Leisure Trust Partnerships:

Managing the Crisis and Planning for a Sustainable Future

23 April 2020

 Summary Report

The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy (SLC) facilitated an online Think Tank Leisure Trust Partnerships – Managing the Crisis and Planning for a Sustainable Future for Local Authority Client Officers and their Trust Partners on 23 April 2020 from 10.00am – 11.30am.

Facilitation was provided by Mark Tweedie, SLC Associate, supported by Michelle Payne, SLC Consultant.

The delegates who attended were:

  • James Barnes (Sheffield CC, Parks and Countryside)
  • Peter Burt (GM Active, Chair & Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles, Managing Director)
  • Paul Hudson (SIV / Sheffield City Trust, Head of Sport and Leisure)
  • Andrew Snelling (SIV / Sheffield City Trust, Chief Executive)
  • Jamie Fenton (Peterborough CC, Culture and Leisure Development Manager)
  • Lisa Bows (Sheffield CC, Resources Manager)
  • Peter Ashworth (Stockport MBC, Head of Culture and Leisure)
  • Stuart Lockwood (CLUK, Chair & Oldham Community Leisure, Chief Executive)
  • Carly Clarke (LB Newham Council, Commissioner – Community, Leisure and Legacy)
  • Dave Baldock (LB Newham Council, Head of Finance – Commercial and Investment)
  • Denise Irving (Stockport MBC, Active Stockport Manager)
  • Mark Tweedie (SLC, Associate)
  • David Rushton (SLC, Director)
  • Duncan Wood-Allum (SLC, Managing Director)


Key themes explored in the session were:

  1. What is happening with management agreements whilst facilities are locked down?
  2. What approaches are being taken by councils and their leisure partners to address the immediate issues?
  3. How should we revisit future management agreements given the inevitable recession, changes in demand and future funding cuts for local government?
  4. What learning can be shared to support other councils and leisure partners with a funding agreement in place now and in shaping the future arrangements?
  5. How can the sector support partners through the stages of recovery?


What is happening with leisure management agreements whilst facilities are locked down?

In many cases, the short-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on leisure services is being financially mitigated and most partners are successfully dealing with the immediate issues. However, there is a common feeling of longer-term uncertainty around leisure management agreements and the financial and operational implications amongst both Local Authority Officers and Leisure Trust Partners.

The overall impact of short-term financial rescue measures and the length of time that they may be required for is as yet unknown. Emphasis was placed upon Trust Partners being financially transparent and only asking for what they need to survive.


What approaches are being taken by councils and their leisure partners to address the immediate issues?

In general, Trust Partners have taken advantage of the Government furlough scheme for the vast majority of staff and several Local Authorities have decided to “top-up” staff pay to 100%. In-keeping with this culture of good-will, many leisure staff are being redeployed as volunteers, to help vulnerable members of each community through the crisis. Some facilities are also being used as food distribution sites.

Another route that has been explored by some Local Authorities is to pay management fees upfront to support Trust Partners in remaining financially sustainable in the short-term. Trust Partners are considering what they can contribute in order to protect the bottom line, linked to using their reserves where possible.


How should we revisit future management agreements given the inevitable recession, changes in demand and future funding cuts for local government?

Doing “whatever it takes” will come at a price. There was a consensus that Local Authority Officers and Trust Partners will need to work together and plan ahead to gain an idea of the future financial position for all parties. Loss of income discussions for the recovery stage are yet to take place.

Many leisure contracts also include wider services, such as culture and events, and a variety of facility operations, such as golf courses, which are also being heavily impacted by the crisis. Major events have been rescheduled and countless non-leisure facilities are closed. These facilities, along with open spaces, will need to be considered as part of any future management agreements.

Contractual restrictions on price points could be relaxed or even removed for a period of time, following the reopening of facilities, to allow Trust Partners to restore income more efficiently. There is a risk that this could impact negatively on addressing inequalities. The traditional idea of users signing up to long-term memberships might need to be replaced with more flexible offers.

Trust Partners are already thinking about what future leisure provision might look like when lockdown restrictions begin to ease. Programming activities to take account of social distancing measures is likely to lead to reduced income for a substantial period of time after once facilities are reopened. For example, utilising technology, reducing studio capacity, using sports halls or delivering group exercise classes outdoors could enable facility users to participate in physical activity in a way that is safe. Some facilities may have to be open 24/7 in order to meet demand for these types of activity. The “new normal” could look very different.

Adapting the traditional offer of leisure services to meet the needs of communities after lockdown will require innovation and creativity to “think outside the box”. The staff that currently make up the leisure workforce may not have the capacity or capability that will be necessary to overcome this challenge and this needs to be considered.

This discussion led to new questions, such as:

‘Should Operators declare their reserves, so that Local Authorities are paying appropriately to support them?’  There was a general view that transparency was paramount for both partners.

‘Could Operators be asked to recover the money given to them after lockdown has ended?’  In some cases, this may not be possible due to the low margins being generated.

‘Could there be a “clean slate” for Trust Partners that have previously under-performed financially, due to various internal and external constraints?’  There was an emerging view that the value of services provided needed to be revisited and expectations managed.


What learning can be shared to support other councils and leisure trust partners with a funding agreement in place now and in shaping the future arrangements?

Some Local Authorities might see this as a time to rationalise their leisure portfolio, including the condition and spread of facilities. Some facilities will be more expensive to reopen than to keep closed – capacity and need will need to be analysed constantly in order to get the balance right. Resisting change and protecting what we had previously could lead to missing an opportunity to do something better with these assets in the longer-term.

A key point was raised around how Trust Partners communicate with the community and encourage people to re-engage with leisure services once the lockdown has ended. Online services are currently being utilised heavily across the sector. However, the increased use of technology does not necessarily reach all target communities. Trust Partners will need to plan ahead for reopening facilities so that service users are aware of new operating protocols and staff are ready.


How can the sector support partners through the stages of recovery?

Any support offered and volunteering discussions had between Local Authority Officers and Trust Partners are a testament to their good relationships. For the Trust Partners that are not as financially resilient as others, time is of the essence and long-term inaction could be disastrous for some Trusts. Whilst it may seem expensive to help Trust Partners in the short-term, the cost of taking services back in-house, in the event of a Leisure Trust not surviving the crisis, would be significantly higher and inhibit any future investment plans.

It was agreed that the sector as a whole has an opportunity to be progressive and collaborate to change the behaviours and cultures around physical activity for the better. The importance of physical activity has been highlighted in a way that could engage with those that have traditionally been difficult to reach. Inequalities are likely be greater post COVID-19 and the sector will have to embrace change and implement new solutions. The language around physical activity will also need to be adapted to suit the future of ‘active communities’ rather than ‘leisure’. There needs to be a political focus on the benefits and overall value of physical activity and wellbeing and not the cost.

This discussion also led to new questions, such as:

‘How will communities regain their wellbeing and will councils invest in this?’

‘Could physical activity have a much higher level of political priority in England, as seen in Scotland, post-COVID?’


Further Information

Sport England is providing support to Local Authorities that will be flexible to their needs and specialist consultants are available to help, along with Sport England officers.

SLC’s approach is asking Operators to produce a 12-18 month recovery plan which can be carefully monitored and adjusted as necessary. The COVID-19 crisis is not over the day that facilities begin to reopen and there is a real and widespread need for partnership recovery.

The next Virtual Think Tanks exploring Leisure Partnerships: ‘Managing the Crisis – Contractual Considerations’  are on 30 April. For these sessions, we will be joined by legal leisure experts Iain Greenshields, Andrew Hirst and George Matthew of Womble-Bond Dickinson LLP. Click here for more information.

To feed through your suggestions on themes to be explored in future Think Tanks, please email us at help@slc.uk.com.