The largest hirer of sports facilities in the UK has hit out at the lack of opportunities for ordinary people to participate, saying it will have long term effects for the nation.
Kirby Muxloe FC
Leisure Leagues, who run small, sided football leagues across the world, are using over 100,000 hours annually, at over 400 venues. However, they say the access for people to play sport at facilities in Britain has changed dramatically - and for the worse - over the last decade.
Media spokesman Andy Thorley takes up the story: "Go back 10, or maybe 20 years and it was relatively easy for anybody to go and hire out a sports facility with their friends or family.
"There were less Astroturf pitches around, but even though today we have lots of new and better facilities, we have seen over the last 10 years more and more restrictions being placed on users so that what you might class as ordinary people, don't get a fair chance anymore."
Since the early 2000's the Government has embarked on a policy of building new sports facilities and it is estimated that there are three times as many facilities in 2021, as there were in 1995.
However, red tape and restrictions placed on Councils and owners of sports facilities have effectively meant that the ordinary working person has been squeezed out of the ability to go to the local football pitch, hire some time when it is convenient, and try and get fit.
Mr. Thorley continued: "The problem has been that much of the money handed out has been delivered through the Football Foundation, the Premier League or the FA. They have, understandably, made it a priority, if they are the ones giving the money, they will want their own membership base playing on the pitches. Unfortunately, this is usually the FA's membership base, and therefore consists mostly of already fit people, who already are part of an affiliated football club. So the ordinary person, who isn't affiliated to anybody, hasn't joined a proper team, and just wants to kick about with their mates, doesn't get a look-in.
"The end result is that although there are three times as many facilities, the opportunities for people who are not affiliated to the FA to go and hire their local leisure centre out for a game with their mates has drastically reduced."
Leisure Leagues have also seen how, over the past 15 years particularly, even though there have been more facilities built, the cost of using those facilities has more than doubled.
Mr. Thorley said: "Just 20 years ago the cost of hiring a pitch to play football was anything between £15 and £20. This was an accessible price and enabled the whole community to play sport. Nowadays, the price of a single pitch is in the region of £35-£45, an enormous increase which has effectively priced out everybody apart from FA clubs, who get a preferential, low rate at most facilities anyway."
The issue is exacerbated because at many new facilities built over the past five years Leisure Leagues has provided evidence that there are two different pricing policies in operation: one, a cheaper rate, if you are part of an FA club, then the other a prohibitive, more expensive rate if you are not.
Mr. Thorley said: "Combine all these factors together and it is easy to see what we have seen over the last couple of decades, whereby the unfit, the obese, the inactive, those who just want to play a casual game of football, and not be part of any club or association, are not able to do that anymore. It is simply too expensive, and they are not allowed to play on a lot of the pitches unless they pay an extra affiliation fee, and join a club under the FA banner.
"The sad thing is that this policy is supported by fact the Football Foundation, UK Sport and Sport England, who all make it clear to facilities that priority should be given to FA clubs.
Mr. Thorley continued: "The Football Foundation keep on telling us that there are more and more new facilities and that they are open to everybody regardless of ability, gender or age. As the largest hirer of sports facilities in the UK, we can see on the ground that it simply isn't true. You only have to go to any new-build Astroturf anywhere in the UK on a peak evening, in the week, and you'll see lots of fit young males playing at the peak time of 8pm. This is because older people, the unfit, the inactive or the obese have been squeezed out of the marketplace."
Leisure Leagues have pointed the finger at the stringent conditions imposed by the Football Foundation, on behalf of the FA, when facilities apply for funding, as well as the Football Development Plan, which any recipient of grant funding has to agree to before they get any money.
Mr. Thorley said: "You only have to read the Football Development Plan to see clearly what the deal is: we'll give you the money, as long as you make sure that it is only FA clubs who play on the pitch."
This is despite new guidance in 2019 from the DCMS which stated that small sided leagues, as they represent a significant amount of inactive people, should be given priority on new pitches. The fact is, the guidance has been almost universally ignored and the Government has so far failed to ensure it has been properly followed.
"We speak to hundreds of facilities every week. They all tell us the same thing: firstly, they have never been told about the guidance, and secondly even when they are alerted to it, they know that they cannot follow it because they have been told by the Football Foundation or their local county FA that if they do follow it then they are not going to receive any grant funding," said Mr. Thorley.
He added: "We've known facilities to have closed down simply because the restrictions imposed on them have been so severe that they cannot go out and make a commercial success of their new pitches. They are forced to give lower rates to FA clubs, not allowed to set their own pricing policies, and have to have on their pitches whomever the FA or the Football Foundation say. We hear this frustration all the time from facilities, but if you ask them: 'why don't you do what's best for your yourselves and the local community?' They simply say: if we did that, then we would lose all our funding. We know of one facility in the South East that is scared to even promote our league on social media, because of their genuine fear of the repercussions it would bring."
So whilst all this is going on, the politicians and the public are led to believe the Football Foundation rhetoric that more people are getting active when in actual fact the opposite is true. All that is happening is that FA teams, who used to play on grass pitches when they trained, are now being simply transferred to the new Astroturf pitches, and filling them out so nobody else can get the opportunity to use the very best facilities.
We are making the fitter even more fit, but there are others in society that we desperately need to help with physical fitness. They are being left behind and not given a chance at all. It is a very sad situation that no one, yet, has got a grip of in Government.
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