Sporting chances

13 Dec 12
Investing public money in major sports events has many benefits for the wider community, town hall chiefs agreed at a PF/Northern Trust Scottish dinner debate
By Keith Aitken in Glasgow  | 13 December 2012

Investing public money in major sports events has many benefits for the wider community, town hall chiefs agreed at a PF/Northern Trust Scottish dinner debate

Scottish dinner debate

Investing scarce public resources in major sports events is justifiable to boost regeneration and improve wellbeing, local government finance directors and chief executives agreed at a lively Public Finance dinner debate in Glasgow.

The Question Time-style debate, sponsored by Northern Trust and chaired by PF editor Mike Thatcher, considered the fact that Scotland is hosting the British Open in 2013 and the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games in 2014. Asked whether it was right to spend public money on such events at a time of financial austerity, the attendees overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’, with 23 votes for and just 3 against.

They had been convinced by a distinguished panel of four speakers, who argued that sports investment could pay rich legacy dividends in terms of better public health, social cohesion and economic regeneration. But they also cautioned that careful planning and forethought were needed to secure the legacy, ensure the widest possible involvement, and overcome short-term adverse displacement effects.

There was broad agreement that Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games preparations were approaching these issues the right way.

‘What we’re trying to do is to be inclusive,’ said David Grevemberg, chief executive of Glasgow 2014, the Commonwealth Games organisers. ‘Exclusivity comes with enforcement, inclusivity with engagement.’

He told the audience that although the Games alone could not fix problems of deprivation, ‘it’s a great way to start having the conversation’.

Grevemberg was joined on the panel by equally authoritative speakers: Dr Bridget McConnell, chief executive of Glasgow’s City Council’s culture agency, Glasgow Life; Elma Murray, chief executive of North Ayrshire Council and chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers; and ex-auditor general Bob Black.

Kicking off the questions to the panel, Keith O’Donnell, head of financial services at Fife Council, asked how the legacy could be measured. McConnell said there was a lot of research on the tangible benefits of such events, and that the Scottish Government had set clear targets. There were also intangible benefits, she said, in lifting community ambitions and morale.

But she warned that the disruption of major events in some cities had temporarily deterred other visitors.

Murray pointed to the Scotland-wide strategy to invest in sport facilities. Black thought there would be less public legacy from the Ryder Cup, but said Audit Scotland had judged the Commonwealth Games preparations ‘world-class’.

James Gray, finance executive manager for Shetland Islands Council,  asked whether successful events being held in Glasgow would raise expectations ‘unreasonably’ in other parts of Scotland.

Grevemberg replied that it was a great opportunity for Scotland as a whole to raise its international profile, as well as encouraging more people to take part in sport. But he also thought it important to manage expectations.

Murray thought expectations were already high but not all of it was a result of the Commonwealth Games. Some of it was fuelled by the need to change ‘our dreadful health record in Scotland’.

Both Murray and Black stressed the importance of broadening engagement beyond those interested in taking part in sport. Black saw it as an investment in Scotland’s communities.

McConnell said bluntly: ‘I hope expectations are unreasonable. We want people to want more – our job is to respond to their ambitions.’  

She added that there was funding to support cultural events across Scotland linked to the Queen’s Baton relay, which takes place across the Commonwealth countries ahead of the Games. The first £4m was available now.

But Marjory Stewart, director of corporate services at Dundee City Council, asked what could be done to involve private entrepreneurs more and ensure investment wasn’t left solely to the public sector.

Murray said the answer lay in civic leadership, and she saw an opportunity to improve Scotland’s problematical public-private sector relationships.   

Gary Fairley, head of finance and human resources at Midlothian Council, wondered how well sporting and cultural investment fitted with the Scottish Government’s definition of – and desire for – preventative spending.

Black said: ‘For me, all public spending should be committed with an emphasis on doing as much as possible to bend it towards preventative spending, because the public finances are going to be so difficult over the foreseeable future.’ He contrasted this mind set with the current commitment to free services such as concessionary travel.

McConnell said physical inactivity cost Glasgow an extra £36m annually in health and community services, and that programmes to encourage more active lives saved the NHS £26m. Further costs arose from a ‘dependency culture’ that discouraged people from taking charge of their own lives.

Grevemberg suggested that major events replaced people’s anxieties with ambition: ‘When you have a communal approach to sport and culture, it does reinforce the values of the community.’ This in turn brought knock-on benefits, such as encouraging greater innovation.

But Glasgow City Council chief executive George Black injected a note of scepticism. He challenged the panel to specify what they would cut to fund more preventative spend: ‘It’s easy for us all to agree that preventative expenditure is what we want to achieve,’ he said. ‘Where the disagreement arises is what we’re going to reduce to make room for it.’

Bob Black replied that he would cut universal free services, while Murray thought preventative spend could generate savings in prison costs, McConnell in health spending and Grevemberg in transport subsidies.

Ian Lorimer, head of finance at Angus Council, raised the core issue of whether it was justifiable to spend taxpayers’ money on prestigious sports events at a time of austerity. The panel seemed in little doubt.

‘All societies and communities need a sense of vision and of coming together, and I think events like this really do matter,’ said Bob Black.

McConnell suggested it was important to build these events into local and national strategy, and to encourage collaboration between local authorities in different parts of the country. ‘I think we may be moving towards real partnership working,’ she said.

Grevemberg stressed the need for ‘the right consciousness’ and to plan beyond the lifespan of the organising bodies, while Murray pointed to the legacy of the Paralympics. ‘It’s quite a leveller, sport and culture,’ she said. ‘People look at each other in different ways.’

Sandra Black, director of finance and corporate services at Renfrewshire Council, noted that many of the bolder plans were laid pre-austerity. But Murray argued that austerity made it all the more important for people to have something to look forward to. Grevemberg said such events made their own contribution to regeneration, investment and reputational enhancement – a view echoed by Bob Black, who contrasted the Games investment with ineffective old-style regeneration projects.  

McConnell said the evidence was that politicians could be persuaded to back big events, even in a tougher financial climate, because they could see the demonstrable benefits.


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