27.Many community and grassroots sports organisations have, for a long time, been in a precarious financial situation. For example, Nicola Walker, Chief Executive of Sported, told us that “before Covid even hit, many of our groups weren’t sure that they would be in existence in six months’ time, so this was already a very fragile environment for these very small groups”.55
28.Many grassroots and community sports clubs, teams and organisations have little or no financial reserves. Sported told us that only 38% of their members had a reserves policy, and 33% did not have “enough reserves to cover three months running costs”.56 Sport England told us:
The majority of grassroots sports clubs exist on a hand-to-mouth basis. They have very limited reserves, and the culture of most as voluntary run organisations, means that they do not want to be seen to be charging participants more than needed to cover basic running costs. For clubs who are asset owners, restricted activity also halts their primary income stream whilst required expenditure persists.57
29.StreetGames told us that 27% of their organisations did not have any reserves at all,58 and lots of those which did “spent their reserves to give additional support, outside of sport and physical activity, supporting the wider needs of families and children and young people”.59 The Sport and Recreation Alliance reported that 60% of self-employed workers across the sports sector “have no reserves and face substantial losses”,60 and Marg Mayne, Chief Executive of Mytime Active and treasurer of Community Leisure UK, told us that many leisure centres have “limited reserves because [they] reinvest reserves back into the community and community programmes”.61
30.The problem of diminished reserves also extends to National Governing Bodies (NGBs). Sport England told us that, in recent years, NGBs have “sought to diversify their income” by investing reserves to develop new commercial revenue streams.62 Having not managed to replenish their reserves to normal levels, the issue was exacerbated when the pandemic hit and income and membership numbers fell. As it stands, Sport England’s funding model incentivises NGBs to “spend all funds within a specific timeframe” but in its written evidence, Sport England suggested that in order to protect NGBs better from future shocks such as that experienced through the Covid-19 pandemic, measures could be introduced to grant NGBs “greater flexibility around reserves accumulation” so they can be “more resilient in the face of future adversity”.63
31.Many National Governing Bodies and other sports groups and organisations were not financially stable enough to fully support themselves through the economic shock that was caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a balance to be found between ensuring enough money is spent to improve participation and support community and grassroots sport, and ensuring organisations can be more financially resilient in an emergency. We recommend that the Government work with Sport England, UK Sport and the National Lottery to review and revise the current funding models to enable sports organisations to accumulate greater reserves and, as a result, have more of a cushion to support themselves with should another situation like the Covid-19 pandemic occur.
32.At a time when sources of income for clubs and organisations such as venue hire fees or takings from clubhouse bars had dried up due to lockdowns, fixed costs remained the same leaving those without reserves at serious risk of closing.64 Pitchero told us that “the clubhouse economy has also been traumatised with little to no matchday revenue or hospitality/venue hire income”65 and, during our roundtable events, we heard even more detail about the huge impact such closures were having on clubs. For example, one rugby team told us that, in 2019, revenue from the club’s bar and café was about £108,000 but that, in 2020, it was around £8,000. Another rugby club told us how it uses clubhouse revenues to fund other activities for members but that, having only been open 16 weeks of the year, takings were around 30–40% of normal levels. On top of diminished reserves and significant drops in income, clubs were also having to introduce “significant health and hygiene protocols to ensure they [were] COVID-secure”.66
33.Overall, Sport England has dedicated £270.5 million in funding during the Covid-19 pandemic for grassroots sport via various funds.67 Some of the funds, such as the Community Emergency Fund (£35 million), have now closed or stopped taking applications, but some remained open well into 2021.68 When Sport England gave evidence to our inquiry, Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors, some of its initial support packages were already oversubscribed:
We are over-subscribed; you are right. I think that has been indicative, probably as much as anything else out there, of the immediate level of crisis that has hit our sport and physical activity sector. Normally, we have two open funds: our community asset fund and our sport grants fund. They, too, run to a budget annually of about £20 million. Normally, over a year we would expect to get about 4,000 application for that fund. In the last five weeks, we have had over 7,500 applications to the community emergency fund, so that tells the story of how much the local clubs are in need of that immediate support.69
34.However, the emergency funding that was made available had a positive impact. In March 2021, Nicola Walker told us that the number of Sported’s members who did not think they would survive the pandemic had fallen to one in ten, “partly because of the funds that have been available, which have been swiftly delivered in some of the nations” and partly because “the smaller the group the less their outgoings were, so one of the advantages of not having paid staff, of not having facilities, is that they could mothball for a while and then hopefully start to reopen when they could”.70
35.During our roundtable events, a number of participants emphasised the role that some of these funds had played in keeping their clubs solvent during the pandemic.71 For example, an outdoor racquet club told us that it had received a grant for £1,500 and that “without grants [it] couldn’t survive”.72 Some clubs from smaller, minority sports had also received some money which they stated was in small pots but “was enough to get over some of those hurdles” they were facing. As well as relying on grants, many clubs also praised their members who had continued to pay subscriptions and membership fees during this period, despite not being able to play or train.73
36.However, even in normal times, applying for grants takes time. Nahimul Islam, Founder and Director of Wapping Youth FC, told us that clubs can “put in ten funding applications and [ … ] only get one. That is the reality of it.”74 Nicola Walker of Sported told us that “every funding application is slightly different” and that “each funding application needs a different set of criteria around your governance, and around your measurement and impact”.75 Furthermore, Ms Walker told us that different applications have be written in a certain style which, suffice to say, is time consuming and does not always result in very high success rates.76
37.Even in normal circumstances, volunteers in grassroots and community sport dedicate a significant amount of time to applying for funding. Organisations such as Sported and StreetGames play an important role in supporting their members to complete applications but the extensive administrative burden associated with these applications seems unnecessary, and has only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. To reduce the administrative burden on volunteers across the sport sector, we recommend that the Government work with governing and funding bodies to introduce a standardised application methodology for grassroots and community sport funds.
38.The issue of facilities has been repeatedly raised with us throughout this inquiry. Lisa Wainwright, Chief Executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, told us that research undertaken with Sheffield Hallam University showed that “77% of the clubs [questioned] said the biggest limiting factor for people taking part is access to public leisure facilities”,77 and Nicola Walker of Sported told us that, for smaller community and grassroots clubs, facilities “are a constant challenge [ … ] in terms of trying to get access to affordable facilities they can use at a time that suits their young participants”.78 Swim England also told us that the nation has “an ageing pool stock” and that swimming “facilities are in crisis absolutely”.79
39.David Pond, then Chief Executive of Great British Wheelchair Rugby, told us of the difficulties that clubs with more complex requirements, such as wheelchair rugby teams, face when trying to access facilities:
The first thing is that many of [the] halls of course are in leisure centres, so we need to rent those leisure centres. Costs are high. You probably only have about eight or 10 wheelchair rugby players accessing that at any one time. They have to foot the bill for that. Most of those will probably be on disability allowances, or certainly on very low ability to pay for any high cost at all. In addition to that they have the cost of their equipment, their wheelchair, which itself is about £3,500 to £4,000 for a sports wheelchair to play, which they need to be able to fund as well. That is an issue. Another issue is the floor type. Many new leisure centres will not allow wheelchair rugby to be played. They are sprung wooden floors and they cannot be utilised. Ironically we are better off trying to find some of the older type halls with the hard wooden floors that we tend to be able to use much more easily, so there are issues around that.80
40.Our roundtable sessions also highlighted a number of issues regarding the lack of facilities. One netball team told us that, even before Covid, there used to be “a ‘punch up’ over who had first dibs at a school’s sports hall”, and a cricket team told us that “places to access the sport are being squeezed even tighter and there is more and more competition to access them all the time”.81 A number of participants also told us that facilities were looked at in terms of square metres: if leisure centres think that they can make more money out of a space by renting it out for an aerobics or spin class of 20 people, it is likely that they will favour that approach rather than renting it out for four people to play an indoor racquet sport.82
41.Nicola Walker of Sported told us that the issues facing clubs and organisations have been hugely exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic:
The facilities point cannot be overestimated: 85% of the grassroots sports that we support do not have their own facilities [ … ] The operators of those facilities are going to have to create social distance and have potentially fewer groups and customers coming through. The nervousness is that community sports are disadvantaged in that respect, in that they do not necessarily pay the same rates that others might.83
42.Unfortunately, the reduction in capacity at venues due to the need for social distancing was not the only impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on access to facilities. A number of participants at our roundtable events told us that, when they were allowed to return to play, clubs which rely on facilities owned by other organisations sometimes found that they no longer had access because of a lack of upkeep during the lockdown periods.84 With many organisations putting staff on furlough, maintenance had not been carried out to the same level and, in some cases, the facilities are now unusable.85
43.Sport England is concerned about the number of formal facilities and informal places and spaces available for people to get active and to take part in grassroots sport, whether leisure facilities, school facilities for community use or public green spaces.86 Sport England told us that:
Access to appropriate facilities has been a critical issue and one of the biggest barriers to reopening for many sports. It will remain a pressing issue long-term, as apprehension about declining facility stocks continues.87
44.Throughout our inquiry, we have heard about the importance of school facilities to the survival of smaller community and grassroots sport groups. Lisa Wainwright of the Sport and Recreation Alliance told us that, although there is a large stock of school facilities, their research had found that “72% of people … lacked access to school facilities”.88 Again, this problem has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, British Fencing told us that a number of their clubs have found that schools are no longer willing or able to open up their facilities because they are “reserved for pupils [ … ] or halls [are] now being used as classrooms”.89 This problem had also been experienced by a number of participants in our roundtable events: due to the higher cost of commercial facilities, many clubs rely on renting school facilities but even when restrictions were lifted in summer 2020, groups were still unable to return to school facilities.90
45.The Minister for Sport and Tourism, Nigel Huddleston, told us that “40% of all sporting and leisure facilities in the country are behind school gates” but that “they are not used at all to the extent that they should be used”.91 The Minister told us that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was “working closely with the Department for Education” to try to tackle this issue and that the Government is “starting some initiatives to try to open them up more”.92
46.School facilities have the potential to help solve the facilities crisis currently facing community and grassroots sport. Renting out school facilities at a fair, affordable rate not only benefits the sports groups but also creates an additional revenue stream for the schools. In its response to this Report, we recommend that the Government set out the ways in which it intends to encourage schools across the country to make their facilities more available to community and grassroots sports clubs at a fair rate.
47.On 3 March 2021, the Government announced a new £150 million Community Ownership Fund to enable community groups to bid for up to £250,000 matched-funding to “help them buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost, to run as community-owned businesses”.93 The scheme will run across all nations of the UK and the first round of bidding for the fund was due to open by June 2021. It was announced that a “full bidding prospectus” would be published at the same time to set out “detailed advice on how to structure a bid, what activity to undertake to support this, what information to include, and the criteria by which bids will be assessed”.94 However, the Government did not open applications or publish a bidding prospectus until mid-July 2021.
48.When asked whether he thought the Community Ownership Fund was going to go far enough, the Minister for Sport and Tourism, Nigel Huddleston, said:
It is a fair question of whether it will be enough. We are in the early stages yet. There is £150 million announced. The first applications are coming in next month, and then certain amounts have been allocated over the next few years, so we will see. I suspect and hope that, if it is successful and having the desired impact, we would be able to go back to the Exchequer and ask for more. Certainly, sport and sports facilities were identified in the prospectus, so it was important it got highlighted. It was not ring-fenced as such. That is probably a good thing, because who knows whether it is going to be more or less than we expected? We will certainly be very closely tracking how it is going to be used and what it is going to be used on. I have a strong interest in how it goes out.
[ … ]
We will see how it gets distributed. I am going to keep a close eye on it and, if successful, I will happily lobby the Treasury for more.95
49.We welcome the introduction of the Community Ownership Fund but, at a time where many community groups have faced unprecedented challenges, we are disappointed that the bidding process did not begin in June 2021 as the Government promised it would. Access to facilities has long been an issue for grassroots and community sport and we are concerned that the fund, in its current format, will not go far enough. We were also not persuaded by the Minister’s argument that ringfencing money for sports groups would not be a good thing. In the short-term, we recommend that the Government set out the ways in which it will support community sport groups which are successful in applying for match funding through the Community Ownership Fund. In the longer term, we recommend that the Government ringfence money, either from the Community Ownership Fund or elsewhere, to enable sports clubs and teams to purchase and upgrade their own facilities.
67 Sport England, ‘Funding, innovation and flexibility’, accessed 2 July 2021
68 Sport England, ‘Our funds’, accessed 2 July 2021
69 Oral evidence taken on 5 May 2020, HC (2019–21) 291, Q86 [Tim Hollingsworth]
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93 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, ‘Policy paper: Community Ownership Fund’, accessed 29 March 2021
94 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, ‘Policy paper: Community Ownership Fund’, accessed 29 March 2021
Published: 29 July 2021 Site information Accessibility statement