Get fit and active - if you can afford it

Scotland's 130 ALEOs ('Arm's Length External Organisations') are under scrutiny. Many – such as Glasgow Life, High Life Highland, Edinburgh Leisure – are responsible for sports centres, swimming pools, libraries, parks, festivals, and other leisure services; but the remit is widening, as ALEOs are increasingly managing functions like social care, transport, building, energy and waste.

These challenging times are forcing many councils towards urgent review and change. This may involve increased charges, reduced services and even closures. User satisfaction has fallen; and Audit Scotland made strong recommendations in 2018 for greater oversight and accountability. While Scotland's annual ALEO turnover is currently some £1.3bn, some councils are returning functions in-house, or combining with neighbour authorities.

These changes are not merely administrative: there could be devastating consequences for the active living agenda, which Scotland's health problems require. We still lag behind the rest of Western Europe in life expectancy and health inequalities. Even the welcome increase in women's sporting participation may be hard to sustain, if facilities and opportunities are removed.

There have been warnings. As long ago as 2008, the European Services Strategy Unit criticised the wholesale transfer of leisure services from local authorities to leisure trusts. Responding to trusts' failures, broken promises, and abandonment of innovative practice, this prophetic statement emerged: 'A leisure trust is highly dependent on a funding agreement with the council. Hence the trust budget is just as vulnerable to constraints and cuts in public spending as a local authority leisure service'.

And leisure services have never been 'core': funding was never ring-fenced. The current 4% reduction in local authority budgets is proving disastrous for leisure trusts.

In some cases, the very structure is wrong. Many leisure trusts have been insufficiently accountable to their community and have drifted away from initial rhetoric about charitable purpose and freedom to access external funding. Nowadays, they often consider themselves contractors and commercial operations, emphasising cost reduction and income generation. This drift has been accelerated by local authority grant reductions – which have been eye-watering. Edinburgh Leisure's council grant, for example, is falling by £3.35m – to popular dismay. Cuts and service reductions have met with protest in East Dunbartonshire, Forfar, Glasgow and elsewhere.

So, if the very facilities and programmes are under threat, what price the social inclusion agenda? How does all this fit with Glasgow 2014's intended legacy of increased participation in sport and greater levels of physical  activity?

Well, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's confirmation of the universally acknowledged truth – that the most deprived areas bear the brunt of public spending cuts – suggests that the situation will get worse before it gets better. And the Scottish Government's bold pronouncements on active living in the Programme for Government don't really cut much ice when this national agenda focuses not on widening activity and participation, but on hosting marquee events like the Cycling World Championships, the Solheim Cup, and UEFA European Championship matches. 

Hosting events is nice, but is the wrong emphasis. We are privileging sport over health; thereby abandoning too many of our fellow citizens to the serious health and well-being situations in which they find themselves. In a significant 2019 study of Glasgow 2014's legacy, Claire Lyne Cleland, Anne Ellaway, Julie Clark and Ade Kearns suggest that perceived benefits of major sporting events can be deceptive, because of facility improvements and stadium construction. There are, they argue, too many factors – employment status, education, prior levels of physical activity – to trace direct benefits to communities.

There may be problems down the road. Not just for ALEOs, but for all of us.


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