A year of challenge, opportunity and a new focus for the sector

2023 has been quite a year for the leisure and active wellbeing sector. The continuing challenge of local authorities’ financial hardship has been balanced by renewed optimism from operators and an exciting new focus on active wellbeing. The sector continues to demonstrate its resilience, agility and ability to innovate. It’s been quite a year for SLC too, with great project outcomes for our clients, new areas of growth and achieving B Corp Certification.

SLC has been improving its approach to leisure and active wellbeing partnering and procurements through enhancements to its services specifications and overall approach to secure the right partner for local authorities. Extending the reach and impact of these contracts through the inclusion of neighbourhood-based outreach programmes has now become the norm for the procurements we support. The approach is to provide more support for less active communities whilst ensuring the core facility provision remains financially sustainable. It’s an approach that the operator market is embracing, recognising the need to deliver a more holistic service that supports active wellbeing in a place.

We’ve also been encouraged by the positive outlook taken by the market in terms of continued growth in participation levels and income streams for these new contracts.

Active wellbeing

We’re encouraged to see the sector as a whole embracing the concept of the pivot to active wellbeing and have sought to play a key role as a connector and collaborator with our clients who are leading the thinking in this area.  This builds on our longstanding association with Greater Manchester (GM) local authorities and GM Active Pivot to Active Wellbeing Programme, the outputs of which will be released early next year for the sector to take forward.

We have also been proud to be providing pro bono support for GM Active ‘s Pre Hab for Cancer Programme this year as it seeks to expand its footprint across Greater Manchester.

Engaging with health and social care professionals in Wigan

Our active wellbeing related work is growing. We have secured commissions with Bury Council, building on their Wellness Strategy, and we are delighted to see their investment in place-based prevention. We have also been working closely with Wigan Council on exploring major masterplanning options for adapting leisure facilities into active wellbeing hubs through extensive consultation and co-production of designs.

We’ve been an active and proud member of the Malvern Hills District Council Connected Communities: Pivot to Wellness Network while supporting them in exploring the development of a new community hub to provide accommodation for community partners.

One of our most challenging and enjoyable commissions this year has been working with the newly formed North Yorkshire Council which has been exploring a bold vision for its sport and active wellbeing service. This is linked to the development of a new service delivery model. We’ve worked alongside the senior leadership team, developing a collaborative roadmap for the Council to take forward.

SLC has also invested heavily in seeking to understand the complex challenges facing the leisure workforce in delivering active wellbeing services. We undertook a research and consultation project with key players across the sector to understand how the workforce is gearing up to meet the challenges of active wellbeing. Our findings were stark:

  • The leisure workforce isn’t ready for active wellbeing
  • It doesn’t have the right skills, qualifications or headcount to deliver health outcomes at scale
  • A blueprint is needed for an active wellbeing workforce. This must be developed through a strategic and collaborative approach involving the public sector, national agencies, system partners and operators.

With the highest ever levels of inequality and inactivity in England and the UK, together we need to make this a sector priority. We will continue to play a supportive but challenging role for sector bodies responsible for workforce and are establishing an independent sector workforce group to support this agenda. We will play our part in shaping a consolidated and progressive approach to ensuring the sector can have the right skills to become a credible partner in preventative health care.

Procurement and partnering

We’ve been supporting 11 procurement exercises with 5 being successfully completed this year: Mole Valley District Council, North Herts District Council, Northumberland County Council, Ebbsfleet Garden City Trust and Waverley Borough Council.

Ponteland Leisure Centre, Northumberland

We’ve held 3 successful Think Tank seminars this year supporting 34 local authorities in planning for their upcoming procurements while exploring active wellbeing and net zero in the context of facility development.

Clients have been delighted with the outcomes and we are now confident that the market has recovered despite the ongoing pressures of energy costs and the cost of living. Several councils have asked us to provide a State of the Market report to guide their elected members in making longer term decisions on management options.

We provided short term support for Gloucester City Council following the collapse of the local leisure trust, Aspire. Applying a bespoke procurement approach within emergency rules, we were able to work with the Council to appoint a new operator to take over the services on an interim basis within 8 weeks of the facilities closing. The selected operator, Freedom Leisure, has hit the ground running, re-employing nearly 80 former Aspire employees and relaunching services within 2 weeks of appointment. With these local jobs and services now secured, the Council is able to refocus on the procurement of a longer-term leisure operating contract, supported by SLC.

Strategy development

We’re proud to have supported a number of new strategies including North Herts DC. We were delighted to attend the launch of Sheffield City Council’s Sport and Leisure Strategy in December.

Sheffield City Council’s Sport and Leisure Strategy 2023-2033

This is linked to our support for the Council over the last 6 years linked to a £100m+ investment programme and current procurement exercise.

We’ve also been using our sector leading approach to diagnostic work for clients including Solihull Council and Herefordshire Council, Stoke City Council and Mid Sussex District Council. This is an enhancement of the approach we originally developed through the Sport England Strategic Outcomes Planning Guidance to incorporate the pivot to active wellbeing. These focused, low-cost diagnostic reviews provide our clients with a clear summary of the current state of the service and critically, what they need to do to help secure a more impactful and sustainable service over the longer-term. They are an ideal way of developing a roadmap for future workstreams and to ensure they make best use of precious resources.

We’ve been collaborating with Dannielle Roberts from Proper Active with Sport Wales on a research study on ‘What motivates young people around age 13-14 (Year 9) to transition from being physically active in school programmes into regular community participation opportunities?’

Client feedback

We’ve had some wonderful feedback from our clients this year. Our most recent feedback was from Jo Ireland, Assistant Director: Culture, Leisure, Archives & Libraries – North Yorkshire Council

“SLC were great to work with, they spent time working with us to understand the brief and delivered quality outcomes in a timely manner. All of the team were easy to work with. We enjoyed the collaborative approach and appropriate challenge and this alongside extensive skills and expertise really added value to the final outcome. I would not hesitate to recommend.”

To read what more of our clients think of us click here.

SLC – a year of development learning and growth

While our clients will always be our top priority, there have been many internal successes for SLC in 2023:

  • We have been the first organisation in the sector to be awarded with B-Corp Certification. This measures a company’s entire social and environmental impact. B-Corp supports a theory of change where business is a force for good and plays a leading role in positively impacting and transforming the economy into a more inclusive, equitable, and regenerative system.
  • We continue to focus on quality, securing ISO 9001:2015 for the 8th year running. The assessment raised no non-conformities which demonstrates the commitment of the SLC team to maintaining the highest quality systems and outputs for our clients. ISO 9001 is a certified quality management system for organisations in all business areas including facilities, people, training and services. It enables SLC to deliver an improved operational performance as we monitor, control, and improve the quality of our work increasing our client satisfaction. Achieving this certification demonstrates our commitment to quality in our forms of working and the service we deliver to our clients.
  • In April, we appointed Marcus Kingwell as a Director to further bolster our work in strategy, the pivot to active wellbeing and support the Future of Public Leisure movement. Marcus has recently been appointed to CIMSPA’s Professional Development Committee for Leisure Operations where he will work with colleagues from across the sector to ensure the active wellbeing workforce is fit for the future.

The SLC at the away day, July 2023

  • In the autumn, Chetan Ladwa was promoted to Principal Consultant.
  • We were sad to see Senior Consultant Gaby Sims move to IMPOWER at the end of this year, but wish her all the very best with her career and we thank her for her contribution.
  • We’ve been investing in our learning and development through continuing our work with leading communications expert Margaret Webster to further enhance our reports and presentations to ensure clarity, brevity and impact. (Quote from recent client: “Fab, fab report!”)
  • We have introduced a nine-day fortnight to support staff’s wellbeing and work-life balance without compromising our service to clients
  • We are measuring client satisfaction via the Net Promoter Score, widely accepted as the best measure of customer service and quality. So far, our Net Promoter Score is +100, the maximum possible
  • We’ve also been investing time in working with subject matter experts in place-based working, whole systems approaches, active ageing, AI, active wellbeing and Net Zero.
  • We are proud to have contributed all our profit margin on a commission for Herefordshire Council to support the refurbishment of the Hereford community athletics track.
  • Duncan Wood-Allum has been mentoring 30 year 10 students at Oathall Community College in Haywards Heath over three terms as part of our commitment to supporting young people to thrive in our local area.

Thank you

We would like to thank all our clients, associates, strategic partners and communities we have worked with this year for their support. We’re looking forward to a break and wish everyone a peaceful and happy Christmas and holiday period. See you all in 2024!