UK General Election: Parties Challenged To Put Physical Activity On The Political Agenda

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  • A hustings (a meeting at which candidates in an election address potential voters) hosted by ukactive and the Sport and Recreation Alliance last week challenged representatives from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats on their limited reference to sport and physical activity sector in party manifestos
  • David Minton of The Leisure Database Company argues sport, health and fitness has slipped a long way down the political agenda
  • Minton believes the fitness and boutique sectors are enjoying a “golden moment” yet only 15-20% of the population are taking part, suggesting there is a huge opportunity to engage with the remaining 80%

LONDON, United Kingdom – At a hustings on the verge of tomorrow’s crunch General Election, representatives from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats were scrutinised on how their manifesto pledges would impact the health and fitness of the nation. 

The debate, hosted by ukactive and the Sport and Recreation Alliance at The Kia Oval cricket ground on Wednesday 4th December, was attended by Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Nick King, former Special Adviser to Sajid Javid and the Conservative candidate for Makerfield, Greater Manchester and Lord Addington, the Lords Spokesperson for Sport for the Liberal Democrats. 

The panel was notably challenged on how they would reduce barriers for the leisure sector, such as expensive business rates for high street premises, and incentivise growth. 

Nick King said in relation to reviewing business rates, there is a clear opportunity to “put forward a case for physical activity”, following the Conservatives’ pledge to reduce rates for pubs, music venues and small cinemas. 

Tom Watson spoke about an active workforce being a more productive workforce and said there is a “bottom-line interest to UK plc in ridding people of these public health conditions”.  And Lord Addington underlined his party’s stance on promoting active travel by improving cycling networks to make the option easier for more people. 

ukactive CEO Huw Edwards said: “One of these parties will be in power on Friday 13th December. The opportunity tonight was for our sector to question them and on the role our sector can play for a more active, healthier society. 

“ukactive is championing our members and getting them at the top table to help make decisions which will have a transformative impact on people’s lives across the country.” 

Reshaping modern Britain
The panel also discussed four major policies that chair of ukactive Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson called for the UK’s leading parties to back, that would put physical activity back on the political agenda. 

Speaking at the ukactive National Summit in Westminster in October, the former Paralympian made an impassioned speech highlighting the opportunity for physical activity to play a greater role in reshaping modern Britain. 

She called for the government to make a crucial change to business regulations that would allow more gyms and leisure operators to open on the high street and in-town developments. 

She also wrote to leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the DUP, asking them to address four policy calls in the upcoming election: 

  • Regenerating the high street through physical activity 
  • Opening schools as community hubs to support children and families 
  • Improving accessibility to active travel and wider activity opportunities for the nation’s workforce 
  • Supporting older adults to access the health benefits of physical activity 

Speaking to Welltodo, ukactive CEO Huw Edwards said: “This was an important event to offer our members the chance to challenge, directly, representatives of the main parties. 

“The key takeaway is that we have an agenda which has cross-party support, with each representative understanding the benefits that physical activity can bring to the country, particularly in helping to put prevention at the heart of health services.” 

Edwards highlighted ukactive’s policy to use schools as community hubs offering physical activity clubs over the holidays, that was recognised by the Conservative Party in its pledge to invest £1 billion over three years in childcare provision at schools, and also addressed in the Green Party’s manifesto. “This policy has the potential to get children, young people and families more active in the long-term,” he said. 

However, Edwards also acknowledged more has to be done and words need to be backed up by actions. “There have been scattered references to getting people more active but on the whole we have not seen the level of strategic commitment required within the party manifestos. 

“There will be numerous opportunities for the fitness industry after the election, from regenerating the high street to getting children more active, increasing wellbeing at work and reimaging ageing. 

“However, the greatest opportunity will be in prevention. If we can build closer links to our health and social care services, with clear signposting to gyms, studios and other leisure facilities, our sector can significantly reduce the burden of preventable diseases on the NHS.” 

Does fitness need a Greta?
Despite the good intentions from ukactive and the positive sounds coming from the hustings panel, fitness expert David Minton of The Leisure Database Company is deeply sceptical anything will change. 

“All of this is déjà vu, it’s just BS,” he said, speaking exclusively to Welltodo. “Who has even mentioned sport or fitness in their manifestos? None of them. It’s amazing how climate has jumped up the agenda but personal health and fitness hasn’t even been mentioned. 

“There are no new policies for health and fitness. There haven’t been for two or three years. It’s such a low priority for all parties. None of them think they’re going to win votes on them. Sport England has spent around £6 billion in lottery money and where are we in terms of participation?” 

Where, indeed, are we? According to a survey by Sport England, published in April this year, 62.6% of the adult population are now classed as active, defined as meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of doing at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week. 

That’s an increase of 498,100 people compared with 12 months ago, including gains in the number of disabled and over-55 categories. The results, based on a sample of 180,000 members of the public, also found the number of inactive adults – those doing fewer than 30 minutes of physical activity a week – has reduced by 185,000 to 25.1% of the country. 

However, there was no change in the number of people from lower socio-economic groups getting active. 

Read More: What’s Next For Fitness? Boutique Consolidation, On-Demand Content and Insertable Microchips 

Despite the absence of policies to address these topics from the leading political parties, Minton believes the fitness industry, together with the disruptive boutique sector, is enjoying a “golden moment”. 

As a prime example, he referenced Blaze by David Lloyd – set to launch in Birmingham next year – for how the sector is reinventing itself to appeal to changing consumer demands. 

Yet more can be done, he argues, as only a small minority of the country are currently enjoying the benefits. 

“All sectors have increased participation,” Minton said. “We’re having a golden moment. But the issue is that only 15-20% of the population are taking part. There’s a huge opportunity for the remainder of the country but for that to happen the industry needs to change.” 

Referencing the makeup of the ukactive panel and CEO Huw Edwards, Minton continued: “The fitness industry doesn’t need a Tom, Dick, Harry or Huw, it needs a Greta. 

“Think of the change Greta Thunberg has had on climate and the environment in one year. Fitness needs a Greta to do exactly the same. 

“It’s only once you’re aware of the fragility of your surroundings that you realise the fragility of your own life. There’s no Planet B and there’s no Body B. We could create exactly the same public interest in our own health if we just had a Greta.” 

In response to these statements, Edwards said: “Our message about the urgency of this issue and the growth of the sector is clear for all to see and we referenced the incredible benchmark set by the climate movement at our National Summit in October. 

“For now, I’m a long way from being on the front cover of Time magazine – as Greta rightly deserves to be – but I do strive to walk to as many meetings at Westminster as possible!”

Friday 13th: time for action
Whatever the outcome on Friday 13th December, Huw Edwards insists ukactive will continue to push for governmental support of the fitness and wellness sector. 

He said: “We have a number of policies ready for the new government and we will contact the new ministers as soon as they are announced, about how gyms and fitness providers can play a greater role in the prevention agenda, how to transform workplace wellbeing, and how to make it easier for leisure operators to open on our high streets. 

“Regardless of what has or has not been written in party manifestos, the crucial thing is the action taken from day one and when members of the new government meet us.” 

Welltodo 2020 Consumer Wellness Trends Report

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