The Audit Commission inspection team gave the service no stars* because Bolton residents do not have a good quality, accessible leisure service.
Brian Stevenson, Commissioning Inspector for Northern region, said:
'At the moment leisure services in Bolton are not meeting user expectations, and customers are voting with their feet. This is contributing to a deteriorating financial situation and low staff morale. However, the council's improvement plan is ambitious and recognises the need for significant change, and money is now being found to take both immediate and longer term action. Staff have begun to pull together with a real sense of urgency to tackle pressing customer concerns and drive up the standards of service. As a result, prospects for service improvement are promising.'
Among weaknesses found by the inspectors were:
- Customer numbers and income are declining while subsidy and staff costs are increasing. The service is in a very difficult financial position, which has worsened during the year.
- The council's own performance-monitoring systems show that the service is deteriorating. Lack of investment in the facilities has contributed to a decline in staff morale, and this in turn is affecting customer satisfaction with the service, which is already low.
- Take-up of the council's leisure card is poor and there is confusion among staff and customers over the pricing policy.
- Although there are committed staff in the centres, they do not feel empowered to manage their facilities and contribute to the development of the service.
However, inspectors did note some positive points:
- The quality and range of publicity material produced is good and publicity material is available in Urdu and Gujarati.
- Some good efforts have been made to broaden access to leisure opportunities at individual centres such as ladies only sessions at Horwich; a large Asian wedding programme at Excel; and junior weights sessions at Farnworth.
To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:
- Make the leisure centres more welcoming and easier to use by, for example, addressing customer concerns over cleanliness and staff attitudes; and simplifying pricing policies, including the Leisure Card, Choices, and Freesport initiatives.
- By June 2002, clearly define the purpose and aims of the leisure centre service by focusing on the needs of local people and ensuring financial resources are in place to meet them.
- Involve staff in the future design and delivery of the service, and encourage them to visit and learn from good practice elsewhere in Bolton and within the leisure centre service.
The council's leisure centres service covers its three leisure centres at Horwich, Farnworth and the Water Place; the Excel Centre; the nine dual-use leisure centres; and the council's Leisure Card. The service cost£5.7m in 2001/02 and employs 185 full-time equivalent staff, plus about 234 casual staff.
A statement from the local authority follows.
> John Byrne, executive member for culture, at Bolton Council
> said that he welcomed the report as it provided an external view of the
> service and suggested areas where improvements could be implemented.
> 'The areas highlighted by the Audit Commission had been identified through
> the council's own best value review of the leisure centres and regular
> monitoring of performance. A comprehensive Improvement Plan for the
> service is already in place setting out the improvements and developments
> to be delivered across all aspects of the leisure centres service. The
> action plan is monitored closely and users of the leisure centres are to
> be consulted regularly to ensure the improvements are increasing levels
> of customer satisfaction and quality of service.
> Mr Byrne stated: 'Competition from a growing number of private
> health clubs and leisure centres in Bolton has been a major contributing
> factor to the problems facing the council leisure centres. A few years ago
> there was only one private health and fitness club in Bolton, today there
> are at least a dozen.
> 'The report states that prospects for service improvement are promising.
> We have written our action plan and funding is being invested directly
> into front line service improvements. I'm pleased that whilst the report
> highlights areas for improvement, it also recognises the immediate action
> being taken to improve the service and the commitment of staff to deliver
> a quality service.