Think Tank 2 April 2020

Summary Report

The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy (SLC) facilitated an online Think Tank – Leisure Provision – Post Covid-19 on 2 April 2020 from 3pm-4.30pm.

Facilitation was provided by Duncan Wood-Allum, Managing Director of SLC, supported by Judith Schrenk (SLC, Research Consultant) who took notes.

The delegates who attended were:

  • Andy Farr (British Cycling, Head of Business Planning & Transformation)
  • Martyn Allison (Management Improvement Services, Strategic Adviser)
  • Andy King (Link 4 Life, Chief Executive)
  • Chris Coleman (Link 4 Life, Commercial Manager)
  • John Oxley (Places Leisure, Chief Operating Officer)
  • Chris Rushton (Active Tameside, Chief Executive)
  • Michael Constantine (Harrogate Borough Council, Head of Culture, Tourism and Sport)
  • Ryan Vittles (Southwark Council Leisure Monitoring Officer)
  • Chris Fennell (Watford Borough Council, Head of Leisure and Environmental Services)
  • Carl Bennett (Gedling Borough Council, Head of Service – Leisure Transformation)
  • Donna Cresswell-Duly (Nottingham City Council, Business Manager – Sport, Leisure and Business Management)
  • Liz Slater (Plymouth City Council, Leisure Partnership Manager)
  • Neil Ross (Integratis Consulting, Director)
  • Mark Tweedie (SLC, Associate)
  • Toby Kingsbury, (SLC, Director)


Key themes explored in the session were as follows:

  1. What should the gradual recovery of the leisure sector after the current crisis look like?
  2. What should leisure, sport and physical activity provision look like in a typical town in the UK 3 years after the end of Covid-19?
  3. What are some key challenges and opportunities for the sector based on the above?

Given the nature of the current circumstances, the group also explored other issues that were of particular relevance to them.


Note for readers: Given the fast-moving and changing situation, SLC is keen to distribute the key learning and discussion points from these sessions within 24 hours or less. As such they are not aimed to be carefully crafted thought-pieces (which we like to normally produce!) but to get the initial thinking distributed to sector colleagues as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding.


Where are we now?

From a quick update from delegates around the table it was clear that most organisations are dealing with immediate issues and the ‘now’.

There was a clear sense of collaboration and mutual support. Many work forces in local government leisure have been redeployed, leaving leisure leads as often a sole representative on the ground.

Leisure partnerships were dealing with the immediate short-term issues relating to facility closures and re-purposing of leisure facilities to assist with the emergency response. Many Councils have stepped in to proactively support their operator partners, building on strong relationships.

Many larger Trusts were playing a fully integrated role in supporting vulnerable people in their communities as an extension of the Council’s workforce.

Multi-site operators are facing the challenge of mass furloughing and establishing contractual positions with their partners, along with supporting their partners in the delivery of essential services.

It was apparent that the sector was making a significant contribution to supporting the emergency measures, and that necessarily it was focusing on supporting communities at their time of need.


Key discussion points

  • There will be a recession after the crisis, so structural investment by the sector will be significantly impacted
  • Operationally, there will be a need and expectation for higher standards of cleanliness and hygiene, which will have operational and contractual implications
  • People may form different habits (e.g. getting used to the outdoors as a space for physical activity) – that may have an effect on demand for indoor sports provision
  • People’s value systems and beliefs will be different – the sector must prepare based on predictions of future demand and needs (even if predictions seem impossible under the current circumstances) – The counterargument to this could be that there may even be a bigger demand on the sector as people want to socialize again in public spaces like leisure centers
  • There is definitely an opportunity for the leisure sector to re-define its public image
    • Opportunity to establish view of public sector as a strong custodian of important community facilities, health and preventive health seen as more crucial than before the crisis
    • Sport England could have a positive impact on defining the primary role of public sector leisure as part of a wider system – possibly with a ‘This Girl Can’ style campaign? Opportunity to build on learning from Local Delivery Pilots?
  • There is a real need to engage with customers of leisure services throughout the crisis and understand what they want physical activity and sport to look like in the future – digital platforms supporting this
  • It was suggested that Sport England could undertake an interim Active Lives style research project to support the sector in planning for meeting needs through the transitional period back to the new normal. This insight would be very valuable for clients, operators and partners.
  • This crisis will force the sector to really examine what it is worth investing in in terms of facilities and services
  • The soon to be published Leisure Services Delivery Guidance by Sport England will be of core value in defining a local authority’s strategic requirements from its leisure service
  • Re-evaluation of the relationship with the private sector is needed – one that is more partnership based and less transactional
  • This crisis can provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the purpose of the public sector in supporting health and wellbeing and the role of our sector in supporting it. This would mean a more collaborative approach with the private sector and third sector.
  • It was noted that the commercial side of the sector is needed to cross-subsidise other interventions, such as adult social care; these would get more expensive if commercial activities such as health and fitness weren’t there.
  • In principle, achieving commercial surplus is not an issue, it is whether organisations involved (such as operators) focus solely on commercial side in delivery in future or deliver a broader range of services.
  • The question was asked, without commercial activities, will costly interventions that seek to tackle inactivity be affordable and will this impact the business case for new facilities?
  • In terms of using sport and PA as a preventive measure to help improve health: Will preventive services be seen as that important compared to primary care services (that have not been able to cope with the situation and may need bolstering in the future)?


What are the key points/ strategies the sector needs to focus on to make change possible on the back of this crisis?

  • There is an opportunity to engage ‘unusual suspects’, groups that are harder to reach and that the local government is now supporting and are therefore in conversation with – opportunity for leisure to play a stronger role in social prescribing?
  • The evidence on behaviours and health inequalities is not going to change overnight – it will still be the same target groups and ways to get people more socially engaged and active
  • The impact on mental health of members of the community and frontline workers needs to be considered (e.g. public spaces / places might feel unsafe to some)
  • There have been positive developments over recent years in getting the leisure operators to think about more than just management of buildings, but that was made possible by a thriving leisure market – this is now at risk commercially unless it is commissioned directly / or the market returns to some semblance of normality
  • Health inequalities might grow as a result of a more financial cost cutting focus in the upcoming recession. The sector will need to have a strong voice to compete for its share of resources linked to being part of the solution for larger service areas such as health and adult social care
  • It will be harder to make a (business) case for old, inefficient facilities under the new circumstances – time for some of them to be let go?
  • It is crucial that the sector has strong leadership and steers politicians as to how they can make things better for communities by making the right investment through commissioning – a clear message on the evidenced benefits will be crucial
  • The sector needs to shape future developments, not just let it grow organically – otherwise it will miss out
  • The issue of health inequalities is key, as the poorest will suffer the most from a future recession. This creates an opportunity for the sector to develop solutions to address some of the issues arising from this
  • A key question is: How will public opinion shift on health and wellbeing? The politics will follow and that will influence the sector
  • At the moment, there is no clear identity of a common interest /voice in sport and leisure (as opposed to other sectors) and no strong governance – too many organisations claiming to represent it, when in fact, they only represent an element of it.
  • There is no structure of communality across borders in the sector – the sector is not connected enough – is this the opportunity to change that?
  • How do we get some governance around joining up the representative bodies and put tribalism aside for the good of the nation?


What might the issues with defining those key challenges and opportunities be?

  • Difficulties with predictions as to what will happen as this situation is unprecedented and we cannot foresee the effects
  • Uncertainty makes it hard to make sense of the situation at this time
  • In emergency recovery situations, people typically try and recreate what they had before – this should be avoided!
  • Recovery will be an iterative process, as we will only have the ability to understand what has changed once services are running again
  • Every time big change happens, the leisure sector divides into three categories: leaders that are strong and creative and define the solutions and way forward, a third will need help with moving forward and another third will not survive the crisis because they are not capable
  • Opportunity to a) champion the top third, b) support the middle third and c) intervene with the bottom third?
  • Operators will respond in different ways, there will not be a standard response, but the contractual situation in the future will need to be re-evaluated
  • The sector that will suffer most is the community-based providers because they are reliant on grants/ sponsorships
  • On the one hand there is a real opportunity to shape the role of sport and PA in the public eye, but there are real threats and the sector needs to agree on the threats and work collectively to mitigate them
  • Whole-systems approach can help with those issues – but this is challenging and the concept may take time to land with those organisations just looking to address core issues at present.


Will the leisure market change significantly post Covid-19?

  • There might not be evidence to support an ongoing trend, but it has been shown throughout the crisis that a significant part of leisure services can be offered online – this is a trend that can be integrated and used by the sector – opportunity?
  • As more offers will be transferred to online services, the personnel both in these and for the services that have to be offered in person still will have to be trained at a very high quality – opportunity?
  • Huge opportunity to accelerate social prescribing
  • Technology might be the new contender or enabler for physical activity providers
  • The recession will make it harder for Councils to support leisure services, there will be a need to re-evaluate what is needed – strategic thinking and clarity on what local strategic outcomes are required (The Sport England Strategic Outcomes Guidance can play a role in supporting this approach)
  • Is this not the time to radically change the leisure offer and reshape it to meet the needs of citizens?


What are the opportunities for local and central government to support the leisure sector in the future?

  • There is now an opportunity to see what has been working in the existing systems – the question is: Will people finally reflect on this? The sector has to be at the top table politically to shape the future
  • The current situation is going to expose the resilience of the sector – or lack of it
  • So far (Scotland), the role of sport delivery, services of health improvement have been seen as being periphery rather than core provision – opportunity to change this?
  • The sector is going to have to make better use of non-traditional sports and PA to meet needs sustainably but insight will be key in shaping this
  • Government action could explore removing the cost barrier to physical activity by offering subsidised access to local authority owned leisure facilities and services for targeted groups. However, beware of unintended consequences
  • Real leadership is needed in the sector now for decision shaping and making
  • Sector wide leadership groups might have an opportunity to shape future thinking – but need to step out of their silos
  • Whole systems change can happen on multiple levels, but it needs collaboration.

We would like to thank all the delegates who invested their time to support each other and share their thinking.


Further information

For further information on upcoming themes for exploration in our weekly virtual Think Tanks, please visit SLC’s website

To feed through your suggestions on themes to be explored in future Think Tanks, please email us at

You are welcome to join the conversation in SLC’s Online Forum on Linkedin. Please click the link / visit our website.

SLC operate a free Helpline (01444 459927) for local authorities and leisure organisations who commission services – please visit our website for details.