Leisure services: exist or thrive?

By Ian Fytche | 08 December 2020

Exercise: the miracle cure… The title of a 2015 report by no less an authority than The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Exercise and physical activity are essential to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of everyone in our communities.

In the foreword to its report, the Academy made a bold statement: ‘Being active has enormous health and wellbeing benefits’. In some 60 pages it laid out its case with compelling evidence for the role of physical activity in the management of long-term conditions, and the prevention of many common diseases.

Local government is on the front line in achieving a big ambition: to encourage the whole nation to be more active. When it comes to sport and physical activity, local government is the nation’s biggest supporter.

Investment in sport and physical activity is an investment in the health of the nation. Together with arts and culture, promoting sport and physical activity is central to our vision for the places we serve. Making our communities active makes our communities healthy, safe, sustainable and vibrant.

During 2020, the pandemic has brought the importance of a healthy lifestyle into sharp focus. But the pandemic has also placed leisure services under immense financial and operational stress.

During the last five years, local government has responded brilliantly to the challenges of austerity. North Kesteven DC invested £7.5m in its leisure estate in recent times, creating great places for sport and physical activity and enhancing customer experience significantly. More people are more active more often, with a 62% increase in activity at our centres.

The financial position has also improved dramatically, to the tune of over £1m per year, an essential contribution to enable the council to respond to reductions in grant support. This experience is mirrored by many councils.

Councils have responded to the pandemic brilliantly. The leisure service has played its part, closing centres to protect life and safeguard the capacity of the NHS. Services have been creative, developing online models of delivery along the way.

Nevertheless, extended closure through lockdown followed by restricted operation, and then a further lockdown, has had a massive impact. A combination of lost revenue and additional costs has left many councils with a bill of over £1.5m for the financial year 2020/21. The District Councils’ Network estimates that the total cost to some 190 district councils will be more than £300m this year. The total bill for all councils could top £1bn.

There is a real risk management contracts could fail under the financial pressure. And the impact over the long-term on the health of the nation could be incalculable.

The Government has recognised the risk, allocating £100m to support councils, with grant application processes live during December and funds due to be allocated in early 2021. Leisure contractors have been able to call on Government support for furloughed workers.

It’s a positive start, and it may help the leisure service to survive in the short-term. However, reversing a 20%+ drop in leisure centre memberships and building public confidence to fill our centres again will take many months simply to get back to first base. The financial impacts will continue to be felt in town halls across the country throughout 2021/22.

Short-term financial support is fundamental to survival. If our services are to thrive, however, investment in the long-term is also essential.

Earlier this year, the Marmot Review highlighted the health inequality challenges our communities face. The report is an urgent call to action.

Local authority services promoting active lifestyles have a significant role to play in local health and wellbeing systems, enabling people and communities to age well, prevent disease and relieve operational and cost pressures on the NHS and care system over the next generation.

An active lifestyle means active travel too, improving air quality and supporting strategies compatible with a net zero carbon future in line with the Government’s plans to establish Active Travel England.

We have a simple choice: we can watch our leisure services struggle in the battle to survive, or we can unlock further investment, enabling our services to thrive, and in the process building the health, wellbeing and sustainability of our communities.

Ian Fytche is chief executive of North Kesteven DC

@NKDCCX

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