Health and happiness: Why Sport should be a long-term priority for the Scottish Government


Callum Macdonald, as part of research work for Common Weal’s soon to be published book of ideas, makes the case for increased funding for Sport in Scotland, outlining a series of policy recommendations based on the idea that the long-term benefits of a healthier and happier population engaging in physical activity out weigh short-term costs


– Scottish Government should adopt a preventative spending approach to the nation’s heath which emphasises the role of sport in this, and commit a greater proportion of its GDP to reap long-term benefits

– Facilities must be free or cheap to access – in some communities locals are being priced out of using new Community Sports Hubs in their areas

– Diversification of the PE curriculum and at least 3 hours p/week, in line with other European countries

– Greater funding for women’s sport, particularly growing sports such as football – crucial to help redress gender imbalance in sport and physical activity

– Introduce legislation to stop playing fields being sold to private housing developers

The Scottish Government is clear that it wants to increase the level of sport and physical activity in Scotland, but the the rhetoric must be followed-up with bold action.

Promoting more active lifestyles across Scotland is one of the key targets for Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government as a legacy of the Commonwealth Games. Both acknowledge the “white elephant” risk of major sporting events – the weight of evidence shows no automatic effect on sporting or physical activity among the general public. Their focus (Legacy Report, 2015) is therefore on using the Games as a “catalyst” for enhancing greater sport and physical activity among Scots.

To make this a reality the Scottish Government must move funding on sport further up its agenda. The Scottish Government’s planned spend for 2015/16 on Sport is PS60m, with over PS12bn being spent on primary healthcare and out of a total budget spend of PS35.9bn, a far smaller percentage spent on Sport than most European countries.

Physical inactivity results in around 2,500 premature deaths in Scotland each year (7 a day), costs the NHS around PS91 million annually and is the second biggest cause of mortality (joint with smoking, behind high blood pressure).

“The Scottish Government must therefore think about sport as a preventative spending measure on the nation’s health.”

One report into the potential benefits of increased physical activity said : “It is estimated that increasing physical activity levels by 1 per cent each year for five years would save 157 lives per year, with a positive economic impact of PS85million; while reports specify that the cost of physical inactivity to the NHS in Scotland was PS94.1 million in 2010-11.” (Foster, Allender, 2012)

The Scottish Government must therefore think about sport as a preventative spending measure on the nation’s health – reducing the burden on NHS Scotland in the years to come, reducing crime, and contributing to greater happiness and wellbeing.

Sport can have great benefits for our collective as well as individual wellbeing. It helps foster more cohesive communities, active and engaged in community.

The introduction of 142 operational Community Sports Hubs as part of the Commonwealth Games legacy is welcome. However, while early research indicates some increased participation, there is less evidence of wider community engagement beyond the existing “club” environment (Legacy Report, 2015).

The Scottish Government needs to focus on increasing physical activity in economically poorer and marginalised communities.

One way to do this is through land reform: stop selling off playing fields to private housing developers. Power should reside with communities in determining how that land is used.

“One way to do this is through land reform: stop selling off playing fields to private housing developers.”

There should be free or cheap access to facilities, and it must be coupled with outreach and awareness-raising campaigns to engage local communities. The fact that more than half of the Hubs are based in schools provides an opportunity for pupils and their families to learn about the range of possible activities open to them.

It should be accompanied by diversification of the PE curriculum to encourage enhanced participation among young people, particularly girls. Boys and girls are equally active until age 8, but boys twice as active by age 14-15.

The NHS recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day for young people. Two hours a week PE does not do enough to help meet this, and lags behind other European countries. In France, for example, under-16s receive up to 4 hours per week physical education (Eurydyce, 2015).

“Women’s football is the fastest-growing national and global sport, yet funding for Scotland women’s football team is paltry.”

Women’s football is the fastest-growing national and global sport, yet funding for Scotland women’s football team is paltry. The PS200,000 awarded by the Scottish Government to the women’s national team was described as a “game-changer” by Scotland’s manager. More substantial funding for our professional female athletes, in tandem with greater commitment to resource the grassroots, could have a transformative effect on the physical activity levels of girls and women.

Greater public funding should also be focused on helping to facilitate existing initiatives and organisations which have had a positive effect. The Homeless World Cup, whose HQ is in Scotland, has had a life-changing impact on the vast majority of its participants – but really struggles for funding. Another fantastic model, but in a precarious position, is United Glasgow, a men and women’s football team set up primarily for asylum seekers and refugees in the city, but more broadly focused on the principles of anti-discrimination and financial inclusion.

The amendments in the Community Empowerment Bill giving supporters’ trusts “first refusal” when a club comes up for sale are welcome. The Scottish Parliament/Government should use this as a catalyst to adopt a more hands-on relationship with Scotland’s most popular sport, to help it to match its potential as a source of health and wellbeing.

Picture courtesy of Common Weal