying its masters’ thirst for reflected glory while sustaining a wide sporting system capable of delivering medals over successive cycles. Remembering, of course, that champions are not created in a single, short Olympic span but over very many years.

You can interrogate the UK Sport funding data by sport here and here.

The figures for grassroots sport are, at first glance, more reassuring. Government grants and National Lottery income flowing into Sport England have actually grown by around eight per cent in real terms in the 12 years to 2022. 

Policy funding

However, the funding agency now supports a far wider range of organisations than in times past, and while its monies help keep local sport alive, it has a financial peashooter when it comes to the battle to keep sporting infrastructure open. And local councils, typically the owners and operators of key facilities, are themselves strapped for cash.

Vote for Ed Warner, and what would you get? Tax breaks for volunteers who give their time to sport, and simplified paperwork that fits in with their busy lives. Health service “credits” for all to be spent on sporting activity. Sport to be carved out of DCMS and given a permanent seat in Cabinet. A bonfire of red tape and bureaucracy, banging together back offices within the funding agencies and between individual sports. 

But above all else, multi-year investment in school sport — its human capital and physical facilities. (No karate at No10 for me personally, though).

I’m not forgetting medals. I love them as much as the next person. Get all this right, though, and they will keep coming. Team GB’s winners for the 2030s and ‘40s are still just kids right now.

An appeal

Before I go, an appeal and invitation while you’re freshly engaged with this week’s column. We have just launched an innovative fundraising appeal for GB Wheelchair Rugby. ‘28 for 28’ is our search for 28 supporters willing to back us to the tune of £10k or more a year between now and the LA28 Paralympic Games.

One of our inaugural ‘28 for 28’ supporters, Ascot Group, is hosting a launch event on the evening of 28 February at its City office. If you or your business might be interested in investing in the growth of wheelchair rugby, an exhilarating sport for those with severe physical challenges, please drop me an email at sportinc@substack.com. I can then tell you more and add you to the guest list.

Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes his sport column at sportinc.substack.com

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