Increasing participation in sports is a key government target and is central to the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Sport villages could be crucial to achieving this goal.
Public sector sports provision is causing concern. Only one-third of local authority-owned or managed facilities in England are less than 20 years old, leading to higher maintenance costs. Subsidies are high, averaging £262,000 a year per facility. Investment is a low priority. In general, councils prioritise sports facilities 134th out of 155 services.
These points were picked up by a Department for Culture, Media and Sport review, unveiled in April 2005, which warned that a more pioneering approach to sport is needed. At the same time, creating a culture of participation to tackle growing health issues is high on the government's agenda, not least amid the interest being generated by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell says participation is a key legacy of the games. Last month she reiterated her aim for an extra 400,000 people a year to get actively involved in sport. "Our participation ambitions for young people will only be met if they are playing sport in modern facilities," she insisted.
Taking part in sporting activity is not just a matter of facilities.
But a lack of facilities that people want to use can certainly be a disincentive.
The challenge is to devise ways of delivering high-quality sport facilities that are economically and environmentally sustainable and relevant to local communities' needs.
The sport village concept is one way of tackling the challenge. It recognises sport's wider contribution across various agendas, being closely aligned to the concept of sustainable communities. It builds on Sport England's work on multi-sport facilities but takes it a step further by promoting co-location with other community services, including schools, colleges, health centres, dental surgeries, youth centres and business start-up facilities.
Placing these services together means infrastructure is shared, driving down costs. Users of one service find it easier to access another. The involvement of private sector partners allows local authorities to offset high annual subsidies for their own facilities. Some sport villages include commercial five-a-side or health and fitness centres. Other parts of the site can be leased for offices or shops.
The sport village concept has high-profile support. The Football Association has identified more than 100 sites on top of those already in development that show some potential to become sport villages. Sport England chairman Derek Mapp said on his appointment that his organisation needs to be "dynamic in its leadership" and "ensure the inclusion of all interested parties, be they private, voluntary or public sector, in securing our objective".
One concern, however, is that these 100 sites all include public green spaces and parks. Since development could reduce the amount of public open space in favour of indoor facilities and commercial sport provision, planning the right mix of facilities in the right location is critical.
Evidence shows a correlation between multiple deprivation and poor participation rates. It is also in deprived areas where existing parks and green spaces tend to suffer from underinvestment. More importantly, sport villages have been recognised as a contributor to wider regeneration schemes, whether under the New Deal for the Community banner at Salford Sport Village or in housing market renewal areas such as Newcastle-under-Lyme in north Staffordshire.
In an appropriate location, site selection must be comprehensive. Testing the feasibility of projects should be underpinned by a detailed planning appraisal of all potential sites. Many projects have encountered significant delays or constraints because a site has been chosen for development without any involvement from planners early on in the process.
Without involving planners from day one, decisions are taken without using the raft of strategic tools available. Should the sport village concept be endorsed strategically at a political level, planners would benefit greatly from clear guidance. Most applications are likely to be on existing pitches and green space, for which almost all local authorities provide the highest level of protection from development.
Existing provision will impact on the viability of sport villages and justification of need. Local authority assessments of outdoor and indoor sporting facilities and playing pitch strategies should be crucial tools in the site selection process, providing an insight into the quantity, quality and accessibility of facilities based on local requirements. Authorities with standards of provision on sport can then ensure that sport villages provide the right amount of facilities in the right places to the right standard and that they are accessible to the highest number of people.
Early commitment to a preferred site gives planners greater confidence in pooling contributions from residential developments in the area and using them more effectively. If the proposed planning gain supplement is introduced, commitment to a site from a planning perspective will increase the chances of getting a share of funding for sporting infrastructure.
If the government is to achieve its wider sporting and social agendas and facilitate a new age of sport and leisure provision, ministers and local authorities may need to embrace a step change in their approach to planning for open space, sport and recreation. Planners have a key role to play in ensuring that sport villages are not facing the same issues of ageing stock, lack of relevance and high subsidies in 20 years' time as leisure centres are today.
- Steve Ottewell is a planning consultant at PMP.
Sport villages: essential requirements for successful scheme delivery
Site first approach: Site selection must be comprehensive.
Strategic support: For any project to receive support and funding, it must demonstrate how it delivers a wide range of bodies' strategic objectives.
High-level political support: The most successful projects are those where elected members and decision-making groups are well briefed throughout.
Partner support: Buy-in from partners underpins both initial development and ongoing delivery.
Governance: It is critical that partners feel empowered, both through their own agencies and the wider project governance structure.
Community ownership: Most sport village projects deliver facilities and services to a wide area, but to deliver regeneration objectives local needs must come first.
Project champion and management: The champion will drive the partners and promote the vision.
Financial sustainability: Funding may involve commercial partners.