On a scale from zero to three stars, the Audit Commission inspection team gave the service, which covers leisure facilities, parks and playgrounds as well as arts and sports development a 'poor' zero star rating.
However, the council has an ambitious improvement agenda for its cultural services. A£66m private finance initiative (PFI) will fund a new multi-purpose leisure facility to replace the old centre in Dereham and the existing centre at Thetford is being refurbished and extended. The council has also recruited new officers to improve sports and arts opportunities throughout the district.
Sue Jewkes, Audit Commission senior manager, said:
'The council allowed its cultural and leisure services to run down, but it has now recognised how important these are to local people. An innovative PFI scheme will provide great new facilities. New investment in arts and sports development should improve district-wide opportunities, especially for young people. And so the future looks bright for cultural services in Breckland.'
.Effective partnership working has improved local facilities such as village halls and sports facilities.
.A successful exercise referral scheme has been set up in conjunction with local GPs and other health professionals.
Areas for improvement include:
.Until recently, the council has not had a clear understanding of what it has wanted to achieve through its cultural services.
.Cultural services cannot show that they are helping to achieve improvements in health and quality of life across the district as a whole.
.Outdoor and indoor leisure facilities are ageing and in need of investment.
.Satisfaction levels for sport and leisure facilities and parks and open spaces are amongst the worst for councils nationally.
.Value for money is comparatively low across key areas of cultural services, with relatively high expenditure but low levels of satisfaction and usage.
Inspectors recommended that the council should:
.Rebuild sports and arts development throughout the district, linking with partners to make best use of funding opportunities.
.Increase district-wide physical activity.
.Ensure that its cultural strategy has clear targets to improve cultural services throughout the district.
.Improve its performance management of cultural services to check that required improvements are being delivered.
The inspection covered all aspects of the council's cultural services. They are delivered both in-house and by private contractors and have an annual budget of approximately£2m.
Copies of the report are available on the Audit Commission website at www.audit-commission.gov.uk/reports
Breckland Council leader William Nunn said:
'Leisure is an increasing priority for us. Work on the fantastic new sports facilities is coming on well and we are delighted with the progress so far. We have received hugely positive feedback from local residents and we are pleased that the Audit Commission recognised the plans we have in place to substantially improve leisure facilities across the borough and the partnerships we have developed.'
Press release from the council follows.
Promising Prospects Ahead
Breckland Council's ambitious plans for the development of its cultural services have been recognised in a report by the Audit Commission.
The independent report due to be released on Thursday 21 September notes that while facilities at the time of the inspection in June were poor, residents can look forward to 'promising' prospects for leisure and culture.
'Leisure is now a priority for us and work on the fantastic new sports facilities is progressing well. We are delighted with the progress so far and the hugely positive feedback we have received from local residents,' said William Nunn, Leader of Breckland Council.
'We are pleased that the Audit Commission recognised the plans we have in place to substantially improve leisure facilities across the borough and the partnerships we have developed.'
Highlighting Breckland's£66m PFI leisure facilities initiative - heralded as the best value scheme of its kind in the country - the report states that 'residents can look forward to benefiting from substantially improved leisure and cultural opportunities in the future'.
Improvements and new facilities now being developed under the PFI deal include a new leisure centre for Dereham - due to open next May - along with the refurbishment and expansion of facilities at Thetford, scheduled for completion in November this year.
August saw the opening of a£400,000 state-of-the-art multi-use games area at Breckland Leisure Centre, specially designed to offer improved scope for sports including hockey and football. And the new six-rink bowls hall will be officially opened in October.
Facilities at the new Dereham Leisure Centre will include a 25-metre competition standard pool, a teaching pool, viewing area, sports hall, fitness centre, aerobics studio, four rink indoor bowls, crèche, outdoor play area, changing facilities, catering and free parking for over 150 cars.
'The health of the borough is paramount and we are confident that the new facilities will inspire and encourage more people to make exercise a regular habit,' said PFI Manager Keith Stevens.
Earlier this year Breckland Council appointed a new five-strong leisure team, led by Senior Leisure Manager Joe Liggett, which will focus on developing sport, arts and recreational initiatives across the borough.