My Lords, some of us speaking in this debate will watch with interest as the Government provide metro mayors with a strong political platform while retaining firm control over the public purse, both through the direct funding of services and the level of the precept. That combination can have consequences, one of which is to allow a city or region, or more recently a country, to harness political support and immediately be ready to blame Westminster and Whitehall for failing to provide sufficient resources. In part, I believe that the noble Lord Teverson, answered this. It is key to embed the model with transparency and local accountability—devolved power, yes, but devolved accountability as well, building in transparency to the process.
We have an experienced and excellent Minister and an understanding Secretary of State in another place who—it should not go unnoticed—listened attentively to much of the debate this afternoon. The fact that four out of the 25 Bills announced in the Loyal Address sought the beginning of the biggest retransfer of power in history from Westminster and Whitehall is also significant. The challenge is to unleash the economic potential through these changes without providing financial control to the new combined authorities to run up the debts of profligate councils that some of us remember from the 1980s or benefit politically from blaming Westminster, as I have mentioned.
Key to the delivery of this Bill is the decision that some of the functions of local authorities will be able to be transferred to the relevant combined authority by order of the Communities Secretary. My speech today builds on the consensus of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, who raised a subject that noble Lords will not expect me to ignore—the vital importance of sport and recreation. My hope is that this will be one of the powers requested by the new authorities. It is my strong belief that every local authority should produce and take responsibility for a robust and comprehensive strategy for sport and physical activity to respond to local needs and, where possible, take the powers to manage this process and grasp the huge opportunities available in this context, not least politically.
We have heard of the importance of embedding pride and local ownership. One need only look at the work done and undertaken by the Mayor of London, working cross party with Kate Hoey in this context, that has managed to begin to transform sport and recreation in London. It is interesting to note that in the United States this is a really critical issue for the metro cities. The economic rationale for those cities willing to lead on sports facilities was revealed in the campaign slogan for the new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers: “Build the Stadium—Create the Jobs!”.
There is strong evidence that sports facilities can improve the local economy in four ways: first, building the facility creates construction jobs; secondly, new sports facilities provide the opportunity to generate new spending in the community, expanding local employment; thirdly, a team—if that is indeed the principal purpose of the facility—can attract tourists and companies to the host city, further increasing local spending and jobs; and, finally, all this new spending has a multiplier effect as increased local income causes still more new spending and job creation.
In addition, it is important to reflect that another important objective of the Conservative Party manifesto was to build on our Olympic and Paralympic legacy. From a study of the international cases, combined authorities with their wider representation are well placed to consider requesting oversight of sport and recreation provision to be added to the powers to be transferred for the following reasons. Sport and recreational provision and the promotion of major new facilities would best be achieved by the proposed authorities that cover the total catchment area concerned and could benefit from the municipal bonds that my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft mentioned. Sport and recreational centres could be funded by a direct transfer of Treasury funding for the area, coupled with a geographical allocation of lottery funding, which is currently biased towards London. Greater opportunities for co-financing with the private sector will also come into force. To this can be added the proposal for a precept under the 2009 Act to concentrate the attention of those living in the relevant combined authority area on facilities too big to be funded by their local council and yet beneficial, not least for the health and physical well-being of the wider population to be served by the new sport and recreation faculties.
Above all, we are, through the Conservative Party manifesto, committed to a sports legacy from the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, but the reality is that the current position and organisation of the funding make for gloomy reading. More than £42 million has been axed from councils’ sport and recreation budgets since 2010, according to a major BBC survey published recently. Among the regions which saw the biggest losses was the north-west of England, which saw cuts of more than £12.3 million. Concern was expressed by athletes that cutting facilities was short-termism that could impact on communities’ health and fitness levels. Liverpool City Council closed Woolton Baths. In the West Midlands, we saw cuts of £9.6 million. The region’s only 50 metre pool—in Coventry—was among the facilities to face the axe. In other regions, Sheffield lost the Don Valley stadium, where Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill trained, while Newcastle-upon-Tyne saw the closure of its city pool in 2013.
Ultimately, if we are to reduce obesity among young people, we cannot just have clubs and volunteers doing all that work. Once a facility is lost, on the whole it is gone for ever. When you come out of recession, it is very difficult to rebuild it. Emma Boggis, chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, which has already done so much valuable work on this issue, said that she had some sympathy with local authorities given the extreme financial pressures they are under. However, she said:
“Reducing investment in sport and in leisure facilities is storing up problems for the longer term … Limiting access to leisure facilities will result in greater inactivity and bigger costs to the NHS in terms of tackling conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression”.
I argue in closing that the main reason for this has been the fact that spending on sport and recreation by local authorities in England, unlike in Scotland, is discretionary, not compulsory. The problem is compounded because the spend is centrally controlled. As part of the manifesto commitment, coupled with the objectives of the Bill, I hope that the Government will grasp the opportunity to change this trend. The percentage of our population participating in sport continues to fall year on year, as it has every year since we won the right to host the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, despite the inspiration that the Games managed to elicit in the country as a whole.
If combined authorities, be they Greater Manchester, Essex, Cornwall or any of these authorities, focus on applying to devolve the power of spend and take oversight of sports facilities and policies, we can and should reverse this trend. That would be in the interest not just of those who wish to participate in sport and recreation but of the development of centres of excellence in the regions to raise the priority we should be attaching to the health and welfare of the nation. I hope that that participation and the development of excellence, so necessary to ensure that we improve the health of the nation and match the success of Team GB in London 2012 when we come to future Olympic Games, will inspire not just Londoners but everyone throughout the regions of England. I believe that this Bill is one step towards achieving that objective.