Duncan Wood-Allum Sat Talking

Battered through the Covid pandemic. Sluggish recovery. Increased supply chain costs. Recruitment and retention issues. UK and global economic instability leading to the cost-of-living crisis. Utility costs decimating any gains made through efficiency, programming, and service innovation.

The public sector leisure sector is going through an existential crisis, according to Duncan Wood-Allum, Managing Director of SLC.

Looking ahead, we see public sector leisure services moving at different pace, into one of three future scenarios:

Scenario 1 – Decline and fall

Many local authorities have held onto their ageing leisure assets throughout the last decade of austerity, with many no longer fit for purpose. There is no political appetite to close facilities, and this leaves them stuck: with no capital to invest in new facilities, nor funds to make desperately needed improvements to existing ones.

Elected Members are likely to see post Covid leisure services as a problem service with a focus on cost, not necessarily, outcomes. In second tier authorities many may see health and wellbeing as not being their responsibility.

The losers? Customers of those facilities (which are likely to diminish) and those residents who may want support becoming more active in their local area.

We will see a number of tired old facilities lurching along with a traditional leisure offer. Many have seen some improvements to reduce carbon and utility costs (or have the potential to improve in this respect), but ultimately, they are likely to need continued significant revenue support on top of charging a commercial rate to try to cover their operating costs.

Swimming pools will become quieter, colder or close completely.

The condition of older public leisure facilities will worsen, costs will rise. Communities will get increasingly grumpy with their elected Members and predecessors who failed to act in better times past.

The ability of this leisure service to play a full role in a wider system approach to health and wellbeing will be negligible. Indeed, it will be a drain on other services that can arguably demonstrate a bigger contribution to wider local strategic outcomes. This could mean:

  • Little or no opportunity for strategic planning of services to support local development and tackle growing health inequalities
  • A continuing negative impact on achieving Net Zero targets
  • Politically the state of leisure assets will become a local issue
  • Workforce issues and dissatisfaction may disrupt service continuity
  • Financially it will create real issues for the local authority’s medium-term planning
  • This will make little or no difference to the quality of life of the majority of residents
  • Communities become increasingly disenfranchised with both the quality of facilities and the elected Members who they see as having failed to act in their decline.

Elected Members in this scenario will be overseeing decline of their service – in some cases decimation of it.


Scenario 2 – Muddling along     

This type of leisure service will be a combination of new and old facilities which will be providing strategic coverage, but not necessarily providing the same quality of experience. Financial performance will be better in some places and mean that the overall whole life cost of providing the leisure service may just be politically acceptable – but for how long?

Elected Members are likely to see their leisure services as something to protect, but not at any cost, with a greater understanding and appreciation for the wider outcomes the services contribute to.

The operator may dabble in community interventions, such as short-term exercise referral programmes or concessions for underrepresented groups; however, limited funds will exist to support this on a scale that will have measurable impact. These services will be offered up to the local authority as ‘savings’. The majority of resource will support core operational delivery and traditional gym, swim and exercise programmes.

The impact of these services will again, have limited impact on local physical activity and participation rates – particularly less active members of the community, those with a disability or suffering from a long-term illness.

The ability of this service to play a full role in a wider system approach is questionable. In summary:

  • Politically this will not be seen as a major issue based on ‘business as usual’
  • Financially it may be bearable – but for how long?
  • This will make some contribution to quality of life – but not targeted where it could make the biggest difference – often the poorest communities have the oldest facilities
  • There will remain concerns over the long-term sustainability of the portfolio unless there is a clear investment strategy in place and funding to support it (which right now is very challenging).

Elected Members in this scenario will support the service in ‘muddling along’ but not necessarily make the impact they may wish to see. The service will still be seen as one that may need to be revisited if priorities change.


Inclusive Exercise ClassScenario 3 – The Pivot to Active Wellbeing

This service will tend to have more modern and, importantly, more efficient assets which have been strategically developed with a focus on community active wellbeing. The community engagement function will be strong, generating significant good will and local support, and the service will benefit from deeper connections and relationships with partners. A wide range of connected services and opportunities are on offer, including community support services, and social spaces, in addition to opportunities for being active.

Elected Members will better understand their Council’s role within the wider system and the contribution to place that their services make. They better understand the role of prevention and application of Proportionate Universalism. They will have taken bolder decisions on decommissioning facilities that are no longer fit for purpose and focused on transformation rather than maintaining and updating the status quo.

Officers would have been empowered to look for more radical solutions to address long standing health inequalities and working with partners would have developed a clear narrative to support this change.

The total carbon footprint of assets is likely to be lower and energy and running costs proportionally lower than equivalent older sites.

They have been better at attracting a wider range of users back to be active and can offer a modern range of services and better customer experiences.

The ability of these services to play a full role in a health and wellbeing whole system approach means they are likely to be seen as an essential partner within the local system.

  • Politically this makes the service a lot more defendable and resilient – particularly in single tier authorities
  • Financially, the impact of the issues faced by the sector are less pronounced and results in achieving financial sustainability sooner rather than later
  • The impact of this service will be demonstrably easier to articulate and demonstrate when things are tight.

As a relatively new concept, the pivot from leisure to active wellbeing is still being shaped, in particular by early adopting Councils in Greater Manchester. Put simply, it is about starting not with the assets, but with the role that physical activity can play in developing communities, tackling health inequalities and improving people’s lives.

This means frequent and meaningful community engagement to co-design services; reimagining leisure facilities into community hubs for active wellbeing; maximizing the use of green and blue spaces; and seeking every opportunity to build movement into the everyday lives of residents.

There are opportunities for every audience across the life course – Start Well, Live Well and Age Well; and services designed to bring people together – as families, as friends, or as colleagues. Catering for those experiencing inequalities is embedded in the core purpose – not a nice afterthought once the management fees are in the black.

Achieving this requires a whole system approach, collaboration, and distributed leadership which empowers anyone to get involved and play their part.

This necessitates a new approach to workforce development, prioritising soft skills and expertise in health and wellbeing. Development of health specialisms becomes common place, enabling services such as Greater Manchester’s Pre-Hab for Cancer to become the norm.

Such a pivot naturally involves creation of new roles. These roles are driven by local need, but might draw on local health and social care expertise and include:

  • Weight management specialists
  • Long-term health condition prevention and management specialists
  • Mental Health practitioners
  • Health navigators
  • Social prescribers.

Leadership training is a key enabler to help our workforce navigate this new way of working, exemplified by GM Active’s Transformational Leadership Programme, funded by Greater Manchester local authorities and Sport England to develop the leaders of the future.

Of course, it isn’t all plain sailing; things that are worth doing rarely are. Bringing together two different mindsets – one facility focused and the other grounded in communities and system thinking – presents many challenges.

Investment is needed and we cannot avoid this fact. The approach to investment needs to be set in a context of understanding longer term cashable (your cash) and non-cashable (others’ cash) savings and benefits (e.g., wider outcomes in the system).

Tensions arise around political priorities, around job security, around budget protectionism, and around meeting the needs of existing service users. Nonetheless, with great political and executive leadership focusing upon the shared vision – to improve the lives of people in our communities – these hurdles can be navigated.

Currently, across the country, council officers and their operating partners are telling their elected Members that they simply cannot afford to keep their current facility portfolio operational; and there is little evidence to justify doing so when we examine the impact on local priorities which is actually gained from current provision.

But with careful planning, political vision and courage, there are those who are showing that there is an alternative.

It will require business cases that explore the wider savings that can be made across the system and are credible to the current structures in local government, health and the third sector.

Unless the existing, often out of date, costly and carbon heavy portfolio of existing facilities are replaced over time with a broader set of interventions (this may include facilities, services, partnerships etc.), then pivot will be impossible (you can’t stay in two positions at once.)

This will require a mindset shift away from ‘leisure’ to focus in on ‘active wellbeing’ for elected Members nervous about closing anything in their local area. The key to taking them on the journey is to develop a compelling complementary or indeed an alternative vision of the Council’s role alongside its partners in their local area.

To achieve the scale of change required – the drive for transformation needs to come from elected Members – not just the professional officers.

This is not an easy conversation nor are there any easy solutions with utility costs remaining high for the foreseeable future. This scale of change will take time.

This pivot will create some real dilemmas as it moves away from the previous status quo.

Design guidelines have been heavily influenced by sports governing bodies wanting ‘optimum’ playing and ancillary facilities. Again, laudable and quite understandable, but realistic in our current period of austerity, inflation and economic malaise?

National Governing Bodies of Sport may need to become less reliant on local government in the future to provide facilities. It’s a horrifying thought – but given the need to fund urgent emergency care for elderly adults and basic services or a local swimming pool most likely with a well organised and vocal swimming club – the difficult decision still remains with locally elected representatives.

The reality facing local government and communities will mean that this type of sporting provision is in many cases is not affordable or sustainable unless under a new administration, HM Treasury starts seeing the contribution active wellbeing makes very differently.

It may well be that in future, sports such as swimming need to consolidate the competitive aspects of the sport on a more sustainable sub-regional basis to enable local provision to provide just that – local indoor water space primarily for learn to swim, school swimming and recreational swimming in parallel to supporting a commitment to Net Zero.

So, at SLC we’re commencing the pivot journey with a number of clients who accept the ambiguity, challenges and opportunities that being a trailblazer entails.

Together, we’ll need to develop new styles of business cases that look at wider downstream savings as a result of upstream interventions and engagement.

We’re learning as we go and seeing some really encouraging signs that this can work – with great local leadership and a clear vision.

We’ll be supporting the design and /or remodeling of facilities where the end use of some aspects has not been fully defined apart from the need to be flexible.

We’ll be supporting the local conversations with multiple stakeholders and communities in reshaping services in a highly challenging fiscally challenged environment.

The mindset of those wanting to pivot has to match that of NASA when it embarked on the Apollo programme – as set out so clearly by Kennedy We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”

  • We will not have all the answers at the start of this journey.
  • We’ll need to develop the concept in steps, learning along the way.
  • We need to bring together everyone who wants to support the system to collaborate.
  • We will face some failures – some will be bigger than others – but we will always learn.
  • Once we get there – others will follow, and further innovation will emerge.

For the USA their primary motivation was beating the Russians.

For the ‘leisure’ sector it may well be the threat of a slow, painful extinction.

Who’s with us?




Duncan Wood-Allum is Managing Director of SLC

SLC is the leading adviser to local authorities in transforming leisure services for inclusive, healthy and active communities. SLC regularly run virtual Think Tank Seminars for local authorities to share best practice, facilitate peer to peer learning and support.

We are working with Dannielle Roberts at Proper Active to apply our knowledge and experience of creating inclusive and welcoming environments for everyone to be active, regardless of background or ability.

SLC supported Sport England in the development of the Strategic Outcomes Planning Guidance and are the authors of the Leisure Services Delivery Guidance.

www.slc.uk.com 01444 459927