The government's strategy will help make us a sporting nation again

Sport is now the subject of editorials in the NS (28 June), which is evidence of its growing importance. But, while welcoming this attention, I feel you give a misleading picture of the government's vision for sport.

There is a craving in this country for more sporting success, and the government has a responsibility to respond to that. But this is not incompatible with wanting to broaden the base of participation in sport and give all young people a rounded sporting education.

You are right to stress the need for safe places for children to play sport. That is why we have introduced tough new restrictions on the sale of school playing fields and are making Lottery money available for the creation of new green spaces from brownfield sites.

Facilities are important - but so are opportunities to use them. There is no safer environment than school for children to play sport. Part of the challenge is to unlock sports facilities after school and boost extra-curricular sport. This is often a question of human resources and constitutes the gap that the new active schools co-ordinators will fill, supporting, not replacing, the crucial work of PE teachers.

It is by giving children the chance to try the full range of sports that they will find those they enjoy and are good at. This is the best way of encouraging young people to stay active as adults. Our commitment to supporting lifelong participation in sport is also evident in our decision to guarantee Lottery funding for community sports facilities such as swimming pools for at least the next ten years and to introduce legislation to provide a right of access for walkers to open countryside.

Playing sport competitively is an important part of a young person's sporting development. We have asked the new co-ordinators to revive cup and league fixtures between state schools in all sports and also to widen access to qualified coaching, particularly for children in deprived parts of the country.

We have got talent in abundance in this country but are still failing to make the most of it. Until we broaden the base of sporting activity of all kinds, we will not fulfil our potential. And it is by becoming more successful that we will encourage children to get out in the fresh air and emulate their heroes.

Rt Hon Chris Smith MP
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.