Luke Billingham is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest. Luke tells us why sports recreational cages and Multi-Use Games Areas (MUGAs) are important places for young people and communities and why they are too often overlooked.
It’s fair to say you’re a MUGA enthusiast, is that right?
Yes! I love sports cages and Multi-Use Games Areas (MUGAs). Like many twenty-somethings, I’ve got permanent scars on both knees from the skin-skimming concrete and sandy astroturf that all the cages used to have in my childhood and adolescence, back when sophisticated synthetic turf surfaces were a distant dream. It’s not just me who loves cages – from my experience as a youth worker and the research I’ve undertaken in Hackney, children and young people often regard their neighbourhood MUGA to be their favourite thing in their area.
You wrote a very insightful report exploring the value and potential of sports cages for young people and whole communities – why did you do this?
Sports cages are hugely significant to many young people, but are too often overlooked as important community spaces and pieces of social infrastructure. They are spaces where young people spend time together, develop friendships and engage in a range of sports and activities. They can be one of the few places in the neighbourhood over which young people feel a rich sense of ownership, especially at a time when more and more space is becoming privatised and at a time when young people are too often looked on with suspicion wherever they go. They are usually free to access and use any time of day and are often well-located for parents to be able to supervise their children when playing in them.
It is also vitally important to ensure that sports cages are safe for the young people and communities who use them, so much of the report is spent outlining a Contextual Safeguarding approach to assessing and maximising the safety of cages.
I intended the report to be useful to a range of stakeholders – developers, local authority planning and regeneration officers, local and national decision-makers, housing associations, youth work professionals, researchers, young people and parents.
You mention under-resourced areas, are sports cages particularly important to young people in disadvantaged communities?
In some neighbourhoods, particularly in under-resourced areas, sports cages may be some of the few freely accessible, local recreational spaces available to local people. With cuts to all kind of provision since 2010 affecting young people especially badly, it’s vital that we protect and multiply the places that they most benefit from, and those that they feel the greatest sense of ownership over.
Although cages are particularly precious for young people, we also need to ensure that, in all communities, sports cages and MUGAs are inclusive spaces: not only catering for young people, or for boys, or for those who want to play football or basketball – cages can and should be used by people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and abilities, for all kinds of different sports and physical activities.
You clearly think that MUGAs are a great benefit to local communities and encourage physical activity and social interaction. Unfortunately, many Local Authorities are struggling financially right now and have to prioritise how public funds are spent. How do you think Local Authorities can be encouraged to spend funds on MUGAs?
I wish the Government would take note and recognise how beneficial MUGAs are to local communities. The health benefits alone would justify them providing some specific funding that allowed Local Authorities to provide and maintain these critical community assets.
Cages can also be vital assets for pursuing a wide range of the strategies and agendas that policy-makers are most concerned about: reducing childhood obesity, tackling social isolation, building community safety, ensuring early intervention, promoting “15 minute neighbourhoods” and so on. Too often, decision-makers create programmes which require people to go to them, rather than delivering provision where people are. Cages can be places where you can reach local people in a way that you can’t quite do anywhere else.
You mention the fact that sports cages & MUGAs can provide opportunities for young people too. Can you say a bit more about that?
Yes, they can provide the kind of opportunities that young people are crying out for – both enjoyable voluntary opportunities and opportunities for paid work. I quote a young person in the report saying:
“Back in my old days, I used to be a part of this free provision where all the younger people in the community would come together, and we would be trained by older youth in the area on the cage. That was really good, it allowed us to keep fit and to do something we loved – football. After a while it stopped running and the area was a bit dead. Once it stopped running, everybody started going back to their old ways. There was nothing much to do. I won’t lie, I kind of got up to a little trouble myself.”
He was saying this to highlight the value of provision on cages and to make the point that more young people should be trained and paid as sports coaches, to then be a part of delivering community provision on cages. These would be accessible and appealing employment opportunities for young people – something we urgently need more of. MUGAs and sports cages can unlock the potential of young people, often lie at the heart of communities and can fulfil a unique role in supporting the mental and physical health of those who use them.