Is leisure now a liability or an opportunity to support healthier communities?

17 January 2024

Leading consultancy SLC share their recent successes with local authority leisure procurement.

The three key challenges being faced by council leisure services can be addressed positively to protect services and deliver greater benefits to communities.

Firstly, for many local authorities, leisure services prior to the pandemic were a valued and typically, sustainable service. Following the seismic impact of COVID, finance chiefs became all too aware of the costs of supporting the slow recovery after lockdown.

Secondly, utility costs have increased operational costs exponentially. Compounded further by the cost-of-living crisis, many services have yet to fully recover to pre-COVID trading levels.

Thirdly, the gap in health inequalities is widening. Many leisure services are not focused sufficiently on prevention and the less active.

The fiscal spotlight continues to shine brightly on leisure. Across the UK, many councils are taking the opportunity to review and challenge their current arrangements. Many are questioning the increasingly unaffordable level of subsidy required to sustain them.

There is an increasing expectation to demonstrate a genuine contribution to wider strategic priorities and help address health inequalities.

But for those councils coming to the end of their current contracts or leases, there is real hope. Not only to secure a financially sustainable solution which protects highly valued local facilities, but to transform the offer into a broader active wellbeing service. One that delivers more significant impact on population health as part of a wider whole system approach.

Since 2022, SLC has been supporting 15 local authorities in procuring new operating arrangements for their leisure services.

For our clients that have recently reached the end of the procurement journey in Northumberland, North Herts, Mole Valley, Stevenage, Waverley and Bristol, the outcome has been hugely positive. In all cases, the financial position has improved (in some cases significantly) and the new arrangements will deliver wider, improved services and increased social value.

We are supporting our clients to re-design their services to have a much greater impact on wider population health. The operator market is responding positively to this new challenge. Balancing the requirement to increase focus on less active communities alongside a high quality, ‘traditional’ offer (often supported by capital investment) has led to some outstanding results in recent procurements.

Case Study – Stevenage Borough Council

Stevenage BC commissioned SLC in June 2021 to support a major transformation programme for its leisure and cultural services.

SLC supported the Council to create a bold new vision and strategic outcomes for its leisure and cultural services, informed by widespread stakeholder and community engagement.

Having identified a new strategic approach to future delivery of its leisure and cultural services, the Council wished to explore its options in terms of management models.

SLC facilitated a management options appraisal and this exercise resulted in a mixed model of delivery and a broader scope for the new management contract.

SLC provided end-to-end support throughout the process including:

• Development of a robust procurement strategy, informed by market insight, presenting an optimal balance of risk to ensure the opportunity was attractive to the market

• Development of a services specification which included requirements for a new Active Communities Programme targeted at less active residents

• Development of all tender documents including a separate Lot for the golf course

• Evaluation of bids including analysis of financial submissions.

Following a comprehensive and robust tender process, a new 10-year Active Communities Leisure Management Contract was awarded.

As well as securing an improved financial position (despite the challenges of COVID recovery and utility costs), the process has secured the business case for development of a major new leisure and community hub facility.

In addition, the new operator will work with the Council and wider stakeholders to deliver a new Active Communities Programme. This new outreach programme will provide opportunities for residents to be active outside of the core facilities within community settings, parks and open spaces.

'SLC bring market intelligence and unrivalled insight into the cutting edge of leisure services delivery and the procurement process, which is far more complex than we expected and they helped enormously with supporting Members and senior officers through the process. The outcome for us is magnificent, more than we expected, and has ensured that Stevenage has future-proofed our leisure offer with the ability to flex and change as our customer demand changes and as the town develops in the future. We could not have achieved this without the support of SLC.'

Geoff Caine – Culture, Wellbeing and Leisure Services Manager

Next in this series

In our article in the February edition of The MJ, we will explore how councils should prepare for procuring a new leisure partnership – drawing on key learning from recent successful procurements.

In our final article we will explore the key steps to procuring a partnership focused on Active Wellbeing, drawing on case studies such as the recent Northumberland procurement.

Find out more

• SLC will be running a free virtual Leisure Procurement Think Tank seminar on Thursday 29th February 10am – 12pm for local authority public health, leisure and community leads.

• We are also offering the opportunity for a one hour session with our Directors to explore your current circumstances in more depth. Following this you will receive a free State of the Market Summary report highlighting our learning from recent procurement projects.

• To request a place at our Think Tank or to book an exploration session and receive a State of the Market Summary Report, email us at          Call: 01444 459927

This article is sponsored content for The MJ

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Health Leisure Procurement inequality Coronavirus Cost of living