Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 22nd May 2024

The Real Cost of Council Cuts

By Richard Edwards

23 April 2024

Local elections will take place across the country next week amid an atmosphere of enormous financial uncertainty. Some councils are close to bankruptcy, and others have already reached the point of no return, relying on government bailouts to keep the lights on. Or, more pertinently, the mowers and rollers running on recreational cricket grounds that have rarely faced such precarious times. 

An article in the New Statesman back in December, painted a vivid picture of just how desperate the situation is. According to a Spotlight study, 39% of councils across England had made cuts to their parks and recreational budgets since 2010. And with many councils burdened by the soaring cost of social care, having been battered by inflation levels not seen in over 40 years, it’s no surprise to hear that maintaining a 22-yard strip and an outfield, is fairly low down their list of priorities. 

One councillor told the publication that “the will to do things is often there – but the finances are not.” And with youth services being hit, and further cuts to leisure centre budgets on the cards, it’s those clubs that are reliant on publicly owned facilities who are bearing the brunt. 

Sports like swimming have been particularly badly hit but cricket pitches – which by their very nature require more complex upkeep than rugby or football pitches – find themselves on an equally sticky wicket.  

Gulfraz Riaz, chairman of the National Asian Cricket Council (NACC) tells the Club Cricket Newsletter, that an entire generation of cricketers face the very real prospect of having nowhere to play the sport. 

“The South Asian Cricket Community has, historically, been playing on council-owned pitches for years and years,” he says. “With the standards of pitch maintenance going down, and council’s making cutbacks, life is very difficult for clubs out there. It’s a lot more difficult to maintain a square – rolling it, cutting it and watering it – and from a council perspective, that’s quite a heavy cost in comparison to other sports that are played on municipal grounds. 

“That side of it has definitely impacted the recreational game and, particularly, the South Asian community. Some of the well-established South Asian leagues have said that their Premier Division sides have had to transfer over to traditional English cricket club grounds.

“That’s cricket at the highest level, so you can imagine the situation further down that recreational cricket pyramid.”  

With councils scrabbling to make ends meet, some of the more unscrupulous public authorities have also hiked the cost of hiring grounds to levels that, put simply, most clubs can no longer afford. 

“We have heard stories of clubs having no other option than to go with what’s provided by the council and then getting stung by a £300 bill for a match on a recreational pitch,” says Riaz.  

“The South Asian Cricket Community will have had communication with the local authorities but look at Birmingham City Council as an example. One of the oldest parks cricket communities in the country is based out of Perry Barr. It’s almost like the cricket equivalent of Hackney Marshes; you’ll have ten cricket matches going on at the same time. 

“Now, it’s still to be seen, the kind of impact it’s had on them but when you’re in a financial situation like the one facing Birmingham City Council, you can see exactly the areas which will be cutback first.”  

For informal friendly cricket or midweek cricket, the situation is even more parlous.  

In the North East, Chris West, the president of the North Yorkshire and South Durham Cricket League (NYSD), says that evening league cricket in Middlesbrough has been hit by a lack of suitable council-owned recreational grounds, with NYSD clubs stepping in and offering them their own pitches to play matches. That, though, is not always an option, with club facilities becoming increasingly stretched throughout the pyramid.  

“It’s something our clubs have done for a number of years, but clubs have got significant demands on their facilities now, particularly with the ECB heavily pushing women’s and girl’s cricket too, says West. There are only so many games you can squeeze into a week – there is not that much free time in the fixture list.”  

Babs Norr has been involved in the Middlesbrough Evening Cricket League for almost 30 years and is on the league’s management board as well as being the Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) chair for the NYSD league. 

He has seen at first hand, the dramatic impact that council cuts have had on clubs, and the communities they serve. 

“As we speak, today, there are no council-owned pitches that can be hired by teams in the whole of Middlesbrough,” he says.  

When you consider that Middlesbrough is an area inhabited by close to 150,000 people, that’s not just staggering, it’s perhaps one of the most alarming statistics in English cricket. 

“Seeing the changes over the past two decades, it has been a dramatic period,” he says. “A lot of the cricket in the midweek league is social, it doesn’t really involve clubs who have grounds, these are just clubs who used to hire pitches from Middlesbrough Council. We used to have five grounds that were available through the local authority. 

“There would be matches Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Families would come and spend evenings watching cricket. Now these green spaces have been sold off. It has had a huge impact on the midweek cricket league. Clubs can’t afford to hire private grounds for their fixtures. It’s not just about cricket, it’s about an entire community. 

“We’re in the heart of Teeside University and the membership of the university has diversified massively. We would get huge numbers of students playing cricket, but those numbers have now dwindled massively. A lot of young cricketers are losing interest in cricket because the opportunities just aren’t there.” 

A generation of cricketers in Middlesbrough are being lost to the sport but it’s highly unlikely that this north east example is an isolated one.

Whatever the outcome of next week’s local council elections, this is an issue that must be tackled. Regardless of who is in charge of the purse strings.