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Opinion: Can council-funded sport survive austerity?

The sports sector is being asked to help resolve the obesity crisis, while at the same time facing austerity cuts. How can services be defended? We ask our experts

Published in Sports Management Nov Dec 2016 issue 128
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An investigation by the BBC last year revealed the sports and leisure budgets of English councils were reduced by £42m between 2010 and 2015 as part of government austerity cuts. In some areas, cuts have been so severe that funding has been axed almost entirely.

This trimming isn’t tied to any particular geographic area. A report by The Guardian revealed that of the authorities most severely affected, two are on opposite sides of the country. Rossendale in Lancashire experienced a 92.2 per cent cut to its sport and recreation budget, while the borough of Haringey in north London was forced to make savings of 98.2 per cent.

Despite this, local authorities remain –as a group – among the heaviest investors in sport. But for how long? According to the Local Government Authority, councils could face a further £3.3bn overall funding reduction in the 2016-17 financial year and sport, which is not a statutory service, is expected to carry its fair share of these cuts.

Can publicly-funded sport and recreation survive this next round of austerity cuts? Are there any ways in which local authorities can ease the pressure on budgets? We asked a group of experts to give us their views on the best way forward for these vital services.

Mark Allman,

Chair,

Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association (CLOA)

Mark Allman
Mark Allman

The challenge presented by huge reductions in funding from central government, coupled with the pressures of increasing demand in essential services has never been greater and there is no letup in sight.

The local authority sport and leisure sector has responded in a typically resilient manner, finding creative means of generating more income, while often seeking to reduce costs through more efficient operations or various forms of outsourcing or partnering.

Often we have seen savings of more than 40 per cent made, with strong outcomes still being delivered. However, there is a perfect storm approaching, with physical activity being increasingly recognised as an area that should feature much more strongly in central and local government policy. Yet at the same time, the cuts in budgets and the drain in experienced older staff from those local authorities is creating a potential vacuum of leadership when it’s needed the most.

Sports grounds and swimming pools will always be a focus of local authorities, but their continued funding remains in the balance. Future sustainability can be better secured by placing physical activity at the heart of policy and reaping the cumulative rewards of addressing vital areas such as health inequality, workforce health, educational attainment, social inclusion and economic development.

But in order to do that, we need to be encouraging policy makers, commissioners and businesses to invest in the long-term. This means that all of us in the sports sector must work collaboratively to demonstrate that we are playing our part in delivering the key outcomes for people in our locality.

If we get this right, we’ll ensure stability and growth for sport and recreation. Working in isolation will only lead to failure and the sad, slow demise of what is one of the best value investments around.

The sustainability of swimming pools can be better secured by a focus on activity / Maxisport / shutterstock
The sustainability of swimming pools can be better secured by a focus on activity/ Maxisport / shutterstock

Dr Dan Parnell,

Senior lecturer,

Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr Dan Parnell
Dr Dan Parnell

Local authority sport and leisure services continue to be at the sharp end of funding cuts and it has never been more important to consider how organisations navigate these constrained fiscal times.

Local government is in a phase transition and operating within a period of super-austerity. Recently we explored the management strategies of non-profit sport facilities in this era of austerity.

The headline findings highlighted two major challenges – reduced local authority services (ie, funding for maintenance, repairs or parks teams) and increased site operating costs. The management strategies adopted by facility managers to successfully navigate austerity included flexible pricing strategies, strong partnership working and income diversification.

In summarising the protective management strategies utilised by organisations and facility managers to navigate austerity, three characteristics should be viewed as favourable. These are: diversifying income streams; a link-up with a larger, established community organisation to share management functions and access to participants; and being well-networked, with links across other similar local and regional organisations and community stakeholders.

Ultimately, participation in sport is based on the user experience. The challenges associated with austerity cuts are reducing the quality of these experiences. To strategically move forward, more platforms are required to allow large-, medium- and small-sized organisations and facilities to network, share, inform and support and to assist in the development of collective strategic capabilities.

"More platforms are required to enable organisations and facility managers to develop collective strategic capabilities"

Successful strategies for navigating austerity cuts include flexible pricing, partnership working and income diversification / muzsy / shutterstock
Successful strategies for navigating austerity cuts include flexible pricing, partnership working and income diversification/ muzsy / shutterstock

Tony Williams,

Chief executive,

Bournemouth Borough Council

Tony Williams
Tony Williams

In 2010, we at Bournemouth Borough Council outsourced the management of our leisure centres and venues to the social enterprise, BH Live. This was an excellent fit given our shared values and ambitions.

Partnering with BH Live has enabled us to maintain and improve the quality of the entertainment, sport and leisure facilities for the benefit of local residents and visitors. BH Live has worked with the council to protect public services, improve facilities, get more people taking part in physical activity and cultural events and boost the local economy by bringing more business events into the region.

Participation in physical activity has increased, the quality of facilities and diversity of services has improved, the cultural programme has grown and the council has saved £4.5m, with a further £7m to be saved over the next five years.

BH Live has also attracted footfall into the town through business tourism and sustains approximately 4,500 local jobs.

The social enterprise and partnership model can create a win-win situation for local authorities by enabling them to achieve their social ambitions, despite extremely challenging constraints on their budgets.

Bournemouth Borough Council partnered with BH Live to manage its sports and leisure facilities, saving £11.5m over 11 years / bh live
Bournemouth Borough Council partnered with BH Live to manage its sports and leisure facilities, saving £11.5m over 11 years/ bh live

James Lewis,

Councillor, executive board member with responsibility for sport,

Leeds

James Lewis
James Lewis

Leeds City Council remains the biggest provider of sport and leisure in the city, however the current budget challenges for local government are huge.  

Now more than ever, income from and investment in facilities that address key public policy agendas, such as physical activity and health is extremely important.

To address these challenges we’ve refocused our work in sport and leisure. We’re being creative in tackling physical inactivity and using sport and activity as a cost-effective way of addressing health inequalities, boosting educational success and stimulating economic growth and development in the city. We know that for this strategy to succeed we must position sport and physical activity at the heart of council policy-making and engage with senior leaders to ensure they’re advocates of this change.

We’re fortunate in Leeds that many of our leaders understand this, and ongoing work is looking at a wider approach to addressing physical inactivity, rather than it being led by the leisure and sport services alone. Increasing sport and physical activity can present so many positive outcomes, but it’s a job for the whole city to work towards together and if we can achieve this it will go a long way to sustaining and growing the sport and physical activity offer.

"We must position sport and physical activity at the heart of council policy-making and engage with senior leaders"

Duncan Jefford,

Regional director,

Everyone Active

Duncan Jefford
Duncan Jefford

Local authorities can save by outsourcing their sport and recreation services, as management companies are able to deliver these services cheaper than in-house. This applies across all areas of sport, leisure and fitness including GP referral schemes, sports development and parks.

At Everyone Active, we achieve savings through economies of scale – for example the purchasing of fitness or sports equipment. Bespoke marketing can also increase revenues through increased participation.

Management specialists are also able to offer innovative digital solutions including the provision of a dedicated app, online interactive planners and linking with popular fitness trackers.

We were recently awarded a 20-year leisure contract with the London Borough of Havering. By outsourcing the council’s Physical Activity Referral Scheme (PARs) as well as all of its sports and leisure facilities, the local authority will save £1m.

Another way in which local authorities can find savings is to look at adding new services into the available space. We worked with Sutton Council and Ealing Council on an integrated model which incorporates libraries into the leisure space.

Councils can also utilise under-used space to deliver a whole host of different sporting and non-sporting events, including fashion shows, weddings, conferences and private parties, etc. This creates savings from the management fee payment.?

"Councils can utilise under-used space to deliver a whole host of sporting and non-sporting events"

Everyone Active’s outsourcing services are being used by councils to deliver a wide range of services from sport to libraries
Everyone Active’s outsourcing services are being used by councils to deliver a wide range of services from sport to libraries
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