Leisure trusts help councils save money
Leisure trusts have experienced a tremendous growth in popularity in recent years – and they have helped attendances rise, with all the benefits that brings to local communities
While some combative MPs might relish their regular verbal knockabouts across the dispatch box, most honourable members prefer a less confrontational workout at their parliamentary Westminster gym. As they're chillaxing, most MPs are probably unaware that their gym is managed by the Jubilee Hall Trust, a social enterprise which is one of a growing number of leisure trusts running more of the country's public gyms and fitness facilities.
There are now well over 100 leisure trusts running services in partnership with local authorities, which provide the trusts with grant assistance. And while some run cultural facilities such as libraries, museums and theatres, the majority operate sports and leisure facilities.
"Leisure trusts provide 30% of public leisure centres in the UK, with a combined turnover of over £739m, and employ almost 50,000 staff," says Brian Leonard, chief executive of Sporta, the umbrella body representing more than 85% of the UK's leisure trusts.
"The trusts don't fit a particular model," he explains. "While around two-thirds are charitable companies and a third are mutuals, they're all committed to providing facilities that are as accessible and affordable as possible for everyone."
Charitable trusts have been running public gyms and swimming pools since the 1930s. However, there has been massive growth in the sector since the 1990s when local authorities began responding to the need to make financial savings.
The biggest in the UK is Greenwich Leisure Limited, with an annual turnover of £115m. Launched in 1993, it now manages 110 centres, mainly in London, and was responsible for managing some Olympic venues including the Aquatics Centre and the Copper Box arena.
The company is increasingly operating outside the capital, with facilities in York and Oxfordshire. It is now expanding into managing libraries: it already runs 15; another 10 come on stream in April.
"GLL aims to make community services and spaces better for everyone," says Mark Sesnan, its managing director. "This means providing access to quality community leisure and fitness facilities at a price everyone can afford."
As part of its agenda for inclusiveness, GLL runs programmes targeting specific groups. "We've been running a subsidised Asian women swimming class with women-only lifeguards in Tower Hamlets since 2010," says Sesnan. "The sessions cost only £1 each. It's been so successful that there are queues around the block."
GLL also targets young people by running crime reduction programmes.
"Our motto is to get young people to work out rather than hang out. We run midnight basketball sessions in Crystal Palace that target young black males, as well as five-a-side football tournaments on Friday nights that target young white males," he explains.
"The aim is to target times when kids are more likely to have less to do and try to get them involved in sport."
Kirklees Active Leisure (KAL) in West Yorkshire has a focus on older people with its Owls programme: over fifties weekday leisure scheme. "Members can take part in a range of activities, such as fitness training, table tennis and badminton, plus lunch all for under £10," says Alasdair Brown, its chief executive.
"While exercise and sports are important, the social aspect is crucial, and this has led to the programme being massively popular," says Brown. "At our Batley centre, we have just under 100 people attending the session every week. There's a waiting list for places."
While these programmes are clearly popular, trusts are coming under increasing pressure from cash-strapped local authorities to demonstrate that their work is delivering value for money.
"At the time, West Lothian Council, which is our funding partner was looking at making serious cost savings, and wanted those groups they were funding to demonstrate that they were providing value for money," says Robin Strang, chief executive of Excite, which runs a number of programmes targeting obese and unfit members of the community.
The groundbreaking study showed that Excite's work was generating health-related benefits worth almost £17m. "The study showed the local authority and the NHS – our two key funders – that they were getting a good return for their money," says Strang.
With local authority grants typically accounting for 10-20% of most trusts' income, ticket sales are clearly crucial for their revenue model. So how are they holding up in these recessionary times?
"We've not witnessed any drop-off in the number of people visiting our sports facilities," answers Alasdair Brown. "People in Kirklees place a very positive value to their exercise regime even in this very tough economic climate.
"The consequence is that we're able to run a volume model of revenue generation rather than one based on price alone."
So what are the key benefits that leisure trusts are able to offer local authorities?
"First and foremost the benefits are financial," says Robin Strang. "We can operate the same service with more financial efficiently because, as a charity, we have more favourable tax arrangements."
"In virtually every case where a council transfers its leisure and sports facilities to a charitable sports trust, attendance figures grow dramatically year on year through a combination of better marketing and regular investment in the facilities."
"Crucially, any surplus we make is ring-fenced and re-invested, whereas in the council it just goes back into the council's wider financial pot."
And what of the future? What's the vision for leisure trusts?
"I'd like to see a recognition that leisure and cultural facilities are important public institutions in the same way that libraries are thought of as being of great value to the local community," says Brian Leonard.
"Many of the services that our members offer aren't just a tagged-on luxury, but are a serious part of the social development of a community."