The head of Sport England has criticised the Government for failing to give sports and leisure facilities the priority they deserve.

Roger Draper, chief executive of Sport England, was speaking exclusively to The Northern Echo a week after the launch of a major new fitness campaign in the North-East.

Mr Draper said his organisation was lobbying Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown in a bid to persuade them to release more funds for sport and leisure facilities.

With a growing health crisis caused by a combination of lack of exercise and poor diet Sport England believes that more taxpayers money should be spent on upgrading facilities.

His organisation, which is partly funded by Lottery money and partly by the Government, believes passionately that money invested in leisure and sports will be money well spent in terms of the long term health of the nation.

Sport England also argues that we lag far behind many other countries in the amount of funding invested in this vital sector.

"Most of our major leisure facilities were built in the 1970s and they are in desperate need of an overhaul," said Mr Draper.

Part of the problem was the inability of local authorities to find large sums to refurbish and expand leisure facilities because sport and leisure was seen as being low down on the list of priorities, he added.

"When it comes to chosing between a new hospital, a new school or a new leisure facility, local authorities will go with education and health." In football terms, if you compared investment in sport and leisure in many other countries it would be the case of "Finland 9, England 1, Germany 7, England 1 France 5, England 1," he added.

And on a recent visit to Bishop Auckland as part of a fact-finding tour Mr Draper said he was told by local police that organised free sporting activities such as swimming and football had a big impact on reducing local crime rates.

A similar view was expressed by athletics legend and North-East sports star Steve Cram at the launch of Everyday Sport in Gateshead last week.

Steve Cram said: "Local authorities have tended to neglect those areas (sports and leisure centres) because of what is perceived as greater need elsewhere. There was a big surge in building these centres in the 1970s but there is now a need for more facilities to be built."

Councils said budget cuts were affecting the state of leisure centres and swimming pools and that the future lay in partnership approaches. A spokesman for the Department of Health said local authorities had been given large year-on-year settlements by the Government and it was up to local authorities to determine how funds should be spent.