Features: February 10th, 2012

With the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games only a few months away, local authorities are under increasing pressure to encourage the nation to get active and provide new and improved leisure facilities to ensure a lasting Olympic legacy. This article looks at the way partnerships can help.

In this iconic year, local authority budgets are at an all-time low and many leisure facilities stand in desperate need of repair and investment. Councils are therefore being urged to embrace several options available through partnership working to help revitalise their leisure provision. Here we speak to local authority representatives from around the UK to discuss how they have transformed their leisure offering through effective partnership working.

Indeed, local authorities have three options available to them; they can borrow money from the exchequer at a low rate, develop lease back agreements where private companies build facilities then lease them back to the council, or councils can work more extensively with private partners. It is estimated that over half of all local authorities now outsource their leisure provision, with many partnering with private companies to increase footfall and reduce annual revenue costs.
DC Leisure, the UK’s leading leisure operator, currently manages over 100 sites on behalf of their partner local authorities. Working with 29 clients, DC Leisure has invested over £32 million in partnerships with local authorities in the last 15 years plus a further £80m developing nine new centres via the PPP and PFI structures.

Peter Kirkham, Development Director at DC Leisure explains: “By developing dynamic and responsive partnerships with local authorities, we optimise the performance of leisure facilities so that they can better serve their local community and achieve both economic and social objectives. By bringing together the right teams, possessing the necessary drive, skills and experience we have forged some very successful partnerships which continue to grow.”

Elmbridge Borough Council

DC Leisure has formed a winning partnership with Elmbridge Borough Council best illustrated by its flagship development Xcel Leisure Centre, a great example of a Public Private Partnership (PPP). This site has seen sport participation levels increase by 210% across the Borough and swimming attendances rise by a staggering 170%. The ‘iconic centre’, as described by Sport England, saves the Council in excess of £6 million over the 15 year contract.

The partnership was created in 2003 when Elmbridge Borough Council undertook a review of its leisure provision. At the time, there were three ageing facilities which were increasingly expensive and inefficient to operate. The Council decided to combine these sites into one state of the art facility using the PPP framework, allowing greater creativity and financial security for the future.

Ian Burrows, Head of Leisure and Cultural Services, at Elmbridge Borough Council, says: “DC Leisure was appointed as the preferred bidder as they demonstrated their heavy investment in the project, spreading the risk and reducing our costs. DC Leisure managed the design and build process, and now operates the facility. “Following the PPP route has enabled us to create a modern leisure complex that the community can take real pride in and will undoubtedly attract interest as a regional and international venue in years to come.”

Peter Kirkham adds: “We’re all extremely proud of this project and five years down the line, our partnership with Elmbridge Borough Council has gone from strength to strength. The Xcel Leisure Centre was awarded 87% in its last Quest accreditation assessment for excellent standards of service, management and customer care, which is testament to the dedication of the team at all levels.”

Eastleigh Borough Council

Another best practice example of partnership working is that of DC Leisure and Eastleigh Borough Council. Having worked together for over 20 years, over £6 million has been invested into the redevelopment and management of Fleming Park Leisure Centre.

The complex is now a thriving and highly sought after leisure centre, catering for the whole community, with footfall of over one million visitors per annum. The centre boasts two swimming pools; a main 25 metre facility and a smaller teaching pool, a 120 station gym and three fitness studios with over 100 workout classes. Fleming Park is also home to a wide range of diverse sports including; judo, table tennis, hockey, trampolining and gymnastics.

A successful grant application to the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and Sport England in 2010 secured the development of Fleming Park Tennis Centre, comprising four floodlit macadam tennis courts. The centre offers a broad range of activities including; adult and junior coaching programmes, adult ‘return to sport’ classes, local leagues and other LTA competitions.
DC Leisure has launched a number of initiatives to make physical activity more accessible to disadvantaged groups, with schemes such as the GP referral scheme and a Buddy programme for people with disabilities. A ‘Passport to Leisure’ programme also caters for over 60s, students and low income earners who are interested in sporting activities but may have been discouraged in the past.

Julia Birt, Sport and Active Lifestyles Manager at Eastleigh Borough Council, says of the partnership: “In this difficult financial climate, it has never been more important to collaborate and extend partnership working. Our alliance with DC Leisure allows us to provide exceptional community sports facilities across the Borough, I believe we have raised the bar higher than many local authorities would have dreamed possible twenty years ago.”

Flintshire County Council

Sector specialists Alliance Leisure offers a design, build and capital package that enables development to be achieved without the need for capital expenditure. To date, Alliance Leisure has delivered 85 schemes with rentalised requirements, made affordable from revenue created by the new facilities. One of its schemes is the largest refurbishment project of its kind in the UK; the partnership with Flintshire County Council has created what is now widely known as North Wales’ flagship leisure centre. A three phase £6million project has transformed a once virtually derelict leisure centre into an impressive, state of the art facility that is financially robust.

Deeside Leisure Centre now comprises six 5-a-side 3G football pitches replacing the existing 11-a-side area, a health and fitness suite, new reception, café and soft play centre, which opened in two phases in August and November 2011. The final phase, the first Welsh public spa and largest indoor public Extreme Centre, opened in January 2012. In the first week alone, membership sales for the Extreme Centre hit 66% of the target for year one.

The Council had originally planned to demolish the site and start again from scratch, at a cost quoted at £18million. Instead, Alliance’s four-year framework agreement with the Council allows up to £10million to be invested in the infrastructure of the authority’s leisure portfolio. On top of the £6million ploughed into Deeside Leisure Centre, a further £2.5million was recently committed to reworking Flint Pavilion to create a tenpin bowling and indoor bowls facility with additional investment into its soft play, café and fitness provision.

Cllr Dennis Hutchinson, Executive Member for Leisure and Public Protection at Flintshire Council Council, says: “Without the support of Alliance Leisure the council would not have been able to access the funding needed to undertake anywhere near this level of leisure development. In tough economic times, when all the talk is of public sector budget cuts, partnering with a private sector company means we can still look to make facility and service improvements for the benefit of the local population.”

Julia Goddard, Alliance Leisure’s Business Development Manager adds: “We’ve been able to bring what are traditionally seen as high-end facilities to a community centre, which in many ways surpasses its private sector counterparts. By working alongside the centre for the next five years we can ensure that the big potential for revenue generation is met and that all the facilities will be used by local people, at a cost that is affordable – that is the crucial element.”

Despite the current economic climate, the case studies reviewed demonstrate that local authorities must embrace new ways of working to finance their long term leisure provision. There are undoubtedly positive and innovative solutions available through partnership working that can exceed expectations in terms of revenue projections and provide modern, exciting facilities for the local communities they serve.