In my role of Vice-Chair I represented CLOA on the active-net panel last month, to discuss the future of public sector leisure. Acknowledging the challenges the last year had thrown at the sector, I was also keen to outline some of the opportunities it provides. To make the most of these, I made a pitch for greater collaboration at local level, highlighting that CLOA and its local authority members are uniquely positioned to help organisations understand the local territory and help build relevant and productive partnerships that can deliver a better recovery.
The commercial, private and trust movement is a valuable stakeholder, bringing complimentary expertise, new perspectives, innovation and creativity. It’s really important that LAs understand this and seek out opportunities for collaboration.
But as we are all aware, local authorities are under great financial pressure. Following a decade of austerity and year of Covid chaos creating £6.9bn of cost pressures, balance sheets are in a bad way and up to 7% of LAs are at high risk of financial failure. In this context, the prospect of bailing out leisure contracts and services is hugely challenging, and a number will be considering curtailing contracts and rationalising local offers. All the more reason to sit down with stakeholders, including local people, to review the needs and strengths of an area and figure out options that are fit for the future. We are also tasked with supporting recovery, addressing widening inequalities and making better use of valuable and perhaps more scarce resources. CLOA’s recently published report with Sport England, Navigating Local Systems gives some great examples of how to go about this
In Sport England’s new strategy, Uniting the Movement, the Connecting Communities chapter says:
We believe communities across our nation can benefit hugely by using the power of sport and physical activity – that’s why we want to support national and local decision-makers to do just that to help people and places thrive. It’s in communities, and the clubs and organisations within them, where the inequalities specific to that area can be best understood, and where the best prospects of tackling them lie.
Crucially, we need to make sure we do that in collaboration with each place: the people within them and the organisations relevant and trusted by them. No lesson has been learned more from our last strategy than this.
It’s in communities where the various pieces of the jigsaw lie – and LAs have a copy of the picture to work from. Local people know their areas best and have a wealth of knowledge and expertise to shape on local solutions. We want to build trust and work with stakeholders to create locally shaped initiatives rather than deliver top down programmes. I reiterated to the commercial sector that whatever their organisation, or relationship with local authorities, we can often help with their local ambitions, either directly or indirectly .We can do this in various ways, perhaps, by connecting key players and bringing people together, sharing key information, navigating the local health system, and identifying opportunities for partnership working.
There are other areas of sector challenge too; such as climate change. The Sport England strategy is quieter on this, but it’s a major issue for LAs with many aiming to become net zero carbon neutral ahead of the national target of 2050. Through the Local Government Physical Activity Partnership, which aims to create a collective voice for public physical activity provision, CLOA are working collaboratively with partners such as LGA, APSE, Community Leisure UK, Active Partnerships, District Council Network, ukactive and Sport England on a range of topics including considering how leisure can play a greater role in supporting the climate emergency.
So, in summary – let’s make the most of the opportunity for recovery, but not recovery for the sake of it. Things weren’t great before, and as Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review shows, inequalities are getting worse with all our efforts seemingly making little difference. Remember, 1 in 3 of the adult population (14million) cannot swim. Our mission is to build back better, and collaboration will be key to making this happen
You can view the active-net panel session here on YouTube.
Debbie Kaye, Vice Chair, CLOA