Austerity cuts to local authority budgets – and the effects they have on the delivery of leisure services – are well documented. In its latest budget submission to the Treasury in November 2017, the Local Government Association expressed its concern over the future of the UK’s ageing leisure centres and called on the government to provide a £400m funding pot to pay for improvements to leisure infrastructure.
Meanwhile, a survey by the Local Government Information Unit in 2017 found that 75 per cent of local authorities had “little or no confidence” in the sustainability of local government finances. The report – 2017 State of Local Government Finance – also revealed that one in 10 authorities are in danger of failing to meet legal requirements to deliver statutory, core services.
A COMPLETE SOLUTION
As leisure is still treated as a non-statutory service, it's often at the back of the queue when funding decisions are made – even if there's a need for new facilities.
What has made procurement even harder for the public sector is the drain of expertise. As leisure budgets have been cut, those responsible for their allocation have seen their roles being changed to focus on other areas of spending.
“Most local authorities would love to have a new leisure centre,” says Roger Forsdyke, managing director of construction specialist Willmott Dixon.
“But what we often find is that some local authorities no longer know how to get one. Money is tight, so many authorities don’t see a way to finance facilities – never mind being able to decide what a facility should look like or include.”
To tackle the issue, Willmott Dixon is introducing a new process to leisure facility procurement, designed to help local authorities struggling to get their leisure projects off the ground. The company’s new collaborative approach will deliver authorities a nose-to-tail service, by providing key partners at each stage of facility development, from site finding to financing design and completion.
“We're moving away from being ‘just builders' and are becoming complete solution providers," says Forsdyke.
"Working with our partners, we'll help find and provide the solutions for those local authorities who are unable to see a route to having a new leisure facility.”
PICKING A SUCCESSFUL TEAM
The collaborative approach will see Willmott Dixon forming partnerships with companies working in leisure and bringing together teams for each project to achieve a common goal – delivering sustainable leisure facilities, which become focal points for communities.
As one of the country’s leading leisure builders, Willmott Dixon already has many of the partnerships "ready to go". In the past 12 years, the company has delivered more than 150 leisure facilities of all shapes and sizes across the UK.
“With our partners, we'll be able to provide a fully-funded and costed proposal from start to finish,” says Stephen Parker, Willmott Dixon’s head of leisure.
“We start by producing a business case for a facility, then we develop the design and help the authority to source the funding it needs to complete the project.
"We then project manage the construction and are also able to bring in a selection of operators for the authority to choose from. In other words, we're able to offer all of the benefits of a developer-led approach, with none of the costs.”
Parker adds that the collaborative approach will see each partner buying into Willmott Dixon’s commitment to “build lives less ordinary” and deliver facilities which improve communities.
“Ultimately, this isn’t about the bricks and mortar of buildings,” he says. “This is about the bricks and mortar of people's lives. Our focal point will be the people who will use the facilities that we build.”
To help authorities visualise the new model, Willmott Dixon has created the concept of a “leisure toolkit”, from which specific services and solutions can be deployed when needed. Consisting of 20 elements, the “tools” range from feasibility services and funding to business planning and facility operations.
For those looking for a flexible facility, for example, the toolkit offers the new Core+ concept – a new modular-based leisure space solution, developed in partnership with GT3 Architects. The pre-designed format aims to add greater cost certainty and flexibility to leisure centre projects.
Using Core+, customers can choose the elements inside a centre, based on the community’s specific needs – such as choosing between a group exercise studio or a sports court or sports hall.
Because finding the cash to drive projects is often a hurdle for authorities, the toolkit also offers a dedicated funding structure called Adjuto. The system has been designed to reduce the costs for financing leisure facility construction by using the benefits of the private sector to secure finance for the public sector.
It does this by attracting private sector investors and offering them low-risk returns, while ensuring public sector beneficiaries retain control of the project interests.
"The toolkit means that we can talk to customers about what they want and match their specific needs with the elements in our toolkit," says Parker. "This service is 100 per cent unique to our business."
Nick Mennell, Willmott Dixon’s leisure sector manager, says that the new collaborative approach – and toolkit – will allow authorities to turn to the company for help at any stage in a project.
“While we can offer those looking to build leisure facilities an entire package, from start to finish, the new approach also means that there are multiple entry levels, from where we can pick up and help a project move forward,” Mennell says.
“So you don’t necessarily have to start a project with us – you might be in the middle of a scheme – but you can benefit from a number of the services we can now offer.”
Parker concludes that the approach has the potential to transform leisure centre development in the UK, at a time when investment is badly needed, saying, “It’s about making a difference in communities – we acknowledge that there are lots of local authorities who are cash-strapped and the money has to go to core services, but the message we're sending it out is that, with our help, authorities can have the facilities they want and deserve."