The LGA alongside the Association for Public Services Excellence (ASPE), and Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association (CLOA) consulted with over 250 councils and a wide range of stakeholders to seek their views on what needs to change so that public sport and leisure services can operate sustainably and deliver the best outcomes for communities.
Our nation is facing significant health challenges. Preventable yet life-changing illnesses like obesity and diabetes are soaring in number, yet the recent pandemic has undermined participation in the most effective preventative measure – being active.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for public sport and leisure services. The loss of income due to long periods of closure combined with high monthly maintenance costs has significantly affected the viability of the sector, coupled with the more fundamental and ingrained systemic issues already at play, which has seen the social and health outcomes that public sports and leisure services provide negatively affected by the need to reduce subsidy over the last decade, as a result of the financial pressures councils have faced.
Councils have supported their leisure providers throughout the pandemic, both in terms of their in-house teams, and externally commissioned providers, whilst providers have had to make full use of their financial reserves. However, because many providers operate on low profit margins or are constituted as trusts or charities, they have been unable to secure Government support beyond the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and the National Leisure Recovery Fund (NLRF) resulting in a projected revenue loss of £411m for district councils alone, rising to around £600m when unitary councils and metropolitan boroughs are included.
These acute challenges have put public sport and leisure services under the spotlight and have led to a renewed recognition of the vital contribution they make to communities. Although the word ‘leisure’ can conjure up images of relaxation and optional activities, public sports and leisure services are in fact a service that fundamentally supports the health of the nation, enabling people to live longer, prevent or manage health conditions, and boost mental health. The more deprived an area is the more dependent the community are on public sports and leisure provision.
We are also facing a climate emergency. With leisure facilities producing between 10-40 per cent of district and unitary councils’ direct carbon emissions, upgrading the leisure estate will be crucial to achieving net zero targets. Physical activity services also have a key role to play in helping people change behaviours and feel confident enough and fit enough to undertake the switch from cars to cycling, walking and running to their destinations.
Our research has found that nearly two thirds of the leisure estate is ageing and past its replacement date, with a number of facilities having to be closed for urgent structural repairs. Many will not reopen. There is therefore a significant opportunity at this point in time to rethink about what our communities will need from our facilities and services in the future, and design new, more efficient and impactful solutions to help our communities to be active and stay healthier for longer. Councils are ambitious to do more to maximise the benefits of public sport and leisure services for their residents and their contribution towards wider objectives, such as reducing the burden on the NHS and social care, lowering levels of obesity and cutting carbon emissions. This transformation will only happen if there is leadership and investment from Government and councils to level up communities.
Despite the challenge of finances and an ageing estate, major opportunities exist. The new Office for Health Promotion provides a very significant opportunity to integrate leisure provision within the health system. Respondents were clear that with the right leadership, partnerships, coordination and investment, public sport and leisure services can deliver significantly more social, economic and environmental benefits for the whole of society and support long term recovery from COVID-19 but this will require a fundamental change of direction in how public sport and leisure services are valued, alongside changes to finances, and a much greater recognition of the value and contribution of public sport and leisure services, to public health, social value and the wellbeing of communities.
It is in this context that the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), Local Government Association (LGA) and Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association (CLOA) consulted with over 250 councils and a wide range of stakeholders to seek their views on what needs to change so that public sport and leisure services can operate sustainably and deliver the best outcomes for communities. This summary therefore provides an outline of the key issues and recommendations, whilst the full report provides greater detail, further case studies and survey findings.
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