- Written by David Bryan
At times like this, it can be helpful to put up the periscope and see the bigger picture. We live in a society facing several epidemics – like obesity, inactivity, poor mental health and poverty. Oh and Covid-19, the new kid on the block. Covid affects all of us, its impact is immediate and stark, and rightly we’ve moved as a society to protect our most vulnerable. But what of these other epidemics, which blight communities and lives, have done for decades, and are also getting worse - who’s tackling these?
The NHS is of-course a national treasure, but its misnamed. Its really a ‘National Illness Service’, less than 0.5% of its resources go to promoting ‘Health’. Local government has, for the last couple of decades, struggled in the face of reduced budgets to maintain things like leisure facilities, outdoor activities and youth work. In many places, all were in terminal decline long before Covid hit. The community response has been to ‘do it four ourselves’, often transferring assets or developing new approaches to make sport and activity happen. Sometimes it's based on the community doing a better job because it's better connected to local needs or there is a sense of joint endeavour which prompts participation. Sometimes its innovative mixed business models, selling services to those who can afford them, to enable reduced cost or free opportunities for those who can’t. Either way, sports social enterprises have sprung up across the country, exponentially over the last decade. In many parts of the Highlands, a generation of children would not have learned to swim were it not for community-owned or managed pools. My own kids amongst them.
And here’s the thing - sports social enterprises are not just about kicking a ball around or fit people getting fitter. They go out their way to engage with people who would not normally find themselves in a leisure centre, sailing boat or walking group. Innovative partnerships are formed, like GPs prescribing not drugs but a support mentor to aid recovery from a serious condition by developing a more active lifestyle. Carers centres, youth groups or older people’s organisations working in partnership with sports social enterprises to reach the most vulnerable and isolated. Single parents or marginalised teens are not the usual markets for private sector gyms, but the sports social enterprise seeks them out, takes its offering to them, and changes lives.
Then there are the people working there. Most community-owned swimming pools know they can change lives by providing jobs. Entry-level jobs for young people, often lacking workplace experience or skills, needing that all-important first job. They know that in perhaps 18 months these young workers will move on, maybe into a longer-term career, or into further education. But they calculate this as gain, as part of their social impact, not as an HR loss. Without sports social enterprises a generation of young people would have found it a lot more difficult to get on the job ladder and develop workplace skills, My own children amongst them.
All this is just great, sustainable community-led enterprises which improve mental and physical health outcomes, create a more connected society, and even enable social mobility. Until that was Covid-19 blighted our lives, and sports social enterprises are forced to close their doors, losing many or most of their staff. Ironically, it’s those organisations who have been most enterprising, generated earned income and developing commercial products, which have suffered most in this crisis. But the irony is that sports social enterprises have the capacity to create a new healthier future for all our communities and tackle Covid in the long term. There is also an uncomfortable truth - as a nation, we’re vulnerable to Covid because we are obese and inactive. Sports social enterprise can help with that. We know the Covid-recession will hit young people most, they will struggle more than ever to get that critical first job, to stay connected and develop the social capital they need. Things the sports social enterprise sector can do as well.
If we are ‘all in this together’, then the society which emerges must also be one we’re ‘all in it together’. The disruption created by the Covid pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink society. A society in which everyone can be supported to have good health outcomes, to experience great health, to feel part of a community which values them. It’s a society that needs to be built around organisations which bring communities together to tackle these other epidemics. Society needs sports social enterprises more than ever before, and they must be seen strategically as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
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