Duncan Wood-AllumDuncan Wood-Allum urges the public leisure sector to seize the opportunity to improve population health within the coming 5 years through a pivot to active wellbeing.

After a grim period since March 2020 for the public leisure sector, we think it’s about time to share some optimism. Three and a half years later, and despite the intense budgetary pressure Councils are under, there is hope. Crucially there is a renewed purpose gaining traction and building momentum – it’s called the ‘pivot’.

SLC are fortunate to occupy a unique position within the public leisure / active wellbeing sector. We help local authorities write policy, strategy and business cases for investment. We’ve also written the current national guidance on strategic planning and service delivery for public leisure services.

Most importantly, we’re at the vanguard of a movement alongside many other progressive organisations called ‘the Pivot to Active Wellbeing.’ This came from Greater Manchester as a response to COVID and is now building significant momentum supported by the Sport England  Future of Public Sector Leisure Report (Dec 2022).

Missing a trick?

There’s been a lot of attention and investment in place-based working over the last few years – led by Sport England’s Uniting the Movement 10-year Strategy. We have fully played our part in it and will continue to do so.

However, the collective power of public sector leisure services within a locality cannot be ignored. Within these services and operational partnerships lie millions of pounds worth of physical assets including swimming pools, health and fitness facilities, sports halls, studios and community facilities. These are often coupled with outreach programmes, sports development and place-based working. There are around 350 of these partnerships across England, delivering frontline services through multi-site operator partners, local charitable trusts, local authority trading companies and Councils’ own in house teams.

This translates to 100,000’s of staff and over one billion pounds turnover – reaching millions of the population annually.

The surpluses that can be generated through a good quality public leisure offer are significant and they can be a force for good. Surpluses can support better pay, more place-based working, improved targeted programmes and concessions that can be ringfenced.

The next step is to work with system partners to co-produce, incorporate and embed into these services programmes which are aligned to Public Health priorities in a systematic way. This can include interventions such as falls prevention, healthy weight management, pre-habilitation and re-habilitation, specialist support for patients with Parkinson’s, dementia and so on.

The foundations for this are already established – through public sector leisure which is delivering services 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Many of these partnerships are coming up for renewal or a new contract or agreement.

This is the one ‘at scale’, tangible opportunity for a step change in pivoting to active wellbeing to improve population health that lies within our gift in the coming 5 years. Within a parliament.

Once every 10/15 years, local authorities delivering services through an outsourced arrangement get an opportunity to revisit their arrangements and many are seizing that opportunity to be bold and do something that is radically better and sustainable.

Around 25 local authorities are going through this process this year with c20-25 next year. And so on.

In a five-year cycle around 150-225 partnerships will have an opportunity for a refresh.

Imagine a services specification for an active wellbeing partnership (not just a leisure management contract) which has the following features:

  • Clear strategic intent and control
  • Co-designed by the local authority, its strategic partners and community representatives
  • Focuses on inactive and less active people and communities as the priority user group
  • Sensible balance of risk
  • Acceptance that quality requires investment
  • Encourages flexibility and innovation
  • A solid business case behind it with clear, costed approach to supporting Net Zero
  • Embeds equalities into everything it wants to see delivered
  • Has a clear approach to facility management combined with softer skills to improve community engagement and deliver outreach and place based working
  • Has a sensible approach to measuring performance and takes advantage of new ways of measuring social value such as the WELLBY
  • Requires partnership working and place based engagement as standard
  • Has a clear workforce strategy to upskill and improve retention.

In a nutshell, you can ‘hard bake’ the pivot to active wellbeing into partnerships and contracts. This could also apply to existing local authority partnerships with leisure trusts. Local authority trading companies and in house operations. We know because we are currently doing it with our local authority clients.

We’re seeing signs that leisure operator partners are responding by shifting their emphasis towards wellbeing services – but this needs to come from public sector commissioners.

Now it’s time to accelerate the ambition of the Future of Public Sector Leisure and pivot to active wellbeing.

Join us.