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Opinion: England’s Lionesses inspire youngsters – but are there enough grassroots opportunities amid government cuts?

There will be no open-top bus parade for England’s Lionesses; and, as things stand, no Downing Street reception.

Such is the nature of sport and what makes it so compelling: the brutal fact that there will always be winners and losers.

Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics
Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics

The England team came agonisingly close to World Cup glory only to see their valiant efforts fall short.

And at least we were spared the torture of a penalty shoot out, the football equivalent of the village fete ‘lucky dip.’

The debate has, inevitably, moved to the legacy that England’s run to the final will create.

No one can dispute that the team’s success is already having a positive impact on grassroots football and participation levels, with councils often the levers behind new opportunities for girls to try out the beautiful game.

But those councils that see the value of widening opportunities do so against a financial backdrop in which they have seen cuts and yet more cuts to sports development budgets.

Why? Sports development is something councils don’t have to provide or fund - it is a discretionary service, one that they can choose to contribute to. Most do, but at a time of massive pressures on other services, like burgeoning demand for care for vulnerable adults.

Despite the volatile economy, local authorities have also, to date, been the biggest public sector investor in sport and leisure, traditionally investing more than £1bn per year.

The Lionesses, England's women's football team, have won the hearts of the country
The Lionesses, England's women's football team, have won the hearts of the country

For all the talk of legacy, the government cannot claim it is being generous - the Whitehall scythe is cutting funding for projects up and down the country.

Dozens of swimming pools remain shut, the victims of higher energy prices and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and with no timetable for when - or indeed if – they will reopen.

The Treasury belatedly recognised the difficulties some councils were facing and set up a £63million fund designed to help reopen swimming pools.

Council leaders were underwhelmed, saying the money would not stretch that far to keep them open. The doors remain closed on many and there is a sense the longer they do, the more likely it is that permanent closure is on the cards.

The legacy of the government’s penny pinching approach to funding is looking far from generous.

Of course, no one wants to see grassroots schemes become a victim but by digging their heels in, the government is giving its opponents an open goal to shoot at.

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