A project that gets children playing sport on Saturday nights has had a dramatic impact on crime and is saving taxpayers millions of pounds.
At a time of severe budget cuts throughout Scotland, North Lanarkshire's Saturday Sportscene is showing the impressive returns possible if pursestring-holders keep faith with youth projects.
The scheme, which runs in five North Lanarkshire sports centres, started in Shotts in 2006 and concentrates on areas with the highest levels of anti-social behaviour.
Eddie Dollochin, sports development and inclusion manager of North Lanarkshire Leisure, explained that the town's sports centre used to close at 6pm and buses would stop at around the same time.
The area was a hotspot for youth crime at weekends. He recalled that when he first met police at the centre to discuss the new project, fighting broke out and "100 kids were battling away".
Within two weeks, however, tickets for Sportscene had to be handed out to keep numbers manageable.
Since then, the project for youngsters aged 10 to 17 - which runs all year, bar a fortnight around Christmas, and is free to all participants - has expanded to Bellshill, Wishaw, Airdrie and Cumbernauld.
There are 1,300 children who attend regularly, and many more registered who go less frequently.
An independent report, examining the impact of sports and leisure projects in North Lanarkshire, found that pound;10 million investment had led to pound;41 million in economic benefit, mostly through savings to the NHS and wider economy.
In one area, Sportscene was credited with reducing crime by about a third; in another, it had resulted in 10 fewer fire brigade callouts a week. Mr Dollochin said that annual funding of around pound;230,000 had remained fully intact, despite budgetary pressures, because its benefits were so clear.
Inspector Stewart Hurry of Strathclyde Police said the results "demonstrate that young people respond very well when they are positively challenged to be active". Craig Cook, an area commander with Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, highlighted a large reduction in callouts to wheelie-bin fires - which cost a four-figure sum - in areas where Sportscene takes place.
The report was carried out by accountants and business advisers Baker Tilly. Its head of charities advisory UK, Jim Clifford, said the results showed the importance of "third-sector" organisations.
"Without quantifying the benefits in financial terms, it is easy to overlook how far-reaching and wide-ranging the impacts are for local communities of organisations like North Lanarkshire Leisure," he added.
Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, said: "Initiatives like this one are vital for communities across Scotland. The social, as well as the economic, value generated by this kind of project is clear for all to see, with falling crime rates and savings for the public purse.
"In these straitened times, North Lanarkshire should act as an example to other local authorities across the country, demonstrating that investment in this sort of preventative service in the short term can yield positive results into the future."
North Lanarkshire Leisure is a charity formed by its parent council in 2006. It receives around pound;10 million annual public funding as part of pound;25 million turnover, providing services and running 17 sports centres. Sportscene featured at a conference preceding this week's International Children's Games 2011, in Lanarkshire.
Other programmes highlighted in the report:
- Free swimming for primary-age children during school holidays, which led to 100,000 free sessions in 2009;
- Free entry to children living near certain sports centres;
- People at risk from health problems as a result of family history or lifestyle referred for eight free sessions with a personal trainer, followed by reduced-rate leisure membership.