Over the past few years there has been a marked change in the way more councils have appraised and tendered their lesiure facility options.
These include a more collaborative overall approach with longer contracts lasting a minimum of 10 years, and a wider scope of facilities in addition to those offered by traditional leisure centres including theatres, parks and outdoor tennis courts.
The scope of responsibility has also increased. Most councils have ‘improve the health of our community’ as a key corporate objective and with the transfer of public health responsibilities from primary care trusts to local authority health and wellbeing boards and clinical commissioning groups, the role of a local authority leisure centre has become crucial if communities are to become truly inclusive and impact upon more people.
This is an opportunity that I am particularly passionate about. Our mission is to create active places and healthy people. In the past, relatively small sections, typically 13%, of the community have used leisure facilities and only around 22% have undertaken regular physical activity of any description.
The changing landscape presents the need for a much more unified approach and we have to justify to elected members why support for leisure services, which we recognise are not statutory services, continues to be essential as local authorities face increasing financial pressures.
Sport England is encouraging councils to take a true “return on investment” approach.
“We have been delighted to lead or work in partnership with 13 new-build projects with our clients. Creating the right environments, or ‘places’, is key for us to drive participation, operate efficiently and enable community engagement. Three of our projects are held up as exemplar schemes by Sport England and all schemes lead to increased throughput and revenue savings to the council.”
Peter Kirkham, development director, Places for People Leisure
My view is that not all local authorities are aware of the potential value of their services to their communities, nor the different ways which they can be run more efficiently. Not only is there an impact on physical health but there is increasing evidence of the positive impact of leisure facilities on mental health,
social cohesion and hard to reach groups such as teenagers.
Recent evidence from Sheffield Hallam University suggests there is a real disparity between the cost of centres that have been outsourced and run in partnership and those which have not. This difference of about £250,000 per facility per year, is a significant potential saving for a local authority. Ultimately such a financial model is based upon extra participation and therefore extra income which drives down subsidy.
Places for People Leisure is fairly unique in the market as for the past two years it has been owned by its parent company, Places for People Group, a not for dividend organisation whose roots are firmly in the local authority housing market. Places for People Leisure is now one of the largest operators in the active leisure and health sector, working with 35 local authorities and managing 117 leisure facilities on their behalf.
Because of the scale of Places for People Leisure we have been able to recruit such expertise that would otherwise be unviable to a local authority alone.
Examples of this include the 13 new leisure facility projects which we designed, built and operated in the past eight years plus the many rationalisation and refurbishment programmes we have worked on with our clients.
We can also take advantage of the economies of scale with our own procurement savings, which are passed on in our bids, and we pride ourselves on best practice, in areas such as programming and marketing.
Joining the Places for People Group has provided us with access to capital to help improve facilities. Customer expectations are rightly increasing and therefore we must react to their needs, otherwise they will vote with their feet. We also recognise that each local authority is unique with a range of demographics and priorities that we must carefully listen and cater to.
This type of working partnership has brought real accolades to both our own social enterprise and our local authorities. Good examples of this include the
Swim 4 health programme in Amber Valley and joint funding of a health and wellbeing role with Waverley BC. Our endeavours have been recognised nationally with awards from the Royal Society of Public Health, as well as being recognised by ukactive as Operator of the Year for 2013 and 2014. Our real reward, however, is increasing the current annual number of visits to our centres, which currently stands at about 27 million.
So what does the future hold for the local authority leisure service? Local authorities need to become more aware of the opportunities for increased participation which directly drive efficiencies through increased income and ‘sweating the leisure asset’ to become genuine community hubs. The key is operators working closely in partnership with local authorities, in particular the health sector and showcasing the health benefits of what we do.
If the value of sport and physical activity is driven higher up the political agenda, this would produce a positive result for all, but particularly the members of the community we are there to serve.
Sandra Dodd, chief executive, Places for People Leisure
Feature sponsored and supplied by Places for People Leisure