Corby Squash: A Local Campaign but a National Crisis?
By JAMES ROBERTS – Squash Mad Reporter
As reported last week on Squash Mad, Corby fielded its first squash team in over 8 years last Saturday, visiting Brackley Squash Club at the opposite end of Northamptonshire. The event was part of the Corby Squash Campaign, designed to promote the game across the Corby area and eventually lead to the return of courts to the town dubbed the largest in the UK with no squash courts.
The event was a resounding success, but is this Campaign symptomatic of a growing crisis in the sport?
This event trailed the innovative ‘every point counts’ scoring format for team squash, with Brackley emerging victorious, 309 to 299 points, meaning they are now the proud holders of the inaugural ‘Corby Challenge Trophy’.
Squash of course was the overall winner of the event, with everyone really enjoying the experience of the match, including Leader of the House of Commons and MP for South Northants, Andrea Leadsom, who came along as the club’s guest of honour. As is always the case with team squash, it is never just about the squash, and new friendships and bonds were forged.
Despite the success of Saturday’s event, the hard work of the Campaign really is only just starting. Although potential sites for new squash courts have been identified, considerable funding will need to be raised to build them. Corby Borough Council is, like most local authorities, strapped for cash in this era of austerity, as well as facing a plethora of highly deserving and competing funding priorities.
As the founder and leader of the Corby Squash Campaign, I appreciate that this set of local challenges is considerable. The team event held at the weekend serves to provide further confidence in our efforts and demonstrates developing support for our campaign, but we remain mindful that a great deal of perseverance and a long-term effort will be required if we are to achieve our ultimate objective.
However, it is events and situations in other parts of the UK that also make me realise that Corby is not operating in an isolated bubble and that our Campaign is perhaps merely symptomatic of a wider malaise that has been developing in squash over recent years. Corby lost its only courts more than eight years ago, but over recent times it seems that courts are either being lost, or are coming under threat of being lost, at an alarmingly increasing rate.
Mold Leisure Centre in North Wales is a prime example of this. Just this Sunday, the two excellent glass-backed squash courts, described by local players as ‘the best squash courts in the area’, were closed for good, to allow conversion into a gym space.
Another current example is the initiative by a number of David Lloyd Centres to convert some of their squash courts into areas for ‘Blaze’ classes, the latest gym-based fitness fad. At Milton Keynes, for instance, they are losing two out of their four courts as a result, and yet Mike Firth, team Captain, describes their squash section as ‘thriving’, with the team sitting proudly on top of the Bedfordshire League.
This is also reportedly taking place after no or minimal consultation and very little notice. What will now happen to established squash clubs and teams based at affected David Lloyd centres is anybody’s guess, but Mike at Milton Keynes asserts that the activity there is no longer viable with a 50% reduction in court capacity and players will be forced to leave to play elsewhere. David Lloyd are also reportedly doing the same thing at its King’s Hill Centre in Kent, as well as others so we understand.
These are just recent examples of a worrying trend in the fitness and leisure industry that has seen many squash courts lost to alternative uses over the years. The ironic thing is that squash has been demonstrated as the best sport for health, fitness and life-expectancy by a number of studies, including one for Forbes Magazine and an international, multi-university study published just last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
It has long been known that the economics of squash are difficult, given that usually just two people occupy the space for a 40-45 minute session, as opposed to fitness classes where many more people can occupy the same space. That said, squash has many different formats which can involve much larger groups of people simultaneously, such as doubles, group coaching, three-quarter court sessions and the new ‘Squash 101’ group format designed by England Squash.
Squash courts can also act as multi-functional spaces, offering the potential for alternative uses alongside squash, particularly during off peak times. Squash is also incredibly social, with players dwelling at facilities long after their sessions, generating further revenues in the likes of bar areas.
Notwithstanding the economics, surely it is the corporate socially responsible thing to do for organisations such as David Lloyd, as well as other leisure operators, including local authorities, to promote an activity that has been demonstrated to offer such amazing health and social benefits?
The paradox is that squash is seemingly on the cusp of a revival, spearheaded by the excellent PSA (Professional Squash Association) World Tour, which now enjoys much wider media exposure and a growing legion of dedicated fans. The PSA and WSF (World Squash Federation) are also currently working together to finally gain squash’s inclusion into the Olympic family of sports at the Paris 2024 Games, which, if successful, would provide a further massive boost to the exposure of the sport.
Furthermore, there are fantastic examples of local initiatives to develop grass-roots and club squash, such as Off The Wall Squash in the East of England and the amazing work being done at clubs up and down the country, both large and small, such as Pontefract, Brackley and my own club Market Harborough.
Brackley has had to recently introduce a restriction to memberships as it has reached capacity, and is now looking to develop new court facilities on the back of housing and commercial developments planned across the town. These successful programmes of activity show that squash development can take place with the right enthusiasm and support, and where it does, it proves a huge hit with communities and gets people more active and healthy as a result.
However, for squash to be able to develop further and across the whole country, rather than in isolated pockets, it needs a good range of physical facilities to be available in areas that can be easily accessed by a large number of people. Yet we are seeing courts closing, or under threat of closure, with increasing frequency, even where thriving squash communities already exist using these facilities.
Corby Squash therefore cannot just exist in isolation. We need a concerted and coordinated national campaign to both protect the facilities that we already have, and also to promote the development of new facilities in areas where court availability is either difficult or non-existent.
This campaign needs in particular to engage with both private and public sector leisure providers to ensure that decisions on facility provision are not just taken in isolation and on purely economic grounds. Hand in hand with this, we need the success of localised initiatives to be modelled, and frameworks, support and guidance then offered to those areas where participation is challenging, courts are under threat or where there is aspiration to develop new facilities.
So where is the leadership and the necessary funding going to come from to drive such a campaign? The sport’s governing bodies in the UK are obvious candidates, but England Squash, Scottish Squash and Squash Wales are all cash-strapped and have shed staff to leave just a tiny number of remaining people to drive the sport forward.
Sport England offers limited community asset grants, but these have a ceiling of just £150,000, not enough to develop most kinds of facilities that would be required, and there is huge competition for this funding from all sports. To protect our courts and develop new facilities, additional funding will therefore be needed.
This is why it is so important that a political debate takes place, something that Corby Squash has already engaged in through our own MP, Tom Pursglove. Initially, he asked a question on the floor of the House of Commons about the lack of courts in Corby, but is now calling for a wider debate around squash provision nationally and its health and social benefits.
We are therefore urging squash players from all areas of the UK, whether you face provision challenges or enjoy great success with squash clubs and programmes of activity, to contact their local MP to alert them to this impending debate and to join the conversation.
That way, we can perhaps start a nationwide conversation about the provision of squash facilities and how proper investment in both facilities and programmes of activity could yield huge health and social benefits, which would ultimately prove a sensible investment in the nation’s health and well-being.
Maybe the result of such a debate could eventually be that our governing bodies are then properly funded, with a clear mandate to develop the ‘World’s Healthiest Sport’? Until then, the governing bodies should at the very least do something in the immediate term to take a lead in the response to this growing crisis in squash. I would suggest the establishment of a ‘Task Force’ bringing together the best brains from squash across the UK to formulate a plan of action, as well as engage with leisure providers and in the political debate.
To join the social media debate about the future of squash, please use the hashtags #SquashDebate and #SquashBenefits and be sure to tag your local MP. Please also follow the Corby Squash Campaign on social media too:
Pictures by: James Roberts (unless otherwise specified)