Alan White's Olympic diary: The Olympic legacy is too diverse to work under a single political ideology

Listen to the people who know about sport, not the politicians or the journalists.

Let’s talk legacy. What happens when the circus leaves town? Today the Guardian reports that the sale of 21 school playing fields has been approved by the coalition. You’ll forgive a rueful sigh on the part of your correspondent, but it’s for different reasons than you might imagine.

You see, many years ago, a young freelancer called Alan White wrote a story for the Guardian about the creation of new playing fields under Labour. He didn’t get the byline to himself, though he bloody well should have, and it took six months to get paid, but he was in the national press - yay! (Being a twenty-something journalist in a nutshell, there).

He’d landed this story because the press officers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had heard about some research he was doing for a postgraduate course. They offered him an interview with the then-sports minister, Richard Caborn, if he could break their bit of good news.

Alan got his story published, but things didn’t run to plan for the DCMS. A charity called the National Playing Fields Association, which was in the midst of a needlessly vitriolic war with the department, got wind of Alan’s story, and fed the Telegraph a front page splash about how 10,000 fields had been sold between 1979 and 1997. It ran the day before Alan’s story, and as you can imagine this rather took the gloss off the news that 72 new ones had been created.

Now this 10,000 figure (still cited all over the place; even in today’s Guardian piece) appeared to be the result of a methodology slightly less meticulous than that deployed at 10.58pm last Friday, when I dropped my change on the floor and begged the barman to accept I probably had enough down there for a pint. But we’re talking petty political power struggles here, not facts, so let’s soldier on.

The other problem was that Alan decided to sell the Guardian a full transcript of the interview. The Guardian published it online, but the DCMS created such a fuss that they ended up taking it down. They didn’t like the fact I’d actually done my homework beforehand. You’d think the Guardian wouldn’t be scared of the department that deals with all the stuff no one in politics cares about, but these were the days of Malcolm Tucker, for real.

Well screw you, DCMS press staff of 2005: I’ve put it up on my site. Now THAT’s sticking it to the man, even if it is seven years too late. I’ll save you the trouble of reading this incredibly dull interview, but here are some lessons you could draw from reading between the lines.

1. Nobody knows anything. Especially politicians, and certainly not journalists.

Despite all the headlines about them, no one at the time had a clue how many playing fields there were in Britain and whether or not there was a surplus or a shortage. Vague estimates could be made about how many had been sold (but not created), so was it a problem – and if so where? No one knew. An audit of sorts was ongoing: as a result Active Places now lists 50,000 different sporting sites. But now we have it, how useful is the information? Well, as you’ll see, it’s not just a question of numbers.

2. What’s new?

Labour did improve things. As I type this I see Andy Burnham MP (of whom more in a second) is tweeting about the 1998 Act that slowed school sales, and which was updated in 2004.

The sale of school fields is now governed by this strict Labour legislation, which says that the sports needs of schools must continue to be met, there must be clear evidence all other sources of funding have been exhausted, and the money must be reinvested in sport. Now if Gove’s somehow got round these guidelines and allowed the sale of fields that are genuinely needed, let’s give him a kicking. Believe me, I’ll be first in the queue, wearing my Tory-arse-seeking winkle pickers. But the Guardian story gives no evidence for this – and wouldn’t we have heard more from the communities involved?

3. Quality, not quantity, is what matters, dear boy.

What’s more likely is that the fields which have been sold are surplus to requirements. This was the key issue back in 2005 when the young (and, for the record, very likeable) Mr Burnham told me: “It would have been wrong to pass legislation which banned the selling of playing fields entirely, because that would have meant it was impossible to facilitate the development of sporting facilities...In some communities there’s a definite need for more space, but the issue is increasingly more about quality than availability.”  You can see on my site it was considered the priority by Caborn, too.

Things haven’t changed: if you’re a kid, do you want to play footy on your local club’s pitch, or on the shrub land round the back of the sports hall where a tramp’s just defecated on the half-way line? Assuming your school has a sensible deal with the local council/club, it’s a no-brainer. And – as with at least one of the sites mentioned by the Guardian or as with Leigh Sports Village, a constituency project that Burnham cited to me – the sale can mean it’s going to be turned into a better sporting facility for the community as a whole (one of the directions towards which current legislation attempts to drive schools and local authorities).

There’s a crucial lesson about the Olympic legacy here, which is that it’s too diverse a thing to work under the umbrella of a single political ideology. By all means rage at Tory cuts, say: but remember that the legacy will be delivered by local coaches who care about sport and the kids with whom they work. They’re the ones who know what the real threats to sport in their community are – what impact the scrapping of school sports partnerships (this really IS a huge deal, in my view) will have, whether there actually is an issue with provision of pitches, and so on.

Each will have a different set of challenges, and ideas to tackle them. And you’d be amazed how much impact a well-directed initiative can have – I choose this little tale as an example purely because I know the guy who runs it, but there are so many out there.

If you care about legacy, listen to and support the people in your community who really care about sport; not the ill-informed guff belched out by the political opportunists, be they in the lobby, the House of Commons, or some comedian on Twitter.

Odds and Ends

Meanwhile in Germany...a rower’s right wing boyfriend is the focus.

Stephen Feck messes up his dive, and it looks Fecking painful.

Usain Bolt, being great for a change.

Smashing analysis of the 100m dash.

Ah, the brownie defence.

So the obsession takes hold: another Olympics piece on thighs.

The first dunk in women’s basketball (via @alexhern).

 

School boys on a playing field in the village of Thurgaton, Nottinghamshire. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.