One of the starkest social inequalities we face in the UK today centres on health and physical activity. While some communities have access to great facilities and opportunities for physical activity, we know that more disadvantaged socioeconomic groups face a host of barriers to achieving an active lifestyle, with devastating results for health and wellbeing.
Too little is being done to tackle this crisis. By prioritising cure over prevention, deferring key decisions and ducking pressing issues around the inequalities we face, politicians in Westminster are unwittingly signing the death warrant of millions of Britons. There is a way to narrow the gap, but we cannot wait for the green light from Westminster.
I firmly believe there’s an opportunity to forge a new alliance between local government and the physical activity sector. An alliance based on the undeniable evidence showing the value of physical activity interventions in local areas. An alliance which takes successful local programmes to scale across the country, forging hubs of local community and activation.
While people know me as an ex-Paralympian and a Crossbench Peer, I’m also a mother, and a resident of local authorities. When I’m working in Westminster I stay in Southwark and away from London my home is in Teesside. I see the hard work that goes into supporting communities in ever-challenging times, I see the complex decisions made by local authorities and the essential services they provide.
And as chair of ukactive, speaking to our members in the physical activity sector, I know they recognise the role of their work in tackling the societal challenges we face. ukactive research showed that community leisure contributes at least £3.3bn in social value, based on data from over 1.8 million people across 651 leisure facilities over the past two years. But that figure represents just a snapshot of its potential.
I want physical activity providers to become a key partner of local authorities. We must take our existing relationships much deeper so they fully support local ambitions to address health inequalities. There are three areas we can target together to have a massive impact: physical activity for children, infrastructure, and health and social services.
ukactive research shows that schoolchildren are losing 80 per cent of fitness gained during term time through inactive summer holidays – with the poorest 25% of primary school children experiencing a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25%.
Starting this summer, for the first time ukactive will work with local partners across the public, private and third sector, to bring holiday camps to schools in parts of Birmingham, combining physical activity with the opening of school kitchens to provide nutritious food and education, along with a strong mental wellbeing component. We’ll pilot this in high-need communities, with a view to bringing in government and other partners to scale a national solution to our child health crisis.
The vulnerability of our children and elderly amid today’s health inequalities cannot be overstated – a sad fact known well by anyone working inside our beloved NHS. Our new alliance must take the initiative to help save our health service as it marks its 70th anniversary this year. We need more focus on prevention.
Research shows that getting over-65s active could save the NHS £12bn and prevent 600,000 major diseases over the next 10 years. The physical activity sector, spread across thousands of locations nationwide, supported by hundreds of thousands of staff, already sits on a ‘National Activity Therapy Service’ with the potential to prevent a full-blown ageing crisis.
Together, we can ensure every patient contact with our health and social care system – whether it’s talking to a nurse or reading a prescription slip – signposts people towards activity.
In our bid to reach out to the most vulnerable and become the preventative frontline of the NHS, we must target improvements to infrastructure. Our leisure centres – pillars of the community – are crumbling. That’s why I have led calls for a £1billion investment to transform ageing leisure facilities into state-of-the-art wellness hubs which combine exercise facilities with GP drop-in centres, libraries and police services, to create a one-stop-shop for public services.
The trailblazers are already demonstrating huge potential. Since the Graves Health and Sports Centre in Sheffield underwent a £16million transformation to become a wellness hub, it has seen an 82% increase in visitors.
We must put local communities at the heart of this process. We’ll work with Sport England and partners to ensure a comprehensive engagement exercise is undertaken that fully explains this opportunity, addresses questions and sets the road map for the roll-out of wellness hubs across the UK.
The case for further investment is clear, but we can only achieve success through partnership. The political vacuum in Westminster, confounded by Brexit, doesn’t have to impact on this. If we work together, our new alliance has the power to transform the health and wellbeing of every community, rich or poor.
Baroness Grey-Thompson is the chair of ukactive