Chapter 10: The 21st Century revolution and its context

10.1 Four decades of progress and change

The previous Chapters set the scene for centres in the 21st Century. This Chapter concisely summarises the main influences on the scene for the period up to 2020, before focusing specifically on the centres that have emerged in the first two decades of this century. On entering this new era, the life of UK leisure centres had covered nearly four decades and had become a familiar feature of our landscape and were woven into the social fabric of local communities. As we have seen through the Chapters, there were huge changes in those decades in how centres were promoted, designed, developed, managed and welcomed.

Previous chapters have recorded some key benchmarks in the history of centres: –

  • The first landmark sports centres from 1964.
  • A huge numerical expansion across the UK in the early 1970s.
  • The emergence of ‘leisure’ centres from the mid-1970s and 1980s, many with leisure pools.
  • The advent of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) and subsequently the formation of national and local trusts to manage centres.

In particular, Chapter 8 set the scene for the revolution in operational management following CCT, leading to the pre-eminence of trusts, local and national, in the operational management of centres; Chapter 9 highlighted how the overall approach to research, planning and design evolved and how it came to influence new centre developments towards the 21st Century. Research led by the National Sports Councils of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; National Lottery funding; more sophisticated strategic and planning processes; and the role of architects all played their part. Such had been the progress up to the turn of this century, since Harlow New Town’s first steps in the 1960s, that through the 1990s a broader leisure picture had emerged, alongside the increasing need for the maintenance and modernisation of the existing and largely ageing leisure centre stock. Increasingly towards 2000 many Local Authorities focused on facility assessments. ‘Refurbish or renew’ options for their centres were at the heart of these considerations. By the 21st century the problems became a real challenge, especially in respect of the costs of operating and maintaining centres.

Centres had also started to fit into a much broader leisure industry picture. The traditional view of what constitutes a leisure facility is changing. As well as public leisure centres, centres emerged specifically for health & fitness; healthy living; family entertainment; youth activity zones; bowling; snow and climbing activities, and more. Some of these activities are being incorporated into new public leisure centres, but increasingly some are also private, commercial investments or ventures by charitable organisations.

At the start of the 21st Century, in welcoming delegates to the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management’s 2000 National Conference, Mike Fulford, ILAM President, said “One of the results of the recent rise in profile of leisure services is that the operating environment has become more fragmented and more complex, with a wider role for central and local government”. In his last article for ‘Leisure Manager’ in 2005, George Torkildsen (1934-2005), reflected on the four decades from Harlow (1964) to the early plans for K2 in Crawley at the start of this century. As George stated, as the 21st century got underway, “Here we are today with more people in the field, more facilities, and a new profession”. What has not changed in this century is the constant discussion, review and publications on strategic approaches to public leisure provision. This Chapter takes us to early 2021, reflecting on two decades of new centre initiatives. We also very briefly record the initial impact on centres of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 (leaving others in the future to note the longer-term implications for centres and indeed society).

10.2 Influences and trends for the 21st Century

10.2.1    Politics, policies and strategies

Local and national political and strategic considerations have continued to provide a backcloth to leisure centre development since 2000. In the case of centres there have been five prime factors and drivers of change in this period:-

  1. The differing responses of local authorities, strategically and practically, to the declining condition of many long-established centres.
  2. The economic crash of 2008/2009 which led to a decade of financial austerity and further weakened the capital and revenue position of local authorities.
  3. A growing major concern about community health, well-being, and fitness and
  4. A swathe of school building programmes encompassing indoor and outdoor sports provision.
  5. The initial (and ongoing) potential impact of the Covid Pandemic from 2020-21, which added huge additional pressures to the sports sector, including centres, as it did across the whole of society.

The strategic support for centre provision has remained largely undimmed through the last six decades. In its response to the Government consultation for a new strategy for sport in 2015 the Local Government Association (LGA) stated “Councils are the biggest public spenders on community sport spending some £1.4 billion per year (excluding capital spend) on sport, leisure, recreation and open spaces. Local authorities, who are now responsible for public health, are also spearheading the fight against inactivity and obesity and recognise sport is crucial in helping keep communities healthy.” Wokingham Borough Council (WBC), in setting out the case for a ‘Leisure Strategy’ stated “WBC recognises the significant benefits that the provision of sport and leisure activities and facilities can bring to the physical, social and economic health of our communities”. This sentiment is typical of most local strategies (see Ch. 9) and can be found in slightly different word in most, and therein, as ever, lies one of the fundamental justifications for the public provision of centres.

10.2.2 Broad changes and influences

There have been a range of broad changes, influences and trends which evolved towards and into the new century. They have provided a context to the development of 21st Century centres. Highly influential since the end of the last century have been some broad social changes; sporting trends; the health and well-being agenda; sustainability issues; operational management trends and progress in new technology. The evolving role of fitness, health, sport and leisure in society have been crucial in the decision making for facility provision, especially in the last 10 years. These influences are embodied in the new and refurbished centres illustrated in this Chapter.

10.2.3 Provision and participation – sporting and health trends

In the development and management of 21st century centres a range of direct influences, changes and trends can be noted. One of the biggest changes has been from the original need to provide indoor facilities for specific sports to the new focus on fitness, well-being and exercise participation rates. This change of priority and emphasis has led to an even more important role for swimming pools. The boom in fitness activity and the technology of moveable floors has increased flexibility and pool programming potential. Traditional pools are back in strong focus, alongside a significant decline in new leisure pool provision. There has been a parallel decline in large 2-basketball court- size sports halls with 1 court being provided, or occasionally none. More activity rooms are being provided for other popular group physical exercise activities.

Additionally, ambitious plans for new schools that embrace new indoor sports facilities for school and community use, have greatly added to the stock of facilities available for public or group use (see 10.2.5). The changed role of Sport England and UK Sport, especially as a Lottery Distributor with a change of focus, has also been influential in providing new facilities. The decline in some areas of outdoor bowling has consequently seen a decline in new indoor rink provision in Local Authority centres. There has been an increase in non-LA specialist facilities dedicated to just one or two sports and usually run directly by clubs and community associations (e.g. – gymnastics; trampolining; basketball, indoor bowls).

There have also been operational and funding trends, notably: –

  • The dominance of the market by larger/national trusts as a result of smaller local trusts failing financially or losing contracts on re-tender; with a few ‘voluntary organisation’ takeovers where councils wish to close facilities.
  • Flexible and innovative approaches by Local Authorities to the capital funding of new centres.
  • Trusts, especially the larger ones, becoming more directly involved in new centre development, including in capital funding and naming rights.
10.2.4    Operational, marketing and facility trends
  • The digital age of the 21st Century – marketing and the media

21st Century centres have largely run parallel with the growth of new technology and the digital age. To this day, from the very first centres, the media, through the printed press, and now also through modern digital communication, has played a significant role in conveying information about new centre developments, activities and special events. Indeed, marketing and publicity have been significant issues for leisure centres in this digital age. The digital age has brought customer communications through centre websites and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube) to the fore and to a new level of significance (see Social Media and Leisure Centres). The ability to book activities online has been just one example of the transformation. The growing digital and printed press have taken more interest in recording the development and activities of centres, and equally trust organisations and centres have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by them. There has been a parallel growth of media interest in all sport and leisure over the years and multi-channel TV coverage across an increasing number of sports. The internet has greatly broadened, and extended media activity related to sports centres and their activities. Of course, sports and leisure centres have usually been a rich vein to mine, especially for local newspapers. However, the comprehensive and informed marketing and publicity of centres in the digital age is in marked contrast to the period of the Sports Council Management Award during the first twenty-five years of centres. One of the most common criticisms of centres by Award assessors was poor centre marketing, publicity and associated budgeting.

The Leisure Media Company Limited is the country’s leading commercial publisher of printed and online business magazines for professionals working in the sports, leisure, health, fitness, spa and attractions industries. It gives significant coverage to new leisure centre developments. It sits alongside the smaller role played by CIMSPA, CLOA and Community Leisure producing magazines and newsletters for their membership. Leisure Media was founded by Liz Terry MBE. Leisure Media has become highly respected in the industry it serves. It now publishes a wide range of digital, online and printed services. It is the only national commercial publishing company serving the leisure and recreation sector and thus almost unique in its coverage of leisure centres. In 2020-21 it played a leading role in publicising sport and recreation issues, especially around facilities, during the Covid-19 pandemic. See the full story –

10.2.5    Community indoor sports provision completely re-defined by 2021

We have recorded the history of the UK sports and leisure centre, having started with the original definition of ……….”An indoor centre with a sports hall and some other facilities, which may include a swimming pool and has significant use by the general public.” We have continued to follow the development of centres through the prism of centres provided by the local authorities which take a lead on leisure provision or have worked with Education Authorities on jointly provided or dual-use schemes on school sites. Much has changed over time. As we saw in Chapter 8, the shift towards the independence of schools, first through the Local Management of Schools (LMS), and then the development of Academies, largely started to rule out such joint schemes and the role of the lead leisure authorities. There has been a huge shift in the provision of sports halls, and centres, on school sites which fit our original definition. Many of these facilities brand themselves as local sports centres. Our research for this Chapter, through Active Places (see further in Chapter 11), has highlighted a little publicised but enormous increase in education-based facilities. In England alone over 1,300 facilities, most of which fit our original definition, have opened on school sites since 2000, with a further 200 on Further and Higher Education sites, often with outdoor artificial turf pitches and supported with National Lottery grant. (see Lottery assisted schemes on education sites). This significant growth can be attributed to a combination of factors –

  • schools, including any indoor gyms or sports facilities, built in the 1960s, or before, were in need of replacement so ambitious plans for new schools that embrace new indoor sports facilities for school and community use were developed, as mentioned in 10.2.3;
  • from 1995 any Lottery Grants required well planned community use; and
  • The growth of school academies – which increasingly recruit trusts to manage the larger facilities.

‘Academisation’, accompanied by significant capital funding, has certainly helped growth. There has also been a general acceptance that modern indoor and outdoor sports facilities are now part and parcel of school provision, generate some income for the school and fit a more outgoing community role adopted by modern school governance. Some of these developments are mentioned in our examples. Thus, the indoor sports and leisure centre scene, as originally conceived and defined, has changed into an enormous, complex and potentially amorphous combination of thousands of public indoor facilities. Active Places suggests that England has a total of 3,760 public centres of all types, half of which have been built in the last 20 years. Thus, from all our research and by our original definition, the total number of UK centres in 2021 must be at least 4,500.

School sports facilities, and their use by the community, has come a long way from the days of Bingham and Worksop in Nottinghamshire in the late 1960s (see Chapter 8).

10.2.6    A changed landscape for major centres but consistent local authority ownership

Whilst it is now a changed landscape for centres in 2021, one of the unchanging factors through the first two decades of this century is the continuing and important role of the lead local authorities for leisure provision. They have remained in ownership of, and ultimately responsible for, and supportive for, most major public community leisure centres. The two decades can be seen as something of a further revolution in new leisure centres.

10.3 Bold responses in the 21st Century

10.3.1    Renewal, regeneration and renaissance

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen the ongoing renewal of leisure centre buildings. This process of renewal has largely been a matter of necessity, as centres built 20, 30, or more years ago showed their age. This has been reflected in the declining appearance of the buildings, both outside and inside, the increasing costs of operating and maintaining older buildings and rising customer expectations and environmental and health and safety issues. In 2006 the Audit Commission recorded that “65% of local authority sports centres and swimming pools were over 20 years old”. The 2006 National Facilities Audit in Scotland estimated the upgrade or replacement of the indoor and outdoor sports stock would cost £100M annually for the next 25 years. Many new centres have been seen as part of regeneration schemes rather than just free-standing buildings, sited often in new locations and increasingly linked with commercial developments of housing and/or retail. Regeneration of course is about more than buildings – it is also about people, organisations, and the quality of life.

The 21st Century has also been a period of renaissance for centres. The renaissance has been rooted in revised thinking and new ideas and justifications for their design, provision, role, customer expectations and operation. Some partnership centre buildings, embracing leisure, libraries and some other civic services have consequently arrived on the scene. All this renewal, regeneration and renaissance have come together in the 21st century to provide a vast number of new, refurbished and planned community leisure centres. The 21st Century surge in developments both represents a reawakening in new provision and the underpinning of the future of centres. This has happened despite a considerable range of financial limitations and practical pressures on local government as the prime providers.

10.3.2    Fighting austerity alongside tackling the prime well-being concerns

The entire picture of centres between 2000 and 2021 is underpinned by the desire of local authorities to retain the benefits of centres, whether by refurbishment of existing centres, or entirely new provision, often in new locations, based on updated demographic data, and under changed management arrangements. Alongside this, revenue budgets of Councils have been hit by national austerity measures since 2009. This has put pressure on available capital for renewal and on revenue for centre operations. Thus, architectural plans and contract negotiations with trusts have focused on reductions in operating costs, achieving increased income and often with capital input from trusts themselves. It has taken strong will on the part of local authorities to plan, justify and fund the numerous new centres in this century.

Many new centres are being linked to regeneration schemes to re-develop parts of cities and towns, almost in the same vein as the development of some new towns generated sports centres 50 or 60 years ago. Planning gain under the Community Infrastructure Levy, as part of the funding mechanism, has assisted in the provision of some new centres. To reinforce the case for new centres their physical and social well-being benefits have come to the fore again. Saying ‘again’ reflects that from the days of Harlow onwards these centre benefits have been part of the array of justifications for public capital and revenue investment in centres. The huge concerns raised this century about health and well-being and fitness have had a big impact on the attitude and behaviour of a swathe of the population and on the strategic investment responses by local authorities.

Midway through 2021 there is a new, major challenge for public centres and indeed local authorities overall – the financial and operational impact on centres and trusts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact is yet to fully unfold.

10.4 21st Century Centres – Selected Examples


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