Encouraging physical activity

Council spends money in a variety of ways to encourage physical activity, which has benefits for physical and mental health, both as individuals and as a community. In this article we examine expenditure on recreation services, and compare it against expenditure on walking and cycling.

Item 8.3 on the council agenda

Item 8.3 on the agenda for the council meeting on 30th March 2021 considers policies and fees for sportsgrounds and facilities. Council spends ~ $740k on sportsgrounds and recovers ~ $17k (figures from 2019). This means that other ratepayers are carrying the other $723k of costs. For a council expenditure of $723k we receive a social benefit of encouraging physical activity for children and adults, which has benefits for physical and mental health, both as individuals and as a community.

Image credit: City of Yarra agenda for 30th March 2021

The officer report points out that existing policies and fees:

  • Don’t align with Council’s values including inclusion, diversity and accessibility
  • Don’t align with State Sporting Associations’ frameworks
  • Don’t align with Yarra’s adopted Pricing Policy 2019
  • Don’t address industry norms around cost recovery and stewardship
  • Recover an average of 2% of costs, thus other ratepayers have to carry 98% of the costs

The officer report recommends:

  • Adopting a policy that motivates clubs to adopt best practice
  • Increasing fees to cover an average of 20% of costs, with other ratepayers carrying 80% of the costs
  • Introducing the policy over three years
  • Supporting clubs to transition

Further notes are:

  • Participants are estimated at 8,000 on an annual basis
  • Yarra’s sportsgrounds are nearing capacity
  • Existing rules places a high weighting on historical length of tenure, which can act to lock out new applicants
  • Existing rules don’t explicitly incentivise clubs to actively add activities for people of all ages and abilities
  • Female participation is low at 30% in winter and 12% in summer

Our view

We note the following key points:

  • Physical activity has benefits for physical and mental health
  • Council spends ~ $740k on sportsgrounds and facilities each year
  • Sports clubs have exclusive access to large, highly valuable pieces of land at highly attractive times of the week, for a very low cost, e.g. $30 per hour.
  • The officer report doesn’t discuss other possible uses for the land, e.g. building social or affordable housing, or converting sportsgrounds to wooded parklands, which could reduce or eliminate ongoing costs; instead the discussion is focussed only on how the costs should be divvied up, i.e. shared between users (club members) and ratepayers.
  • The officer report doesn’t discuss subsidies or support for other sports or physical activities, e.g. squash, dancing, or the gym, which would also deliver physical and mental health benefits for individuals and the community. Why should one type of physical activity be heavily supported, but not another type?
  • Council only has so much money – the issue isn’t whether a particular use is “good”, the issue is how to divide up the money between many competing “good” uses.
  • Other leisure services that relate to physical activity, e.g. casual access to a council swimming pool, have much higher rates of cost recovery e.g. > 90% (or lower rates of subsidy, e.g. less than 10%).

Overall, we believe it’s valuable to compare council’s annual expenditure on two types of physical activity that occur on council controlled land:

  • physical activity on sportsgrounds,
  • physical activity on footpaths and bicycle lanes.

In contrast to the ~ 8,000 people who participate in organised sport each year, Yarra’s footpaths and bicycle lanes attract ~ 80,000 people each day; considering that:

  • most people go outside their home each day, at least using a short section of footpath, and
  • the Super Tuesday count of people cycling in Yarra recorded 25,000 movements on one day in 2020.
Count of people cycling Yarra on Super Tuesday 2020. Image credit: Bicycle Network.

In terms of physical activity (with its associated benefits for physical and mental health) per dollar invested, expenditure would deliver better value if it was directed at the vastly more people who engage in walking and cycling as part of their daily lives. Small improvements in infrastructure would incentivise many more people to obtain their “30 minutes of activity” each day, for example by walking to the shops or riding to work, compared with organised sport on sportsgrounds.

In other words, consider the reverse of the existing situation – if the recovery rate was already 20%, the evidence would not support the recovery rate being dropped to 2% – as there would be better uses for the money. On this basis, we support the officer recommendation. In addition, we urge councillors, anytime money does become available in the budget, to consider the comparative benefits of investment in walking and cycling.

Published 30th March 2021