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Sports Funding (Rural Communities)

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 4 December 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Hunter.)

There is a wide discrepancy in sports funding between cities and rural communities, far in excess of what can be logically explained by population levels or other factors that can produce spikes, such as national centres of excellence in specific sports. I hope that the Minister will clarify her Department’s understanding of that variance, and tell me what action will be taken to address it. Since 2010, North East Cambridgeshire has received on average £120,000 a year from Sport England, from its annual budget of £322.6 million. That represents just 0.03% of Sport England’s budget, and I am keen to hear from the Minister why officials feel that that figure is justified, given the Government’s sizeable contribution to sports funding.

The Library confirms that, since 1995, North East Cambridgeshire has received a total of £2.9 million compared with, for example, Hammersmith, which has received £56 million. That could partly be explained by the fact that the GB rowing team is based in Hammersmith, but does that really explain that massive discrepancy? We should also take into account that some areas are getting double funding. Some are getting Olympic legacy funding as well as awards from Sport England, for example. Hammersmith received awards for tennis and sailing in September.

I wish to draw the House’s attention to three issues that are driving this discrepancy, which has existed for some time. My parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), was highlighting in parliamentary questions in 2009 his concern that communities such as ours were not getting an adequate allocation of taxpayer funds.

Three factors are particularly fuelling the current issue, the first of which is the complexity of the number of bodies that are allocating funds on behalf of the taxpayer. Sport England itself has 11 different grant schemes, and my constituency has never had a grant under nine of them; we have only ever qualified for two of the 11 schemes. There is no yearly breakdown of how much Sport England allocates under the schemes, and there are different time scales for the spending envelopes, so they do not run in a holistic way that fits together. Sport England’s staff costs this year are £13.5 million, which, given that a sizeable proportion of its budget is outsourced to national Government budgets, is not inconsiderable in terms of administrative costs. Indeed, its chief executive earns more than the Prime Minister, although that seems not uncommon in the sports world.

In addition to the 11 grants that Sport England gives, 46 national governing bodies are also given grants, and each of those has myriad schemes. For example, the Lawn Tennis Association makes a split between capital investment and a separate revenue fund, and within those the criteria frequently change. Those who get involved because they love sport, and not because they want to be accountants or to fill out forms, are often confronted with an alphabet soup of grant-making bodies, and that is before they get the match funding of local authorities, charities and the other bodies that they must deal with.

The second issue driving this problem is the confusion in, and frequent changes to, the criteria applied. Some criteria appear actively to discriminate—for logical reasons—against rural communities. Participation is, understandably often a key criterion—bodies want people to play if they are giving a grant—but that tends to drive funding purely to cities, often on the basis of flawed research. For example, all the eight priority areas identified by the LTA were in cities; it did not sample one rural area, so its criteria are distorting the basis on which it makes its granting decisions.

We also encounter a remarkable lack of consistency, which is not just a rural issue. Let us consider boxing in London. It is funded by the Mayor of London, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education, the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities, all of which have different criteria and assess in different ways. I am curious as to what is being done to simplify and standardise the way in which these grants are being allocated.

The third issue is the lack of transparency in awards. Of course we see individual awards—the £5,000 awarded to X or the £10,000 awarded to Y—but who is looking at whether all 46 national governing bodies are allocating in the same concentrated areas? Who is looking holistically to see whether some areas are underlapping and other areas are overlapping? Where is the accountability for those areas that are not directing funds to needs, such as the needs in my constituency? How do we get transparency on that issue?

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman earlier to seek his indulgence in allowing me to intervene. Helpfully, all the sporting projects in the countryside in Northern Ireland are funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and by councils. However, because of social isolation and the need to have sporting projects in rural communities, we have also sought help from Europe and through the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. We have used that money to help rural communities. Does the hon. Gentleman feel it would be helpful if the Minister considered that as an option to help rural communities to seek and access funding?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which reflects the complexity of the different bodies and the role of the Department in drawing this matter together and producing data that he and I can use to scrutinise how effective the taxpayer pound is in getting to the front line. He is right to draw attention to the isolation in rural communities where there are not the same options as in the cities. That is why it is important that we do not miss out across the 46 different governing bodies.

I also want highlight the lack of accountability around how awards are allocated. There is a real irony here. If we look at elite sport—at British cycling for example—we see the power and accuracy of real-time data. Those data enable us to understand what is happening across the full activity, and yet for the Department and the national governing bodies, it is unclear how that is being demonstrated to Members of Parliament so that we can accurately see whether the £120,000 we are getting, which is a fifth of what Cambridge gets—and Cambridge is just down the road—is actually the right level. The Minister’s assistance on that point would be appreciated.

I want to bring my argument to life with a few local examples. Let me take the complexity of the various bodies. Wisbech tennis club in my constituency currently has 130 members, which is a 14% increase on last year, and yet it has only grass courts and no lights. The club is very restricted as to when it can play, in terms both of times of year and times of day. If it rains, play must be suspended. The Lawn Tennis Association advised the club in 2012 that its bid for two courts and lights was too modest, and that to win LTA support it had to put in a bid for four courts. Sport England then changed the funding of the LTA, which led the LTA to withdraw its support. It was a classic example of two sporting bodies giving conflicting advice, which meant that the bid failed.

The club then put in a second bid. It still followed the LTA’s advice of four courts, but took out the lights. Sport England turned it down. This was logical to a certain extent, because without lights the club could not get the same numbers of people playing. The club was therefore penalised a second time for following a national governing body’s advice on securing funding from another body, Sport England, which strikes me as a pretty illogical process.

A third bid is now proposed for next week. The club has already spent £8,000 to £9,000 on planning and other things to get to exactly where it was at the very start, which is a bid for two courts with lights. This is a sport in a growing market town with massive levels of immigration from eastern Europe. Tennis helps to bring people together in the way that sport does at its best.

Let us look now at communication. Coates football has teams of all ages and 11 acres of playing fields, but no changing facilities. I welcome the fact that Sport England confirmed funding for the club, which coincidentally came through last week, but unless the funding comes from the other bodies, there will be insufficient money to deliver the facilities. Again, we need the different bodies to work together.

The third issue is the challenge to national governing bodies. On Friday, I will have the privilege of attending March amateur boxing in the Braza club. Some 40 kids train at the club three or more nights a week, yet the club has never had a penny of grant from the Amateur Boxing Association, which is given £4.8 million by Sport England. As taxpayers, we hand over £5.8 million to boxing, yet only £1 million of that goes to the clubs directly. The question is: where is the rest going? The chief executive of the body is on a six-figure salary, yet the volunteers at March boxing have to pay a fee to the ABA. The Government are quite rightly allocating significant funds to the boxing body, but the kids who are training in the club and not causing trouble and the volunteers are not getting the support that they need.

The Rugby Football Union has done many good things. It has been involved in some good schemes with Thomas Clarkson in my constituency, but if we look at the data, we see that 0.74% of its annual funding goes to the eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk, yet we form 4.5% of the population. How am I, as a Member of Parliament, supposed to assess whether that is the right level? What is the role of the Department in assisting me in doing so?

I welcome the allocation of funds from the Minister. I know that she is passionate about sport, and indeed the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) was widely respected across the House as a Sports Minister who was passionate about getting money to the community groups, but there is an alphabet soup of bodies and there is complexity. Complexity always drives up costs. We are talking about volunteers in our community groups doing what we all want them to, yet the system is not getting the money to them in communities such as mine. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet me to discuss the bids coming in next week from Wisbech tennis club, Coates and March boxing club so that we can deliver on our shared objective of getting more people playing sport in rural communities such as north-east Cambridgeshire.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) for raising the important issue of sport funding in rural communities. A key factor in our winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games was our ambition to inspire people across the whole country to take up sport.

The Government’s 10-point sport legacy action plan sets out in detail what we are doing to deliver lasting sporting legacy from the games for the whole country, including rural communities. That includes more than £1 billion of investment from Sport England for youth and community sport over the period 2013 to 2017. That is designed to inspire people from every part of the country to take up and enjoy sport—not just in our cities and towns, but in our rural communities too. It includes £493 million direct to sport’s governing bodies, as well money for school games and the development of community sports facilities. I emphasise that that applies across the country, in both urban and rural areas.

Sport England’s open funding programmes, such as Inspired Facilities and Protecting Playing Fields, do not discriminate according to type of area—that is, whether it is urban or rural. Applications for funding are assessed on their individual merits against the criteria for that programme. Sport England’s Inspired Facilities funding programme has already awarded grants to nearly 1,400 community sports clubs across the country to upgrade their facilities. Projects have ranged from fixing leaky roofs to installing showers and accessible changing rooms, and even supplying new lights at hockey clubs. I had the pleasure of switching on such lights in Kent just a few weeks ago.

North East Cambridgeshire has benefited too. In 2011, Sport England ran a funding workshop for local clubs in the area. As a result, I am delighted to report that six clubs in my hon. Friend’s constituency have been successful in receiving Inspired Facilities awards with grants totalling more than £300,000.

Of course, competition for funding remains extremely high and the quality of applications is increasing all the time. For example, in the previous round of Inspired Facilities, Sport England received more than a 1,000 applications for about £55 million of funding when it had only £16.2 million available.

If a club is unsuccessful in its application, Sport England offers individual feedback and support to help it prepare a stronger application for a future funding round. Sport England engages regularly with North East Cambridgeshire and has provided advice and guidance about the possible redevelopment of Ely leisure centre. Cambridgeshire county council has put in a bid for the Queen’s baton relay, which covers Fenland and my hon. Friend’s constituency and has activity planned in the Wisbech area.

Sport England is also promoting its Sportivate programme in the fenland area, where take-up rates are currently low. The programme gives all secondary school children the chance to experience a range of sports, from conventional ones such as golf and tennis to wakeboarding and free running. More than 225,000 young people have so far benefited from Sportivate, and I look forward to hearing that many more are enjoying those opportunity in the fenlands, too. The county sports partnership is also working with the College of West Anglia on a project for people who are not in education, employment or training, and that will include Wisbech.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to Wisbech lawn tennis club. I understand that there has now been some good and sensible dialogue between the club and the Lawn Tennis Association, that a staged approach to building the new facilities he referred to has been recommended and that the LTA has provided the club with a loan of £50,000. I also understand that an application for Inspired Facilities funding is currently under consideration. I wish the club every success in securing funding from Sport England.

My hon. Friend referred to participation. We are seeing very positive trends across the country, with 15.3 million adults playing sport at least once a week, which is 1.4 million more than when London won the bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2005. I am also particularly pleased that over 500,000 more women are playing sport regularly since we won the bid. Over 83,000 Sport Makers are volunteering regularly in their local communities, 16,000 schools have signed up to the school games programme, and around 100 county festivals of sport took place across the country this year. Through the 2012 games and other major events, we have raised the level of ambition in sport in this country for people in every community. Sport and leisure activities are vital to this country to energise young people’s ambitions and transform their lives.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution, and I will write to him about the matter he raised. I hope that I have provided my hon. Friend with some reassurance about the Government’s commitment to rural communities and to increasing participation in sport, regardless of where people live, whether in inner cities, small towns, seaside resorts or rural communities. If he remains concerned, I would of course be very happy to meet him. I also recommend that he organises a meeting with his Sport England regional representative—those representatives are very helpful and informative. The Government certainly take sport seriously and want to ensure that its broader social benefits for all communities are widely recognised and enjoyed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.