A sporting chance for all

Gavin Corbett welcomes commitment to improve the condition of sports pitches in the capital but argues that more needs done to increase pitch availability and address costs.

There is nothing quite like a December Sunday morning pitch-side in Gorebridge, as the wind drives in from the north-east, to sharpen the appreciation of the countless hours of voluntary effort which makes club sport happen.

As parent to a son involved in club football, like thousands of others, I have done my share of goalpost lifting, net-arranging and first aid training. I have seen the range of pitches in Edinburgh and the south east of Scotland, from the sleek to the more, well, agricultural.

That is why I have personally welcomed the Evening News’ Sporting Chance campaign to push for sports facilities to match the ambition of our teams and players. We have a real success story to tell in many ways – none less so than in my own ward at Meggetland where Boroughmuir Thistle has grown to be the biggest dedicated club for girls’ and women’s football in Scotland. But that success can be soured by too many examples of uncut grass, uncollected clippings or poorly-lined pitches.

There is a lot to build on, of course. Council staff, Edinburgh Leisure and the clubs themselves do a huge amount of good work to co-ordinate thousands of individual arrangements for training and matches through all that the Scottish seasons throw at them. Staff are as frustrated as volunteers when equipment is not up to the job or simply not available because it is stuck in repair shop again.

That is why Green councillors put forward a budget proposal 18 months ago for a fund to invest in pitch maintenance equipment. It is also why, at council budget time, we have consistently sought to protect Edinburgh Leisure budgets from the scale of cuts being proposed. And why my colleague Alex Staniforth led from the front in 2018 when charges at PPP schools in Edinburgh threatened to reduce use by clubs involved in basketball, volleyball and other indoor sports.

However, the condition of pitches is only one issue. As anyone involved in club sport will tell you, access to training space is fraught. This is especially so from about now through to next spring when darkening evenings mean that pitches without lighting are not available. So availability of space to play and train is at a premium. As a city with a rapidly-growing population and ambitions to growing sporting participation, Edinburgh simply has not kept pace.

Too often it seems that expanding sport facilities is an after-thought in major development plans. As plans are debated, quite rightly, people ask about what it means for schools, health centres, transport capacity. But less frequently about how sports access can be enhanced. That needs to change.

It is also about making better use of what facilities the city already has, from all sources. The city’s four universities and large private school sector have some of the best sporting facilities available. There are some excellent examples of partnerships with sports clubs, where access to those facilities is made available. But there are also examples of where such facilities lie idle while clubs are scrabbling around for training facilities. So, at last week’s meeting of all councillors, Green councillors proposed that there should be further investigation of what more private schools could do to open up access. At a time when the charitable status of private schools understandably raises eyebrows it is surely the least they could do.

And the last part of the equation is cost. Investment in 3G and 4G pitches is fantastic, especially in wet weather, but only if the capital cost does not lead to hiked prices which rule out their use by clubs or teams without the means to pay. Everyone should have access to good quality sports facilities.

Getting it right on condition, access and pricing are all part of giving Edinburgh a sporting chance.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 23 September 2019