Since the Covid-19 pandemic and, more recently, financial pressures created by spiralling energy costs, the spectre of facility closures has loomed large over the industry. Sport England is trying to do its part through the Swimming Pool Support Fund and SLC has supported many authorities with reviews, options appraisals and procurements intended to ensure a sustainable future for their services.Roadsign showing GL1

But what do you do if faced with, not just the prospect of having to close facilities through a planned and managed process, but the sudden and complete closure of all facilities and cessation of services?

In September 2023, Gloucester City Council’s leisure provider, Aspire Sports and Cultural Trust, announced that it could no longer operate and would not be entering into the contract extension which they had been negotiating with the Council. The announcement also affected the University of Gloucestershire whose Oxstalls campus facilities were also managed by Aspire.

The Council and University were given just a few days’ notice of the closure of their facilities by Aspire and all staff were immediately made redundant. The closures came in the early stages of the Council’s preparations for the procurement of a new leisure contract which was not due to start until October 2024.

The implications for the Council and its residents were enormous:

  • The loss of more than 150 local jobs
  • Loss of access to facilities and services for residents, clubs and other user groups for an indeterminate period
  • Loss of access to vital data on members, bookings, asset management, equipment etc.
  • The potential of a prolonged period of enforced closure, without an operator to manage the facilities, resulting in a sustained detrimental impact on financial performance when re-opening.

Having previously supported the Council with a review and options appraisal for their leisure and cultural services, SLC were engaged by the Council in August 2023 to provide support with the procurement of an operator for a new leisure management contract from October 2024. Pre-procurement planning was underway when the announcement from Aspire came through, throwing the Council’s future plans into uncertainty. The Council immediately diverted SLC’s focus to assisting them to secure an interim operator.

An intense period of discussion, internally within the Council, and between the Council officers and SLC, began immediately, whilst the Council simultaneously sought to manage the immediate crisis.

Implications of the announcement and the short-term options open to the Council were considered taking account of the challenging financial context alongside the “art of the possible”. It was soon resolved that, if at all possible, the Council wanted to find a way to reopen services to the public as soon as possible.

Council officers pulled out all the stops to take over control of the buildings  and find ways to facilitate access for local groups wherever it could safely do so. But this was only a partial solution and not one which could be sustained over the longer term. An operator was needed to manage the services so they could fully open as soon as possible.

Working closely with the Council, SLC devised a process for securing an interim leisure provider under emergency procurement rules which resulted in the selection of an operator in just over 4 weeks from the initial closure.

There were initially 14 parties that had expressed an interest in an interim contract. A short list was developed using agreed criteria on organisation scale, experience and capacity. From this a two-stage selection process assessed the relevant experience, capability, resources and proposals of potential operators.

Freedom Leisure was selected by the Council as its preferred bidder and they quickly mobilised to recruit staff to operate the services, re-employing c. 80 former Aspire staff. They commenced a phased reopening of facilities to the public within 2 weeks of appointment.

Ivan Horsfall Turner, Chief Executive Officer of Freedom Leisure was very proud of his entire team throughout the process and commented; “As one of the leading leisure trusts in the UK we felt passionate from the outset that the leisure facilities in Gloucester should be re-opened for community use as quickly as possible. A shared vision and mission with the council was crucial to achieve this and I am proud of my team, from Business Development, Operations, Procurement, Human Resources to other supporting colleagues and departments for working at pace to achieve our goal. This was a herculean effort and we look forward to working with Gloucester City Council.”

With local jobs and services secured, the Council is now in a position to be able to refocus on the procurement of a longer-term leisure operating contract, supported by SLC.

Philip Walker, Head of Culture and Leisure Services at the Council, whose tireless work was instrumental in re-establishing service provision so quickly, has said of the emergency procurement process:

“It was an extremely challenging period for the council, former staff and users of the facilities when the Aspire Sports and Cultural Trust closed at very short notice. SLC were able to support this rapid procurement process at a time when our own resources were very stretched. Their professionalism, expertise and knowledge of the sector, together with their understanding of the Gloucester context, made them the perfect team to guide us through the process.

We would have struggled to turn the situation around without the invaluable support of SLC in the time we did – the result could have been a much longer period of closure and uncertainty. As it is Gloucester’s facilities were up and fully in use within 2 months, which must be something of a record! We’re grateful to the team at SLC and are continuing to work with them on our longer-term contract procurement.”