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Youth sport waits for the windfall to drop

The fight for spoils from the New Opportunities Fund is getting fierce. Ministers will soon decide who wins a share of the pound;87m - sports projects or more general youth schemes designed to combat youth crime. David Henderson reports

Entrepreneur Richard Branson did not win the lottery. School and youth sport in Scotland should. But key battles within the Scottish Executive and Westminster over the coming weeks will determine the winners and losers from the division of the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) windfall, announced last November by Sam Galbraith, the environment, sport and culture minister.

An impressive pound;87 million, plus pound;6 million for outdoor education, will be available from September for targeted schemes over the next three years. The figures dwarf previous sums.

With only days left to submit views on the consultation paper, the fight for the spoils is hotting up. But the document itself has been described by Hilary Campbell, depute director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, as "one of the worst ever". Control should be handed to Holyrood, she says.

Mr Galbraith, in his statement to Parliament, steered a modest devolutionary course, tweaking the NOF priorities towards Scottish priorities of social inclusion, masked as fighting youth crime. Schemes, he suggested, would encourage the improvement of school sports facilities that could be used by the community, while sports initiatives could be deployed against youth crime. The outdoor education fund should fulfil similar aims.

The driving force is the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who personally changed the nation's priorities four months ago when he announced that pound;750 million of the NOF money would be targeted at school and youth sport. Britain's standing in sport had to be improved through the third tranche of NOF cash since the launch of the fund by Labour in 1998.

Scotland does proportionately well from the fund with an 11.5 per cent share, equivalent to pound;87 million. Mr Galbraith does not want to bite the generous UK hand that feeds his initiatives, nor court further unpopularity by departing from the PM's fancies. But the Executive has yet to be persuaded how to use the cash.

Government insiders are believed to point two ways. One lobby argues for substantial funds for specific programmes for young people on the margins, not exclusively sport. The second is to create sports opportunities as a diversionary tactic, enticing teenagers into alternatives to car theft, vandalism and drugs. It is the long-term prevention strategy, drawing on young people's interest in sports, such as football.

Scottish ministers have yet to decide but will consult counterparts south of the border and the NOF admiistration in London after sifting through the consultation responses.

The Scottish Schoolsport Federation maintains funds must go to revenue projects or people if there is to be lasting impact. Local projects essentially need pump-priming. Any developments have to dovetail with existing school sports opportunities, it insists.

A counter-argument is that Scotland still lags woefully behind in facilities, as a forthcoming audit by Sportscotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is certain to show. But capital projects would swallow up the cash with perhaps no effect on disadvantaged young people.

In England, there is more emphasis on refurbishing facilities and new starts. Here, we may turn to the promotion of clubs, coaching skills and local leadership targeted at areas of deprivation.

So where do schools fit in? Ministers and local authorities believe they are natural homes for extended community activity with sports lottery funding already expanding joint-use facilities across the country. Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow last month opened its pound;4 million sports centre.

Payments to schools for longer opening hours, tied in to club development, could be one approach. Young people are more likely to join in if venues are close to home.

How far local authorities can act as co-ordinators of activity, involving, for example, primaries, secondaries and youth groups, is uncertain from existing guidelines. But it is something they want clarified quickly since they now plan on three-year cycles.

Winning the lottery will present its own challenges.

l Sports clubs in Denmark have created a new social policy, Morton Ubbesson, a local authority sports and youth specialist from Aalborg, told a seminar in Livingston last month.

Young people have to be involved when youth subcultures are gaining in strength, he advised. "There is a growing population of young people who have the self-esteem to say what they can and cannot do. You have to be more youth centred."

Mr Ubbesson is employed by his city council to link sport with strategies to counter anti-social behaviour. Clubs in Denmark have a stronger and wider base, with 84 per cent of 14 to 17-year-olds involved with at least one sports, youth or hobby club.

Preventing youth crime means concentrating on social aspects from an early age. "If you get young people into clubs at six, seven or eight, it's going to be more sustainable and viable," he suggested.

Danish schools take students out five times a year to local clubs to encourage them to sign up. "Schools could be one of the breeding grounds for clubs," Mr Ubbesson said. Their voluntary and all-age base proved attractive to young people.

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