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Opinion: Peter Fitzboydon, London Sport chief executive on the County Sport Partnerships review

Do County Sports Partnerships still have a role to play in grassroots sport provision? ‘Yes’ says London Sport CEO Peter Fitzboydon, although they shouldn’t be responsible for the direct delivery of sport

Published in Sports Management 16 May 2016 issue 120
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Peter Fitzboydon
Peter Fitzboydon

From a personal perspective, I’m new to the County Sports Partnership (CSP) world, having been appointed as London Sport’s first chief executive around 18 months ago following the merger of London’s five CSPs.

This gave us the opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper, with increased scale and political backing, allowing us to think bigger and better than before.

The ongoing appraisal of County Sports Partnerships presents the same blank sheet opportunity, with the potential prize of CSPs forging an impactful and valued remit in the new sporting world.

For that reason, the appraisal may have been better served by asking two slightly different (but connected) questions: what is needed by physical activity and sport at a local level; and how should CSPs be changed – if at all – to fit this remit? After all, form should follow function.

CSPs: the same title across the country, but very different animals. Therein lie strength and weakness. Indeed, the difference in scale and ambition in London means we don’t describe ourselves as a CSP.

This is not to malign the work done in other areas, but is a recognition that our merger created a different organisation with a different role. Adapting to local need is a vital pre-requisite for any CSP, but the resultant inconsistency and inability to speak about them in the same language limits the understanding of our potential.

I believe the local need is for better strategic coordination of the organisations delivering physical activity and sport.

For me, this precludes CSPs from being involved with direct delivery, as it’s difficult to give strategic leadership to organisations who perceive you as their competitor. The shift towards a more uniform strategic level nationally must be met with greater flexibility when it comes to the use of investment and – accordingly – more accountability for results.

The elephant in the room is around driving efficiencies in the network, which inevitably hints at consolidation. This is where I would emphasise the need for caution.

London Sport merged five organisations into one. While the results have been nothing short of great – immediately around £500k more into the ‘system’ each year through savings and increased investment, with increased range and quality of services on offer – the process did not happen without pain. Even more challenging was the stagnation in improvements while the feasibility of the merger was conducted and carried out.

This was undoubtedly the right solution for London, and Sport England showed admirable vision, leadership and determination, along with the Mayor of London’s team, to make it happen. But given the need to show immediate progress against the new government and Sport England strategies, full mergers may need to be off the agenda. Most of the financial savings can be gained by a softer approach. In London Sport’s experience, the efficiency savings were at the top and bottom of the organisation – through shared senior management and support services – the benefit of the formal merger was more around neatness and streamlined governance.

So, what’s the answer? Form should follow function, and in my book, for the new national strategies to be successful, there needs to be a network of local bodies making sure organisations – from different sectors – work together effectively.

Can CSPs fulfil this role effectively? Categorically yes, they can.

The perfect ingredients are all there with exceptional local knowledge, connections and experience. The missing ingredient is more ‘common DNA’ with a clear and consistent purpose across the country, increased accountability and flexibility on how to achieve it in each area. This would no doubt mean change in some areas, but as we’ve experienced in London, sometimes, change is good.

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