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What a loaded question. I was drawn to consider this question in light of the announcement by Sydney Grammar School that they will be building a new $54m sports facility at their Rushcutters Bay Campus. An article in the SMH has investigated the local impact of the facility with the article stating:

“Sydney Grammar School is facing pressure to scale back plans for new sporting facilities with mounting criticism of the multi-million dollar project’s impact on nearby residents. Woollahra councillor Harriet Price said residents adjacent to the school’s proposed Weigall Sports Complex in Rushcutters Bay would be “severely impacted” by the proposal, which she called an “intrusive and bulky development”.”

My intent in writing this article, and posting the SMH article below is not to look at the NIMBY issues (which are valid for those impacted) but rather to unpack the larger issue of over-investment in sport & recreation infrastructure around Australia, especially in our schools, and most especially in our private schools.

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But before I even start to consider the down-side I need to acknowledge that there is a significant upside of school sport. With the World Health Organisation (WHO) reporting that 9 out of 10 Australian youth aren’t doing enough physical activity and that only 3% are doing enough physical activity at all, school sport is playing a critical role in the physical health of our children. Research has shown that a large percentage of Australian children’s only physical activity is undertaken at school. With sport club memberships down to less than 21% of the total population, school sport is playing a more important role in holding “our heads above water’ when it comes to the physical health of our children.

I am sure that arguments will be made that school sporting facilities can be made available for community sport, and therefore are meeting both the needs of children during school hours as well as for general use by community sports clubs and the general community out of hours. I would like to think that this is correct, but it is in fact wrong. I have worked with a number of jurisdictions and levels of government, and all have had an “intent” of community use of school sports facilities, but other than a few individual exceptions, this has proven too difficult for many governments to implement.

The connection between local schools and their communities have always been critical, but as more legislation and legal requirements have been put onto the use of sport facilities, regardless of whose land they sit on, the harder it has become for land managers to allow access. This has resulted in school principles and school managers deciding that it is just too difficult to manage community access, and so chose not to allow it. And having education department or private school policies has not resulted in an effective implementation of those policies on the ground.

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Down-sides. Large sport infrastructure is almost exclusively funded through government grants. To gain these grants feasibility studies are required to justify the project. However, these feasibility studies can often be a biased process, with consultants often developing findings that are outcome focused i.e. if you have a grant then that justifies the project, not the other way around. The concept of using Infrastructure Australia’s BCR ratio to justify recreation projects is nascent. Whilst it may form PART of the planning for the project it needs to be part of a package of considerations. If clients are not undertaking any recreation planning analysis then the tough questions are not being asked in the first place i.e. “Do We Need This Facility”

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Throughout my years in the industry I have seen many projects that have not had rigorous planning applied to them. Therefore, projects often are not considered in regard to catchment, distribution and demographics, all of which play a major role in justifying a project. In the case of school sport infrastructure even less planning, from a recreation planning perspective, is undertaken.

This then brings me to my main argument, “Are schools investing too much money in sports facilities”. It depends what the school’s outcome is. If its purely for the health and societal benefits of the children then you would argue NO, they are not over-investing. Unless of course if there are multiple like facilities being provided within the same catchment. Over-provision can be just as big a problem as under-provision, especially if its a specialist facility, and takes use away from another like facility.

But if the reason for provision is grant driven, or is reputational driven, or is fees driven, then the answer must be a resounding YES, they are over-providing. If you then consider that most school facilities are “locked-up” to the general community and the facilities don’t get used out of hours then they are a wasted asset.

Whether a facility is needed or not there is always the economic benefit that comes from the initial build, the CAPEX. And local contractors always benefit. However, once the facility is built the ongoing costs, the OPEX, need to be worn by the facility manager. This is where the justification, contained within the Feasibility Study and the Business Plan, give a framework for that OPEX expenditure.

As with all projects that are grant funded, or funded by “rich” private schools, there appears to be an arms race developing. Who can have the biggest, the most modern, the best. I have strongly argued for many years that what is required is a regional, tenure “blind” approach to sports infrastructure provision. Most Australian councils have sport and recreation strategy’s, and if a consultant is worth their salt they will take into account the provision of neighbouring councils. But often school facilities are not taken into account, and rightly so, if they are a “locked-up” asset. The answer to this dilemma must come from the top i.e. from state government legislation. A policy setting that requires ALL sports facilities to be available for ALL, and a planning process that provides a framework based on best practice provision needs to be implemented.

Short of getting that kind of government guidance we are going to continue to see improper and unjustified provision, which puts a strain on everyone’s budgets and management practices.

Published By

Neal Ames

Neal Ames

Sport and Recreation Project Manager at GLENORCHY CITY COUNCIL & Member of Parks & Leisure Australia National Advisory