Whether it’s football, rugby league, boxing, cricket, or any other sport, sports are an important part of the lives of so many of us here in Bradford, and for good reason.
They are one of society’s great levellers, bringing together people from all backgrounds and all communities, uniting them under a common identity that is shared throughout the good times as well as the bad, and the thought of a match on a Friday night, a Saturday afternoon, or over a long summer weekend when we can leave everything else behind and immerse ourselves in the moment is something that millions across the country look forward to.
Yet whilst they are a delight to watch, sports are also a pleasure to play, and the best thing about so many of them is that they are something which almost everyone can get involved in. You don’t need to pay a fortune for a fancy high-end gym, and you don’t have to play in a cutting-edge stadium. All you need is a pitch and a pair of jumpers, or a set of wickets spray-painted onto a brick wall.
However, whilst we can play many sports on a shoestring, it does not take away from the fact that better facilities nevertheless ultimately mean better rates of participation and greater enjoyment. It may be possible to practice playing cricket against a wall with a second-hand bat, but it doesn’t compare to using a set of professional nets, and whilst you can play football with jumpers and cones, it doesn’t replicate the feeling of slotting the ball into the top corner or having it bounce off of the woodwork.
The last 13 years of government cuts and underfunding for local authorities, sporting bodies and local grassroots clubs have therefore been devastating because they’ve meant countless clubs serving local, amateur players and young people have been lost, and the facilities that they maintain have often sadly gone with them. With that has been a decline in the number of people playing sport and the number of people staying active, and whilst I want to pay tribute to those amazing volunteers that have kept some of Bradford’s grassroots clubs open through their tenacity and sheer determination, we shouldn’t have to be relying solely on the goodwill of volunteers. Sport is a national priority with national benefits, and it should have national support worthy of that.
As a country that produces players who play at some of the world’s biggest and most successful sports clubs, and as a country that regularly finishes towards the top of the medal rankings during the Olympics, this neglect of our grassroots will be devastating for the UK as a sporting country, and for Bradford as a keen sporting city. After all, it’s our grassroots where our sporting stars of today started their journeys, and where the sporting stars of tomorrow will be starting theirs. Without the facilities to get them interested in the first place, let alone to train them and hone their skills, we’re going to be missing out on an awful lot of potential.
Increasing participation in sports at the grassroots level also has benefits beyond training and inspiring the next generation of sporting stars. Done right, grassroots sports have the potential to instil discipline, strengthen bonds between people, and improve our fitness. Regular physical activity has been proven again and again to reduce the risk of so many health conditions that are contributing to the growing health inequalities that we face in Bradford, which see people living shorter lives compared to more affluent areas of the country and suffering from a greater prevalence of preventable diseases. Greater investment in grassroots sports to get more people involved therefore shouldn’t just be the backbone of our sporting strategy, but of our healthcare strategy too.
With a key role in tackling the health inequalities that we face, grassroots sports also cannot be overlooked by the Government if they want to remain committed to a strategy of levelling up left-behind areas of the country. As I’ve repeatedly made clear to Ministers, a healthier population leads to a happier and more productive population, and what prevents us from making progress in overcoming some of the challenges that we face, including around economic productivity and educational attainment, are barriers that ultimately go back to poor healthcare and stark health inequalities, as well as a more than a decade of austerity policies.
I’ve therefore been relentlessly campaigning over recent months for more investment in grassroots sports here in Bradford, from pressing the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in Parliament, to welcoming the Minister for Sport to Bradford to show him some of the fantastic work that our grassroots clubs do for people across the District, to meeting with the England and Wales Cricket Board to press them to support the many grassroots cricket pitches across Bradford.
Out grassroots spors are too important to be left to decline, and with the UK City of Culture celebrations in Bradford not too far away in 2025, it’s time for the Government to step up and deliver the grassroots facilities and support for clubs that we need and deserve.