The aspiration of a “more active nation” will not be achieved if we have nowhere to play

An Olympic legacy will not be achieved if we have nowhere to play

Comment: Helen Griffiths, Chief Executive

Bubbling away over the past few weeks and set to continue for the duration of the Rio Games the much debated subject of 2012 legacy is back at the top of the agenda.

Inspiring a generation and encouraging the whole population to be more active was an ambitious one. Was it a success? Is it too soon to tell? Did the impact spread beyond East London? They are all questions that have been asked before and, depending on who is speaking, elicit a positive welcome or a critical panning.

The benchmark is certainly higher than it was with 1.4 million people now playing sport compared to 2005/6 figures but the figure of 58% of adults who still don’t play sport is a stark one. Or is it? Physical inactivity is the fourth leading factor in global mortality and costs the UK an estimated £7.4 billion a year. Intervention is undoubtedly needed but we also need to change the conversation away from just sport.

Sport remains as anathema to some as it ever did. People may be enthusiastic consumers of sport at team or national level but that fervour does not necessarily translate into competition. Focussing on physical activity rather than sport is a welcome step change by the Department for Culture Media and Sport in the approach set out in Sporting Futures: A New Strategy for an Active Nation and one that chimes with the remit that Fields in Trust has been delivering for over 85 years but it needs to be augmented by support for the facilities that will underpin it.

Yet whatever the outcome of fiercely contested debates on London 2012 and sporting legacy, the aspiration of a “more active nation” will not be achieved if pressure for housing development reduces our recreation spaces, leaving nowhere to play.

Our parks and informal recreational spaces are facing increasingly challenged futures. Unlike sports pitches there is no statutory requirement to provide these facilities and the 2014 State of the UK’s Parks report found that 45% of local authorities are considering selling them off. Austerity measures have hit these parks and playgrounds hard and Councils are struggling either to maintain them or avoid the temptation of releasing their capital receipts to plug deficits elsewhere but, if we are to have any hope of achieving a more active nation, than these spaces truly will be the building blocks of future success.

Running and cycling have both experienced a transformation in participation levels since 2005 and have relatively low barriers to entry. Parkrun started in October 2004 to date they have seen 1.7M runners take part in over 17M events with a total distance over 84,000KM – crucially they have been supported by over 200,000 volunteers. Cycling trips are now believed to total 610,000 journeys daily in London alone and rose 11 percent in 2015.

We need to make sure that a lack of access to places to run and cycle doesn’t reverse these trends through the erosion of parks and playing fields. Parkrun has recruited both runners and volunteers with amazing success rates but for it to continue on this trajectory the secure future of parks and green spaces is crucial. Parks, playgrounds and other green spaces provide opportunities for physical activity across the spectrum of age and ability and it is by embracing activity at all its levels that we will start to address the 58% of adults who are not currently playing sport.

It’s well documented that this issue does not pertain solely to a sedentary adult population. 21.9% of children starting school are either overweight or obese and inactivity is a huge contributory factor to this horrifying figure. Our children need to move more and they won’t immediately do this through playing sport but by exploring their surroundings and gaining physical literacy and confidence from climbing, swinging and sliding and to do this they need access to high quality, local playgrounds.

Collectively we need to encourage and facilitate physical activity in all its myriad forms from walking the dog to running the marathon in order to properly address the health of the nation. We believe that a big part of delivering that will depend on securing access to outdoor space for recreation.

Looking at our own legacy from the landmark events of 2012 we focussed on the grassroots in a far more literal way than any other initiative or intervention and with unparalleled longevity. Fields in Trust’s programme guaranteed that 1380 Queen Elizabeth II Fields (QE in Scotland) all manner of parks, sports pitches, playgrounds, nature reserves, bicycle trails and more are available for community use both now and for future generations. These spaces are now sacrosanct and cannot be developed.

The current Department for Communities and Local Government Parliamentary Committee inquiry into public parks and their funding is timely and hopefully an indication of more cross departmental thinking as parks and playgrounds are part of the foundation stone to building a healthy, active nation and it is vital that we recognise this by protecting the future of our parks and investing in the future of the children and families that use them.