According to the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, between 2010 and 2020, local authorities will have seen reductions of £16bn to their core government funding. The LGA says the funding gap facing councils will be £5.8bn by the end of the decade.
At the same time, much of the UK’s stock of public leisure facilities is in need of investment. The most recent figures from Sport England, which were published in 2015, showed that 58 per cent of sports halls and 60 per cent of swimming pools were more than 20 years old and, of these, nearly a quarter had not been refurbished in 20 years.
Faced with ever declining budgets and leisure centres which are no longer fit for purpose, is it possible for the public sector to encourage wider participation in physical activity?
It is. And the recent £5m transformation of Salt Ayre Leisure Centre proves it, says Paul Cluett, managing director of Alliance Leisure.
“We know that modern leisure centres with the right mix of facilities and services can change lives by engaging people of all ages and abilities in activity,” Cluett says. “Partnering with the private sector allows local authorities to maximise investment in their centres by reducing the risk of rising costs and increasing the possibility of securing additional funding, thereby increasing the impact of government capital.”
Just two years ago, the tired and ageing Salt Ayre centre was an expensive drain on council resources making an annual loss of £800,000. The situation was unsustainable and significant changes were required if the centre was to survive.
The team at Lancaster City Council was determined to find a way to reinvigorate the site and at the same time encourage the wider community to participate in physical activity.
Alliance Leisure, which was working with the council as part of a newly secured 10-year development partnership agreement, was invited to discuss the possible regeneration of Salt Ayre Leisure Centre. Just one week after their appointment, Alliance Leisure began scoping a development project to create a vibrant sport and physical activity hub which would inspire the entire community and increase engagement.
A phased approach to the development was adopted, with the final element of the transformational project – a luxury spa – marking its completion in October 2017.
The centre has been transformed from a shabby, uninviting and uninspiring facility to a vibrant community hub with a host of new facilities and attractions designed to stimulate participation.
These include the Les Mills immersive indoor cycling experience, THE TRIP™, Europe’s first outdoor Flight Tower, an 80-station gym, an adventure play area, an XHeight climbing wall, barista-style café and a spa.
Following the completion of the first phase of the project in early 2017, Alliance Leisure and the council approached the ukactive Research Institute to evaluate the economic and social impact of the £5m investment. The findings exceeded all expectations.
Since the redevelopment, visits to the Salt Ayre Leisure Centre have increased by 72 per cent, with the average number of monthly visits per person increasing from 4 to 10.
Gym and fitness class attendance has risen by 83 per cent, with the Les Mill immersive experience attracting over 5,000 visits alone. Adventure facilities like XHeight and Flight Tower have generated over 10,000 visits.
There has been a shift in user demographics. Female users have increased by 172 per cent, now representing 58 per cent of the membership, and members’ average age has fallen from 43.7 to 37.9 years.
The centre is also attracting visitors from further afield, with people travelling from almost a kilometre further away to use the new facilities.
“Without doubt, the decision to invest in Salt Ayre is one of the most important decisions taken by the city council in recent years,” says Darren Clifford, cabinet member with responsibility for culture, leisure and tourism. “We’re now seeing the clear rewards of that investment and the achievement of our collective ambition of providing affordable leisure and fitness activities to people of all ages and abilities.”
Based on current usage levels and revenue generation, the centre is projected to be in a revenue-neutral position in less than three years.
Salt Ayre is a genuine success story and proves that by investing in the right facilities, local authorities can inspire whole communities to get active.