Chapter 4: The development of design and research

4.1 Design and research at the roots of six decades of sports centre progress

The general concept and success of the community indoor sports centre had been exemplified by the first developments. Whilst the huge growth in the number of centres from 1976 to 1995 was taking place, two facets of development were running largely in parallel and were under the spotlight. The design of centres was new territory for the architectural world, and research into the provision and use of the centres was of paramount interest. Inevitably, with a relatively new concept, design and research were at the forefront of priorities to establish sound processes and data. The Sports Council and local authorities, which were leading provision and support, were keen to learn from the experiences to date.

This Chapter focuses on the general approaches taken to design and research, and the principal issues and experiences, identified through a series of themes, events and initiatives. Whilst the heart of ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ story is the community indoor sports centre (see ‘Introduction – definitions’) many of the early design issues focused on the sports hall, hence there are many references specifically to sports halls.

4.1.1 Origins of sports hall design, the early architects and design development

Westminster Baths

Westminster Baths

A fundamental but enduring and changing aspect of sports centre development over the decades has been the architecture of the buildings. Civic architecture in the UK came strongly to the fore in Victorian times, and as far as recreation was concerned at that time, it was mainly focused on swimming baths.

Civic architecture has always provided architects with the opportunity to make a clear and very public, and at times political, statement. In the 1960s and early 1970s, community sports centre design and development was as new to architects and constructors as the phenomenon of such indoor centres was to town planners and Local Authorities.

Modern architecture is generally recognised by simple format and exciting, contemporary styles. Over the years, an increasingly professional approach to recreation management has influenced every aspect of the development and operation of sports and leisure centres, including centre design and architecture. Across the decades the booming number of sports and leisure centres in the UK has become one of the significant architectural features of community life in the UK.

Architectural practice for UK sports and leisure centres over their first 30 years ran parallel with a range of differing priorities and client briefs. Whilst not all in entirely discrete timeframes, some general, thematic emphases can be identified. First came the pioneering phase and then a period in the 1970s that saw both local authority architects, without experience of this new concept, and some private practices, latching on to the early acceleration of centres. After the initial pioneering period, there was a mixture of approaches leading up to the mid-1990s, embracing: –

  • Later designs by the first pioneering architects.
  • Local Authority in-house designs (which then started to decline through the 1980s and largely ceased with externalization of local authority technical services at the end of the decade).
  • New methodologies. Design and build schemes provided a more rapid response to politicians and low-cost halls met budget pressures. The Sports Council’s TUS unit pioneered several new initiatives.
  • The emergence of more specialist sports and leisure architects, and more of the bigger general architectural practices recognizing the opportunities, particularly for the larger more prestigious schemes.

4.1.2 Pioneers take their lead from outdoor facilities

Aldersley Stadium

Aldersley Stadium

By the early 1960s the significant national experience of outdoor facility development dwarfed that of sports halls. In part, UK sports centre design developed from the stadia planning of the mid-1950s, when provision largely centred around the town athletics track, the central arena, and any support facilities considered necessary to service these elements. Some of the New Towns were characterised by such long-term proposals and master plans, as in the examples at Harlow, Bracknell and Welwyn, where outdoor facilities preceded the arrival of a sports hall. Other stadia were built at Cwmbran and Wolverhampton (Aldersley Stadium).  Together these had formed the basis of considerable national interest at a time when the mood for change was strong and decisions were being taken which were to alter the whole of the former structure of sport for many years to come. The feedback from these early outdoor centres proved a major factor in this process.  However, from the outset it became clear that conventional running tracks and central sports fields fulfilled the needs of only a very small minority of sports people in any community.  Most were only used during daylight hours or at the weekend. Consequently, indoor sports centres headed onto the agenda.

4.1.3 The European influence from the 1960s

‘Design for Sport’ (Butterworth – Perrin; 1981) recorded that the provision of indoor and outdoor sports facilities on the continent, immediately post-war, had been on a massive scale compared to that in the UK, with spending up to 25 times greater. By 1970 all first wave projects identified in the 1960 Golden Plan for West German sport had been met, and a secondary phase started which had been completed a decade later. The ‘mille piscines’ programme for pools in France, begun during the early 1970s, was almost complete by the 1980s. Provision had even been made even in communities of 4000 or less. This latter provision often involved the use of community schools especially in country districts otherwise unable to fund large scale facilities themselves. This was an early pre-cursor to UK jointly provided facilities.

Without real precedents, early UK centre architects drew particularly on some of the more advanced work on sports halls across Europe. Perrin referred to several, including – Lelystad Sports Centre in Holland, where high design standards had led to public respect for the buildings – and Heureid Leisure Centre in Zurich, which was built in the 1960s, had matched those standards of Lelystad, and served as a model for many centres in Switzerland. Other European influences at that time were: –

West Germany – the number of recreation centres was very impressive and exceeded any other country. Performance standards had been established for all materials used in the construction of sports facilities (DIN standard) and labour saving automatic systems were widely employed.

France – High inventiveness in alternative indoor structures (air halls and ‘zip-up’ structures) and specific research into new materials for sports halls.

and Scandinavia – where the provision of social areas and the role of sport and the arts came closest to early UK provision.

4.1.4 Schools and universities involved at the start of sports halls

As referred to in Chapter 2, in the late 1950s and 1960s some Education Authorities looked beyond the traditional 18 x 12m school gymnasium and its constraints on basketball and netball and considered 3-sided sports barns. These were buildings open on one side, and several Local authority architects developed examples, especially in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Cumberland and Lancashire. The limitations of heating, the effect of winter and hard, often tarmac, floors meant that whilst they survived into the 1970s on some school sites, their appeal and use for the community was much less attractive.

Sawston Village College Sports Hall

Sawston Village College Sports Hall

In the light of this, some ‘adapted’ gymnasia were developed. A good example was the Cambridgeshire Village College at Sawston (as recorded in Chapter 2), which was above average size and designed for both school and community use. In the 1960s a small number of schools had sports halls added, as larger school rolls justified bigger indoor spaces. One example was Red House School in Sunderland, where there was also evening use by adults.

From the conception of sports centres and the emphasis placed by Government, as we saw in Chapter 2, and see in Chapter 8, facilities jointly provided by two or more partner authorities have been a vital element of the national structure of centres. The diverse audience of pupils and casual and club public users presented different architectural and design challenges to the approach taken at Harlow and Bracknell. By reference to provision in five forward-looking Education Authorities in the 1960s and 1970s we can see the design challenges that were tackled on school sites.

Berkshire County Council: The Bulmershe Sports Centre in Berkshire in 1971 was an example of how designing for a school site burgeoned into community provision. In the end it became a four-way scheme embracing also the youth and community service and Woodley and Sandley Parish Council. The design was more complex, dictated by the requirements of each party. Therefore, there were compromises revolving around cost and sizes, with the need for reception and changing facilities suitable for public use (new Bulmershe Centre 2018 – see Chapter 10).

Lancashire County Council had experimented with sports halls for schools since 1963 and by 1974 86 of one kind or other had been provided (20 jointly together with district councils for dual use). The basis of the design provision in 1963 involved the 2,800 sq. ft of a school gymnasium. Considerable change was needed to attain 5,600 sq. ft of sports hall space for a similar cost. At first hangar-type constructions were tried and it was quickly realised that changes in construction were required as were more funds. Other changes were made to school designs to create the additional funds for sports halls.

Nottinghamshire and Cheshire County Councils had responded to DES Circular 2/70 (see Chapter 1) and embarked on a policy of co-operation in joint provision. Early design criteria were based on the demands from Local Authorities and clubs and other organised groups. Thus, the sports hall had minimum administration and social spaces and were sited on the school campus but away from the school buildings. Experience then determined the need for additions and adaptations to better fit the demand for general community, casual use. (See Chapter 8.)

Fife Education Authority offers a Scottish example from that era with the open barn style being the first buildings, measuring 110’ x 60’ x 22’ in the 1960s. Kirkland High School, Mathil, was the first. The second was at Queen Anne School, Dunfermline. These two halls, bare and utilitarian, posed problems of scale for the designers but paid great dividends for physical education teaching, especially in winter. The issue of such provision in Scotland changed with SED Circular 632 in 1967, which noted progress and led to the 1967 School Building Code for Scotland, which made cost allowances for the first time for swimming pools and games halls and became Departmental policy.

Croydon Education Authority opened Monks Hill High School in 1970 (later re-named Selsdon High School). It was an 11-16 comprehensive school for 1,260 pupils, and two standard school gymnasia were intended. However, a contribution of £23,000 from the Parks and Recreation Committee expanded one gymnasium to a 7,200 sq. ft sports hall with a Granwood floor and division netting for several permutations. Thus, the two Croydon Departments had jointly provided a facility that became heavily used on a dual use basis between school and community.

Schools were not the only education sector to provide an early impetus to sports hall design. From the early 1960s several universities, as referred to in Chapter 2, designed sports halls, generally of a very rudimentary construction. They were no doubt influenced by existing provision at some of their continental counterparts. Amongst the earliest university sport halls, apart from the Goodwin Sports Centre at Sheffield in 1960, were those at Birmingham which had two sports halls in 1966 and at Liverpool University, designed in 1965 by leading architect, Sir Denys Lasdun. The university sports centre included the sports hall, with a climbing wall, and a swimming pool from 1967. It cost £300,000 at the time. [See video].

These halls were primarily used by students but there was some other limited use by staff, friends and clubs. Lancaster University, under Director of PE, Joe Medhurst, was the first university to design, develop and promote facilities for both student and public use.

4.1.5 Key benchmarks in the development of sports hall and centre designs

In parallel with and following those first school and university initiatives, progress can be logged through the mixture of approaches taken to design and provision (as outlined in 4.1.1) and the principal issues identified through the following series of events and initiatives. These were some of the key design and provision ‘benchmarks’ of the period.

1)            Designing the first centre: Harlow 1959-1969

In the 1960s the design of the Harlow sports hall had been initially entrusted to the architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, the independent architect working on the wider Harlow New Town development.  Gibberd donated his services for the Sportscentre free, such was the Harlow Trust’s battle for finance to build the sports hall. Gerry Perrin was Harlow New Town’s in-house architect in 1958/59. Perrin worked with Gibberd on the design of Harlow’s sports hall and became one of the earliest pioneering sports centre architects. Perrin’s early involvement in the planning and design of that very first centre led to him being awarded, in 1962, a Fellowship by the NPFA and CCPR, in conjunction with the Polytechnic (Regent Street) School of Architecture. The Fellowship was aimed at carrying out and coordinating research on the planning, design and construction of sports halls and pavilions. The report, ‘Community Sports Halls’ was published, with much technical detail, by the NPFA in 1965 (price – one guinea!). This was the first ‘bible’ of centre design and an invaluable compendium based on the very early research and experiences. It was revised in 1971.

The archived Harlow Trust correspondence shows that in 1963 the construction cost quoted for the sports hall was £118,187, with George Wimpey undertaking the main construction at cost. This gesture also reflected the battle the Harlow Trust had over 3 years to fund the sports hall building with grants from a range of different sources.

Harlow Sports Hall

Harlow Sports Hall

The construction of a ‘simple box’ as a main sports hall (120’ x 100’ x 28’) within budget was the basis of the Harlow design, alongside a flexibility suited to a range of sporting activities. It was considered important to provide a reasonable internal playing environment suitable for most of the main activities accommodated. Smooth-faced grey brick walls and a semi-sprung maple wood strip floor were well-liked by the majority of users. The combination of woodwork (acoustic) ceiling and high-level galleries around the hall, gave a satisfactory reverberation time for both coaching instruction, and spectator comfort during noisier games. Warmed air (50-55oF) was blown down side walls by means of industrial heating units operating from an oil-fired boiler. Two large roof-mounted extract fans gave one complete air-change per hour. The design also enabled 8 badminton courts to be converted to space for trampolining and gymnastics in 10 minutes. Netting to define playing areas, plastic tape for court markings and bleacher moveable seat units were part of the sports hall picture.

The Harlow sports hall was so successful that by 1969 plans were underway for extending the size of the sports hall and the extension came into operation in January 1970. Some adaptations were made, such as a suspended ceiling to eliminate a poor background contrast of the roof area. Harlow’s sports hall was ground-breaking for the UK at that time, and a template had been set for the first centres. It had a basic design, layout, format and regime that would remain, in essence, familiar to most centres over the following half century. It is difficult in the 21st century to imagine the very limited knowledge and design experience that was around at that time as new centres were planned.

2)            Pioneering architects and first design developments
Dunstable Sports Centre

Dunstable Sports Centre

Initially, a small number of pioneering architects, including Gerry Perrin and some Local Authority architects, greatly influenced the first designs. Subsequently, in private practice, Perrin’s work included the design of Folkestone Sports Centre in 1972 (on a difficult sloping site), Dunstable Sports Centre, noted for its irregular shaped pool incorporating standard 25m lanes, and Newbury Sports Centre. [Perrin’s involvement as a Fellow and as a sports centre architect led to publication of his two standard texts – ‘Sports Halls and Swimming Pools’ published in 1980 by Spon, and ‘Design for Sport’ published in 1981 by Butterworth].

The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, which mirrored Harlow’s timing in 1964, was designed by London County Council’s architects, led by Sir Leslie Martin and George Finch. Indeed, the design of a sports centre was so new to the architectural scene that many local authority architect departments, at that time well established and staffed, took on the task of designing the ‘local’ sports centre. As mentioned previously, the first centres were inundated with visiting local council delegations, which included in-house architects with their local brief to fulfil. “If it’s going to be built in our area, we should design it” was a prevalent sentiment, probably alongside considerations of cost and professional pride. Advice however was also taken from the TUS and the private architects involved in the first centres.

Other early architectural credits in this pioneering period included Elder Lester Architects (Billingham Forum); John Rice, who designed Bracknell Sports Centre (and went on to design Ashford Sports Centre), Corporation of Glasgow (Bellahouston) Faulkner-Brown, Hendy, Watkinson, Stonor (Lightfoot Centre), Williamson Partnership (Deeside) and Arthur Gomez (Farnham Sports Centre).

This pioneering period led on to the rapid development of centres in the 1970s, with both Local Authority and private architects coping with the expansion, with some specialist sports & leisure architects emerging in the decade.

3)            NPFA Symposium on Sports Centres: The College of Architecture – The Polytechnic, London February 1969
Historic Record

Historic Record

In February 1969 the first review and significant benchmark – a symposium – was held for the design and building of sports centres. The event was organised jointly by the NPFA and The Polytechnic (Regent Street) College of Architecture & Advanced Building Technology. A presentation was made by Gerry Perrin. Discussion groups were chaired by Harry Faulkner-Brown (Sports Halls); P. Lusher (Swimming Pools) and George Torkildsen (Sports Hall Management).

Perrin presented on centre design and planning with particular reference to sports centres and halls open or under construction at that time. Perrin referred to the early centres of Bracknell, Crystal Palace, Ponteland, Stockton, Billingham, Birmingham University, Bingham, Folkestone, and of course Harlow. Location, he stated, is a big factor in the external design of a centre. Perrin highlighted the various types of locations so far chosen, quoting the examples of town centre (Poole, Basingstoke and Billingham); town periphery (Harlow and Folkestone); sub-regional (Lee Valley) and joint use developments on school sites (Nottinghamshire). Early technical issues identified included sports hall glazing, heating and flooring. He quoted the University of Kent sports hall at Canterbury, which had walls of honey coloured sand-lime brick, as, overall, the most technically correct at that time. At that time, even the preferred size of sports hall was under discussion. Some early indicators for the scale of provision for the size population were also presented. Consideration was given to the advantages and disadvantages of a 1-court sports hall (1 basketball court) over a 2-court hall, although Faulkner-Brown argued a 1 court hall was considered limiting in terms of usage. The capital cost/revenue income ratio was also a consideration but, at that time, clear conclusions were not however drawn on the issue. With a limited number of centres at that time, capital cost was a key focus, with detailed building costs analysed by The Polytechnic based on the Kent University sports hall.

Harry Faulkner-Brown reflected on key points from the Symposium including: –

  • the need for flexibility in sports hall design for types of use and income
  • sufficient storage space for each activity area.
  • separate changing accommodation for pool and sports areas.
  • A suitable general sports hall environment without windows in the walls, with any ideally placed in the roof
  • As robust and maintenance free as possible.

Finally, George Torkildsen highlighted consequent centre management issues, and the political and moral issues surrounding charges and costs to Local Authorities and trusts. However, there were as many design questions as answers in 1969! [At that time incidentally, there was a modest Technical Unit for Sport [TUS] located in the Department of Education and Science].

Reading the report of the Symposium now, it all seems somewhat naïve considering how centre design and operation has developed and become very sophisticated over the years, but these were very early, tentative technical steps in virgin territory.

The race was on at that time for designers to learn quickly and adapt. At this distance it may seem difficult to understand that one of the first problems for designers was the unknown number of users; the unforeseen response of users; and whether the proposed facilities and uses would succeed. During these early days the centre manager was often appointed during the building phase (sometimes earlier), as their sports experience was helpful to the sports detail. Over the years design patterns and procedures became more standardised and professional, thanks not least to The Sports Council’s considerable efforts and leading architects of the time (the TUS had by the 1970s become part of The Sports Council operation).

4)            Special events, reports and publications on the design of centres: 1962-93

Key publications and events on sports halls and centres and their design and provision emanated from different organisations between 1969 and 1993. In the first half of the 1970s, three types of ‘influence’ were of particular note.

a.  Sports Centres and Swimming Pools’, was commissioned and published in 1971 by the Thistle Foundation in Edinburgh and authored by Felix Walter FRIBA. It was a design study with particular reference to the needs of the physically disabled. As such, it was one of the first attempts to relate the sports centre concept specifically to people with disabilities. It recognized that the one of the greatest essentials in the social integration of people with disabilities, especially the wheelchair-bound, is access to public buildings. It highlighted the importance of external entrance by ramp, the advantage of ground floor facilities, and lifts to upper floors where necessary. Various aids for pool access were reviewed. Equally reception, changing and toilet facilities needed suitable designs. The study drew on various examples, particularly Bellahouston Sports Centre in Glasgow, which was one of the first centres to recognise such needs in its design. This may all seem obvious in the 21st century, but remember The Disability Discrimination Act did not become law until 1995 (now replaced by the Equality Act 2010). The Act led to many existing public buildings, including those for sport, leisure and entertainment, having to implement alterations to make them easily accessible for people with disabilities.

b.  Design Conferences at the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne (1971) and Exeter (1972) and in Nottingham (1975)  There was growing interest, at that time, in all the detail of sports centres, from locational planning to design and operation. Seminars and meetings increasingly focused on these issues and the thirst for knowledge was great. All the regions of the UK held seminars on design and management issues in the 1970s and 1980s. An extensive report on the 1971 Newcastle seminar, organized by the CCPR on sports centre design issues, was published. Speakers included Peter McIntosh (‘value for money’ and ‘meeting social needs’); Ian Douglas (‘operations’ – Bellahouston & Bishopbriggs); George Torkildsen (‘evaluating needs’ and ‘deciding priorities’) and Harry Faulkner-Brown on design considerations (the architect of the Lightfoot Sports Centre, which opened in 1965).

Faulkner-Brown highlighted the importance of ‘controlling the environment’, which is always, he said, a product of compromises and establishing priorities. He highlighted in order of importance lighting; heating & ventilation; flooring; and sound. In an honest reflection, he said Lightfoot’s translucent roof was fine for football but a distraction for fast moving ball games (he highlighted how the Houston Astrodome’s glazed dome made it inadequate for baseball). Perhaps as an indication of the overall picture of design development at that time, when he spoke of flooring, he mentioned vinyl flooring on top of plywood (University of Kent), and wooden floors which were common, referring to the maple floor in Sunderland FC’s Washington training hall. Such was the uncertainty at that time that his prediction that outdoor artificial turf carpet (then starting its long trail towards G4 surfaces of today) would become the chosen indoor surface for most sports halls has not come to fruition (yet!). The Lightfoot, which survives today, was the first of very few UK ‘dome’ centres. It was an early example of experimentation and was built to satisfy a brief to provide the largest possible indoor space with the limited funds available. It succeeded in certain ways, despite it being a design compromise.

The Exeter conference in 1972 highlighted the start of more diversification in the type of centre being provided, and hence in designs. Dual use schemes were becoming more common and the need for different kinds of provision besides the large ‘district’ centre started to be recognized. There was also a focus on swimming pool provision. Pool issues covered included the size of pools, technical systems, changing and clothes storage, and operating costs.

In 1975 the construction industry, a commercial beneficiary of the advent of sports centres, organized a major 2-day conference in Nottingham on the design and construction of indoor recreation, sports and leisure centres. An exhibition accompanied the conference. It is no surprise to find that Ron Pickering, George Torkildsen, Harry Faulkner Brown and Gerry Perrin were amongst the speakers, alongside a range of technical experts. This was the most comprehensive event of its kind to be held to date, providing a detailed review of not only UK but also European experience of the design and operation of centres.

Professional journals, especially ‘The Architects Journal’ and ‘Building’, and local government magazines, reviewed the design and construction of some new centres in detail, including Harlow, Dunstable and Alton. This disseminated fresh information at the time. In 1983 The Sports Council published ‘Indoor Sport and Recreation Update’. This was a comprehensive compendium of sports centre reprints from The Architects Journal from that year. It included details of many centres, including Bury St. Edmunds; Northgate, Chester; Rushcliffe; South Tyneside; Worksop, Lea Valley; Hawick; Crawley, Bletchley, Warrington Spectrum; and Rhyl.

c.  The NPFA published ‘Indoor Recreation Centres’ in 1972, based on centres so far developed. Again, Gerry Perrin led the study. “Past is the time when the idea of a sports hall has to be sold” it stated. Four types of centre were identified by the NPFA at that time: –

– Multi-sports (wet & dry centres) e.g. Crystal Palace, Bingham, Worksop, Carlton Forum, Folkestone and Aberdare.

– Dry sports centres + ancillary e.g. Harlow, Wallsend, Bracknell, Stockton, Bellahouston, Meadowbank, Ponteland and Redbridge + university halls

– Recreation centres + sport + arts e.g. Billingham Forum, Carlton Forum, Fort Regent (Jersey) and Canon Hill Park (Birmingham)

– Indoor sports centre – 2 or more sports halls + ancillary facilities.

(Refer to the Introduction – Defining the ‘UK Community Indoor Sports Centre’)

The value of the publication at that time was in reflecting on design lessons from the first centres. It highlighted, for example, how Harlow overcame clerestory window glare by applying anti-glare paint. Consequently, it noted that most new halls at that time were being fully lit artificially, which of course did lead to higher running costs. It also said that there was considerable scope for further research into low-cost mechanical services, especially for pools. The document also recognized the need for operational management input from the very beginning of centre design, and notwithstanding the value of the early appointment of managers, here we see one of the first references to the need for management consultancy. Later in 1974, we can see the development of different design and architectural solutions in another NPFA study, Local Recreation Centres’. Here the focus was on provision for a much smaller catchment than the four types identified in 1972. Here the assessment of provision and design of facilities needed to reflect whether it was a discrete rural or urban neighbourhood (especially in new towns) and whether other welfare services could be embraced in the building. It quoted Killingworth (New Town) Communicare Complex as an example.

Alton SC 1974

Alton SC 1974

Thus, three NPFA reports, these two, together with that in 1965, ‘Community Sports Halls’, provide a useful picture of how the design of centres rapidly progressed in the first ten years, alongside a more analytical and experienced approach to communities and users.

The direct link between research and design was highlighted in 1980. The Scottish Sports Council organized four national seminars on sports centres and swimming pools, following its ground-breaking research exercise – ‘A Question of Balance’. The Seminar ‘Design’ was held in December 1980 it pulled together design experiences to date and highlighted developments in energy conservation and pool purification systems, package deals and low cost centres, and the lack of clear briefs for architects.

4.1.6 The influence of specific sporting requirements and other factors on design development

Individual sports influenced sports hall design. For example, badminton (windows and wall colour); basketball (flooring); trampolining (ceiling height); and 5-a-side football (flat rebound walls and no lower level projections) all influenced ongoing design development. The pattern of indoor provision diversified considerably more than on the continent. This led to the inclusion of large-scale elements such as bowls halls and in some cases ice rinks.

When Local Authorities came to develop centres within their planning regimes and land availability (including for car parking), location of the new building was a significant issue. Over the decades, the majority of new centres were not built in town centres, despite the case for convenient public transport. Much of this had to do with the availability and cost of land and planning considerations. There have been exceptions. Poole Sports Centre [1969] was alongside the bus station in the town centre, and part of the Arndale Shopping Centre. Crowtree (1977) was also built in the town centre, alongside the bus station (recognising lower than average car ownership) and the adjacent shopping centre. Similarly, at that time, the Eldon Square Recreation Centre in Newcastle was part of a shopping centre. Coleraine Sports Centre in Northern Ireland was another built in a town centre. In almost all cases over the years, centre locations fell into the following categories: –

  • Out of town sites [numerous, including Spectrum in Guildford)
  • Sites determined by existing outdoor facilities [e.g. Harlow Sportcentre and Gosling Sports Park].
  • town centre and town centre periphery sites where main transport links are focused [Bracknell].

4.1.7 The role of The Sports Council’s Technical Unit for Sport

The work of the Technical Unit for Sport

Perhaps the main theme to emerge in the first decade or so of new centres concerned the way in which sports architecture was no longer the severely functional expressionism of the 1960s.  By the later 1970s, and into the 1980s, it was becoming more sophisticated and, in most cases, well-organised and managed. A client brief for the architect had been very limited or non-existent at one time, but experience and the work of The Sports Council led to clearer articulation. The rapid growth of publicly funded centres was strongly supported and assisted by The Sports Council. The Council’s Technical Unit for Sport proved to be a progressive force in the innovation and development of centre designs and technology. The Unit was a group of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and other building professionals, under the leadership of Geraint John, who had originally transferred to The Sports Council from the Department of Education and Science. They produced good practice design advice ranging from ephemera on specific topics called TUS Design Sheets to design templates on specific facility types (“TUS Design Guides”).

Vol 1

Design Handbook Vol 1

One of the early Sports Council publications was ‘Sports Halls – A new approach to their dimensions and use’ in 1975. It sought to build on the early experiences and update Chapter IV of Planning for Sport (1968). The TUS seminal work was “The Handbook of Sport and Recreation Building Design” (1981, updated 1995) Volume 2 of which covered all technical aspects of designing indoor sports buildings. This, said The Sports Council in the Preface, had become “established… the definitive practical handbook for architects, clients and providers of sports and recreation buildings”. As a technical guide, the aesthetics of design were left to the architects. It was invaluable guidance during the rapid 20-year expansion of centres.

Indoor Sports Design Handbook

Design Handbook Vol 2

Other volumes of the Handbook covered: –

  • ice rinks and swimming pools (Vol 1);
  • Outdoor sports (Vol 3) and
  • Sports data (Vol 4)

The TUS also monitored and advised on the design aspects of major Sports Council capital grants. The TUS quantity surveyors also monitored the cost of sports buildings and published regular “TUS Cost Guides” which enabled architects, builders and clients to benchmark the costs and value of their projects.

Sports Council initiatives, publications, conferences and low-cost sports halls

Whilst many major sports and leisure centre complexes had been developed by the mid-1970s, mainly serving large districts, an early concern had been the capital build costs of such centres. As early as 1972 the Council of Europe had published ‘Sport for All – Low Cost Sports Halls’ following a course on the subject in the Netherlands (later in 1982 Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre hosted a Council of Europe Seminar on the subject). By the mid-1970s the capital cost of building a sports centre had become an important consideration, especially for smaller councils.

Publications and research provided a backcloth to design development. ‘Multi-Purpose Recreation Centres in Britain: Some Observations’ (Veal), was published in 1974, as recorded in Chapter 2. Tony Veal was to become one of the great sports research gurus of the 1970s and 80s. In 1975 the Sports Council published Design Note 4 – ‘An approach to low costs sports halls’. The Sports Council’s ‘Converted Buildings for Sport Volume 1’ (and later Volume 2 1978) explored how existing buildings could provide economic alternatives, and many such centres were developed (see Chapter 2). ‘Sports Halls: A New Approach to their Dimensions and Use’: was also published by The Sports Council in 1975, although work on this report by The Sports Council actually began in 1971; it sought to revise Chapter IV of ‘Planning for Sport’. It suggested key changes under two main headings: –

  • the recommended sizes of sports halls – marginal changes to length and width
  • scales of provision – in particular: –
    • towns with overlapping catchment areas
    • conurbations or large towns
    • sparsely populated rural areas.

In 1979 a Sports Council Study – ‘Six Examples of Low Cost Facilities’ (Veal) – reviewed both new build centres and conversions (Rochford, Bolton, Notting Hill, Nottingham, Plumstead and Steyning). As highlighted in Chapter 2 [2.14.2], the conversion of older buildings for sport was a successful cost-effective option for some councils in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and some endured for a long time. Other options considered, but not pursued at that time, except for some tennis centres, were air supported structures. Canvas clad structures were another low-cost option and such Spandrel buildings provided sports halls in Westminster and Littlehampton in the 1980s. By 1980 there were approximately 770 municipal sports & leisure centres.  Estimates at that time indicated that the UK could support 3,000 centres by the early 1990s. This was recognised as a major challenge in every respect and from 1982 The Sports Council invested significant research and development resources towards a standardised sports hall design, aiming at lower capital costs.

Clifton Hill SC Exeter

Clifton Hill SC Exeter

As well as literature and advice, the TUS also assisted with design topics for the annual Recreation Management Conference. For example, in 1993, it featured presentations on ‘Policy in Action: Regenerating Buildings for Sport’. It also carried out their own projects as benchmarks for facility development, which included a small joint provision sports hall at Tamworth, which became the model for the Standardised Approach to Sports Halls. It was based on a basic 4 badminton court hall with ancillary facilities (full details of SASH). This was the best known of the initiatives led by the TUS. 27 were built and sought to serve a population of 15-25,000. The Scottish Sports Council undertook a similar exercise to SASH – a Demonstration Indoor Sports Centre (DISC) in Springburn, Glasgow (catchment 18,000). The benefits of SASH and DISC included the potential to replicate buildings elsewhere, saving at least design costs.

Local accessibility to facilities was another important issue in the 1980s. The TUS also developed the Small Community Recreation Centre (SCRC) concept [design guide May 1989]. The SCRC was a prototype Sports Council model designed for large village communities and small towns. This pilot model was introduced by The Sports Council Technical Unit for Sport (TUS) in the mid 80’s. Two projects were funded as prototypes – at Markfield a large village (circa 4,000 popn.) in Hinckley and Bosworth District just off the M1 and at Woodside, a small district in the City of Sheffield. Both had sports halls of 16.5m x 9m. There were questions over the viability of the SCRC model and its running costs and the need to engage experienced recreation/sports centre management expertise. Without that input, running costs were likely to be too challenging. However, the Markfield Community and Sports Centre, eventually became a very real success in the community with additional indoor and outdoor “add-ons” and the facility was steered in the right direction by a full-time Manager.

In the wake of SASH and SCRC a further Sports Council scheme of 5 ‘Optimum’ centres were developed at Hull St. Mary, Barking, Dagenham, East Ham and Fakenham. There were also some other low-cost sports centre projects. John Hurn Construction developed an all timber model in Tisbury, which was commissioned by Salisbury District Council in 1992 to serve western parishes in the District. It had a four-court sports hall and a first-floor fitness facility. The management team won the Sports Council South West Region Management Award. The centre subsequently closed in 2016, to be replaced by the new Nadder Centre.

Design competitions

SASH had evolved from a national competition of 122 entries and was won by a Bovis led team, which included architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. Until then design competitions for sports centres were unusual, but two others were also noteworthy.

The Westway Centre, which opened in the 1980s on a ten-acre site under the White City Roundabout of the A40, is an impressive centre. North Kensington Amenity Trust held an architectural ideas competition in 1973 to explore all uses of the site. This led eventually to the sports centre concept developed. The centre is now run by the Westway Trust.

In June 1980 an architectural ideas competition for local leisure centres was instigated in Northern Ireland by local authorities, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland and architects. The development of sports centres in Northern Ireland initially lagged behind the rest of the UK, mainly because of the political situation there. However, the architectural competition heightened attention on provision in the province and the late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a rapid expansion of centres, especially in Belfast.

4.1.8 Bletchley Leisure Centre – the sport and leisure watershed

The design of most 1970s community sports centres followed a similar format, with new traditional swimming pools being incorporated where these were lacking or very old and in need of replacement. However, in this decade, architects also slowly began to break that mould. Leisure pools began to enter the scene and ‘leisure’ began sitting alongside ‘sport’ as a concept for design. ‘Leisure’ had been around in conceptual thinking in the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s even in those cases where large scale elements such as swimming pools had not been added, most projects now included an ancillary hall (for all those activities not easily accommodated in the main sports hall), at least several squash courts, and usually a martial arts room, weight-training room, meeting room, café, bar and management offices. In some of the first centres, a ‘projectile hall’ was provided potentially for cricket, archery and shooting. Billingham Forum and Basingstoke provided such examples. The incorporation of this facility was generally not continued, and cricket nets usually came to be installed in sports halls. The broadening shift was initially reflected by some new centres giving themselves the title ‘recreation centre’ (e.g. Farnborough Recreation Centre).

The arrival of the ‘leisure centre’ had initially been predicted by the conception of Billingham Forum in 1960 and its opening in 1967. The Forum anticipated the shift that occurred in the 1970s from purely sporting to a combination of sporting and leisure facilities under one roof. It housed an ice rink, swimming pool, indoor bowls centre and sports hall, as well as a theatre. These occupied the four corners of the rectangular complex, with changing accommodation in the interstices and an entrance, two-storey courtyard and foyer. With such a broad range of facilities Billingham could have started an immediate and new direction in design and provision. It was designed by Elder Lester Architects but interestingly they did not go on to design other such centres and it was other architects who pursued the broader leisure theme in the 1970s and 1980s. In the event, the new ‘leisure’ direction was largely signalled by the provision of freeform ‘leisure pools’ in the 1970s.

Bletchley under construction

Bletchley under construction

Bletchley 'Pyramid' Leisure Pool

Bletchley ‘Pyramid’ Leisure Pool

Bletchley Leisure Centre, which opened in 1974, particularly recorded that benchmark. The centre was quite iconic with its pyramid building and it was largely the pool that generated the ‘leisure’ atmosphere. The architects (Faulkner-Brown, Hendy, Watkinson, Stonor) had aimed to simulate the best elements of Mediterranean seaside conditions, with an irregular lagoon shape and having breakers rolling across the pool, plus large areas of shallow water stretching gently up to a beach with palm trees and deckchairs.

Bill Stonor

Bill Stonor

Bill Stonor of FaulknerBrowns has recorded the company’s sports and leisure design developments over 6 decades. The same year, Herringthorpe Leisure Centre in Rotherham opened with a leisure pool, designed by leisure architects Gillinson and Barnett, and also Northgate Arena in Chester, designed by Building Design Partnership. The Bletchley architects followed with a leisure pool in the Concordia Centre in Cramlington in 1977 and in the same year Gillinson & Barnett’s vast Crowtree Leisure Centre in Sunderland opened with a leisure pool.

Leisure pools became extremely popular and attracted many families who might not have attended a traditional swimming pool. The fun element, especially for children, was significant. However, overcoming some of the inadequacies of the leisure pool in the late seventies/early eighties led to some authorities providing an adjoining traditional lane pool as well. Good examples included the Northgate Arena, Chester (1977) which included a training pool alongside a leisure pool. Crown Pools, Ipswich, though not provided with a sports hall, had a 25 metre/8 lane pool as well as a leisure pool. Crowtree’s leisure pool had two parallel sides to provide the potential for swimming lanes and these were used at times by early morning club swimmers.

Many other leisure pools were to follow over the next decade and probably the peak of architectural and user excitement in leisure pools came from architects Sargent and Potiriardis with Coral Reef in Bracknell in 1989. With its pirate ship, slides and other fun elements, it provided an interesting contrast to the nearby and still operational, Bracknell Sports Centre, opened in 1969.

Provision for sport had been the crucial priority from the 1950s and well into the 1990s. Thus, the sports hall however remained very much as earlier throughout this period, although some aspects of design detail progressed with new technical innovations and broader requirements. Sports hall use had often widened in the later 1970s to include non-sports activities such as concerts, dinners, dances, entertainment shows, even circuses and many other activities intended to bring in a much larger income and subsidise those sport uses with a low-income rating. Having said that the brief for Bracknell in 1967, one of the earliest centres, had always envisaged non-sporting use, given there was no other large hall in the area available for civic and similar events.

Gerry Perrin clearly had strong, perhaps later seen as slightly cynical views, about the design direction developing through the 1970s, no doubt influenced by being party to the original advocacy for ‘pure’ sports provision. Perrin said “the design solutions were a series of compromises, which in many cases had at times been to the disadvantage of the sports user. Floors are frequently much less resilient for non-sports events”, he said. He also claimed that heating and ventilation costs became out of proportion to those in ‘pure’ sports halls”. Lighting, he went on, “is based upon common denominators instead of individual requirements and units are often unprotected against probable damage from footballs. Wall linings are often the means for some highly colourful examples of artistic licence required by the overall razzamatazz looked for by some management personnel as part of the leisure scene of today”.

“To design for such multi-purpose use”, Perrin said, “has proved incredibly difficult and, where carried out properly, very expensive.  Where else in Europe, if not the world, for example, would architects be asked to design with the needs in mind of sports such as badminton, tennis, basketball etc., in addition to orchestral and choral concerts, string quartets, live entertainment, large scale spectator events, circus elephants, vintage cars, civic receptions and dances”. One wonders how Perrin would view the scene in the 21st century, where the very provision and programming of sports halls, and management regimes, are very different from those heady heydays of the 1960s and 70s!

4.1.9 Design for the 1980s and 1990s

Early lessons learned and more sophistication and variety

By the 1980s the range of delivery methods had also embraced ‘design and build’ arrangements, facilitating ‘off-the-shelf’ packages, and the external and internal design appearance of centres varied enormously. It was generally accepted that internally an interesting and good quality interior could be created by appropriate materials, quality fittings and furnishings, use of colour and appropriate lighting. From 1989 greater ‘externalisation’ of architectural services by Local Authorities led to the wider involvement of private firms. The British trend towards a ‘black box’ of completely artificially lit sports halls, found much favour by the 1980s and 1990s, despite the higher running costs involved.  On the other hand, where other facilities such as swimming pools are attached, heat recovery systems it was claimed, often compensated for this. Practical experience had led to the exclusion in sports hall design of those activities found from experience to be non-compatible with the main group of activities (football, badminton, and basketball). Climbing practice had largely been confined to ancillary halls.  Table tennis is much better sited in a smaller hall where it can be lit more positively, and yoga classes are also much more private in a separate room.  On the other hand, trampolining has reached standards such that it can only be housed in the main hall.  A second hall specifically for multi-purpose use, to relieve pressure on the main hall, became an acceptable solution.  This had been originally pursued for the first Eastleigh Centre in the 1970s.

A self-portrait - Peter Sargent

A self-portrait – Peter Sargent

Centre design was a gradually maturing market as experience grew and more sophisticated processes were adopted, from the development brief through to the construction phase. Feasibility studies became an important part of the process.

Mark Potiriadis (r) with Jack Nicklaus

Mark Potiriadis (r) with Jack Nicklaus

By the end of the 1980s, despite the aspiration for more facilities, there was a national pattern of significant provision with well over a thousand Local Authority sports centres, as envisaged in principle in the 1950s and 1960s. On the architectural front, the earliest practices to develop specialist sports and leisure expertise, after Perrin and Finch, apart from FaulknerBrowns and Gillinson & Barnett, were Module 2, Building Design Partnership, the Williamson Partnership, WH Saunders and Sargent & Potiriadis (successors to Gillinson and Barnett and a forerunner of this Project’s main sponsor). As more sports centres were contemplated, both those architects, and other large practices, expanded their interest in this new civic building phenomenon.

4.1.10 1964 – 1994: Thirty years of progress in design and development

After thirty years of centre development since Harlow, social, political and financial factors, ranging from the greater expectations of users to inner city challenges; from the justification for provision to capital and operational costs; and from major Sports Council initiatives to operational management developments; had all come to bear on the client brief and the architects approach to designing indoor community sports centres.

By 1995 The Sports Council’s Indoor Sports Handbook of Design (Vol 2) reflected overall progress in design and provision and summarised a more sophisticated hierarchy ranging from village halls/community recreation centres to small sports centres and medium/large sports centres, with facility ingredients, size and cost details. Indeed, by the 1980s, cost considerations (both revenue and capital) had become significant, especially in the context of hard-pressed local government finances. In that respect energy costs, and specific designs for energy efficiency, were a priority. It also emphasised the importance of design in respect of children in sports buildings.

The Handbook also addressed the potential of combining sport with the arts and thereby achieving construction economies. The concept was much rehearsed in the 1960s and early 1970s. However, despite the fitting-out of Afan Lido’s large multi-purpose hall for major entertainment events, and early markers of theatres at Billingham Forum and Stevenage Leisure Centre, the sport and arts and combination was not subsequently pursued in any numbers. Certainly, the large sports halls in many centres, from the Cresset (Peterborough) to the Link Centre (Swindon) and Crowtree (Sunderland), were equipped with large portable stage units and seating and did host large, one-off entertainment events.

By 1995 the approach to the design of reception areas had changed dramatically from the first centres. A more open and friendly design had taken over from the harsher, security screened cash desks often required by Council Treasurer’s departments.

Over the years one of the most important elements of a centre’s specification for sport has been the type of sports hall flooring. The suitability of sports hall flooring is generally significant in the success of a centre. The technicalities of flooring are complex, ranging from ‘durability and ‘bounce’ to ‘sound absorption’ and toxicity’. Whilst a variety of flooring types have been developed and tried over the years, a few have continued to dominate the scene according to desired uses. A timber, sprung floor (often maple strip) is favoured for many sports uses, including basketball and volleyball. Where multi-use is required for flexibility for non-sporting events (e.g. exhibitions) as well as a variety of sports, composition floors, such as ‘Granwood’ flooring, have been widespread. In a smaller number of cases, either a textile or in-situ polymeric flooring has been adopted.

The various uses of centres that had developed over the years had led to the need for more adequate storage facilities than originally planned. Trampolines, five-a-side goals and rebound walls, badminton posts, judo mats, table tennis tables and fixable and portable gymnastic equipment all added to the need for storage. The Handbook gave guidance on storage space according to specific items of equipment.

The design of social areas was also covered by the Handbook and it referred to the potential income that can be derived from such facilities. (see Chapter 5 for catering and licensed services).

Thirty years on from Harlow much had changed in the design and development of centres. The conventional brick buildings, so common in the construction industry in the 1960s and evident in many early centre designs, had gradually given way to more expansive and adventurous design ideas. At the same time experience led to technical developments in structures, fittings and equipment. What is evident from the records of sports centre design of this period is how they remained closely allied to issues of operational management and emerging capital and revenue costs. There was a consistency during those thirty years in that centres were being developed along a pattern of providing better access to facilities across communities. Into the 21st Century, as we see in Chapter 9, different priorities came to bear on the design and provision of centres.

Problems experienced

Of course, the overall successful progress and expansion of centre provision alongside design development did not always go smoothly. Some cheap designs did not last the time expected from the investment, and sooner rather than later needed major refurbishment or replacement.

Early managers often faced challenges as some facilities had been planned, designed and built with insufficient consideration as to who and what the facility was for and how it would be used (other than being broadly designated as a sports or recreation centre.) There was often only limited consideration of the management implications of the design. Often, especially in the early days, facilities were built to a cost and then the management had to organise the programming and staffing, produce income, limit expenditure and create management systems around the limitations of the design rather than the facility and its design being tailor-made to suit the requirements of its operation and management. Limited equipment storage space and office accommodation (on the expectation that it would be run by a man and a dog!) was a common problem. The capital cost of a facility could be huge, with significant running costs being borne by all local residents. Yet the decision to spend such sums was often based on political determination, the demands of pressure groups or simply envy of a neighbouring district’s provision.

Until design and development became more advanced, a very small number of centres hit early buffers! Projected opening dates were often delayed because of building complications and occasionally technical problems caused a centre to be temporarily closed soon after it had become operational. Fortunately, such problems were few and far between. The development of Brixton Recreation Centre probably holds the record for the longest development process. Designed by George Finch in 1971 as the centerpiece of a proposed radical development for a new Brixton, on raised walkways over a motorway, the wider scheme was abandoned in 1973. The Centre then took a further 12 years to complete due to protracted political, financial and labour problems.

A pluralistic approach developed

By the mid-1990s a pluralistic approach had taken root in the design and provision of centres. The following gives a useful hierarchy of the different primary facilities that had been designed according to population. These were: –

  • Sub-regional [for populations of 200-300,000]
  • District [25-90,000 popn]
  • Local or neighbourhood [below 25,000]
  • School and university-based sports centres
  • as well as national and regional centres and specialist sport centres – tennis; squash, badminton.

By 1995-6 sports and leisure centre design had changed dramatically and progressed to a point of general sophistication. The Sports Council, Local Authorities, architects and centre managers were much more knowledgeable and experienced in design matters and many norms and standards had been adopted. Centres were heading for the 21st century, and what would prove to be a largely changing world for their context and therefore their design.

4.2 Research, planning and the search for a standard of sports centre provision

This section provides a summary of the scope and key factors of research into community indoor sports centres up to 1992. It covers three stages: –

  • The search for a standard of provision – up to 1972
  • The new political, social and financial imperatives – 1973-1982
  • The demise of the catchment area study and a focus on ‘priority people’ – 1983 to 1992

It is based on  ‘Indoor sports centres – research on their use, users and non-users, and its impact on policy, provision and management’; an extensive study of sports research activities and processes across the decades. This study has been written for ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ by Mike Fitzjohn and Malcolm Tungatt, two former Sports Council officers, who are highly experienced in the sports research field. The scope of research reports and publications on centres from the 1960s to the late 1990s was extensive. Indeed, no other national sporting topic in that period received so much attention. This research has underpinned all the progress made over the past six decades and researchers can be numbered amongst the pioneers of sports centres, and some were definite ‘gamechangers’. It all started with a search for a standard of provision, against what was perhaps, initially, a ‘build and hope’ approach.

4.2.1 The search for a standard of provision or ‘build and hope’

An early start in sports centre research

In the 1960s several studies were initiated by the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR) and the National Playing Fields Association (NPFA). From 1965 it was The Sports Council, assisted from 1966 by the Regional Sports Councils (and their successor bodies), that led the charge through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, ably led from 1972 by the late Mike Collins, Head of Research, whose role was massively influential – a ‘gamechanger’ for sure.

Academia too was quick to latch on to this emerging social phenomenon, producing copious research papers and books. Indeed, during those 30 years sports centres spawned a ‘small industry’ in research, reviews and strategic planning. Research studies of the use and users of sports centres and, in the later years, studies of people not using sports centres, were fed back into policy, provision and management. Here the period from 1965 to 1992 is addressed.

An overview on the ‘state of play’ in February 1968 was made by Denis Molyneux, in a paper to the Town Planning Institute. Bringing together his background as an academic and his then role as Deputy Director of the Sports Council he suggested, “The approach we are adopting on The Sports Council is that research in the short term should centre on groups of activities and on specific facilities concentrating on their catchment area, the characteristics of their users, and questions of capacity which certain categories of facility can sustain under different types of management and administration”.

 ‘Indoor Sports Centres’ – a ground-breaking study: 1967-71
The foundations of centre research

The foundations of centre research

It was at this point, in 1971, that the publication of the results of the ground-breaking CCPR study by John Birch came in, covering the ‘famous five’ centres referred to in Chapter 2. Surveys of the users of the chosen five centres (on the basis that they had facilities in addition to a sports hall, were widely available for public use, and had been in operation for at least 12 months) – Afan Lido, Bracknell, Harlow, Lightfoot and Stockton – were carried out for a one-week period between November 1967 and March 1968. For a further year, from April 1968 to March 1969, the centre managers recorded the use of the centres in a standard format.

The resulting report, published in 1971, was a detailed and scholarly work, which has survived the test of time. A very small selection of the key travel data obtained is shown in the two tables below:

Distances travelled to the centres (cumulative in brackets)
Percentages Afan Lido Bracknell Harlow Lightfoot Stockton
Under 1 mile 55   48   36   19   22  
1-3 miles 23 (78) 10 (58) 41 (77) 44 (63) 50 (72)
3-5 miles 4 (82) 17 (75) 8 (85) 20 (83) 12 (84)
5-10 miles 9 (91) 8 (83) 7 (92) 9 (92) 9 (93)
Over 10 miles 9   17   8   8   7  


Methods of Transport Used


Afan Lido

Bracknell Harlow Lightfoot


Under 1 mile



66 55


1-3 miles


5 10 23


3-5 miles


21 17 18


5-10 miles


4 4 0


Over 10 miles 2


3 4


(see full study report for age, gender and socio-economic group)

Even the most cursory look at the key results of the study highlighted the under-representation of older people, women, manual workers and non-car owners, all of whom were to become significant issues for sport in the years ahead, and in several cases, lead to specific policy initiatives by Government, The Sports Council, Local Authorities and other providers.

The crucial aim of the enquiry was “to provide factual information about the use of indoor sports centres upon which recommendations for future provision could be based”. This report, limited by the few examples of indoor sports centres, was a valuable first glimpse at the use of centres. Throughout the report Birch was able to highlight variances in the system, not just in the data presented, but by matters such as: differences in the facilities provided (one had a swimming pool; four had athletics tracks); differences in the user characteristics of individual sports (swimming in particular attracted lots of young children, often on foot); differences in management; and differences in programming, not just between individual sports activities, but between the levels of school, club, course, and public casual use, not to mention other community uses of halls for ‘social’ activities.

Nevertheless, in his concluding chapter, Birch put forward an attempt at an outline method of assessing requirements, taking a then prevalent demand and supply approach. He gave two exemplar centres for supply and demand:

  • Centre A – A one court sports hall, 2 ancillary halls, a weight training room, and 3 squash courts, with an estimated weekly capacity of 1,437 users
  • Centre B – A 2 court sports hall, 3 ancillary halls, a weight training room, 3 squash courts, and a hard-porous pitch, with an estimated weekly capacity of 2,123 users.

For the supply he used the data to develop hourly capacities of different components of a centre (e.g. sports hall, ancillary hall, squash courts), and then converted this to a weekly capacity via hours of availability and likely levels of use. On the demand side, he concluded based on the data, that it is reasonable to define the catchment area for indoor sports centres as that area encompassed by approximately a 20-minute car journey or around 4 miles. For the vexed question of participation rates Birch produced four alternative scenarios: 2.5% of the population under the age of 45; 5.0% to reflect current demand that could not be fulfilled; and 7.5% and 10.0% to reflect possible increases in demand.

Working on the “modest 5% rate of participation”, he concluded that Centre A (as above) would be suitable for a community containing an under 45 population of 30,000 (total population 48,400), and that Centre B could serve an under 45 population of 42,500 (total population 68,500). Throughout his work, Birch was always careful to display his reservations and caveats. This was indeed a brave piece of work and a massive leap forward at that time.

Shortly after the publication of that first study, The Sports Council published in 1972 “a first assessment of the need for facilities to meet some of the major requirements for recreation”, ‘Provision for Sport’. It dealt with indoor swimming pools, golf courses and indoor sports centres. The result of ‘Provision for Sport’ was an estimated need for 842 indoor sports centres in England and Wales by 1981, against 27 then in existence.

4.2.2 The new political, social and financial imperatives

The research then moved on, and from 1972 there were new political, social and financial imperatives. By 1974 there were around 300 centres and so for the next decade the priority was to understand the users of these centres. Also, those operating existing sports centres, and those planning new ones, were understandably keen to understand more about their performance, not least their financial performance. The provision of most of the early centres was essentially focused on putting together the necessary capital package, with little or no concern for, or knowledge of, the ongoing revenue costs. In fairness, of course, there was very little data available from the existing centres. The context at that time was a mixture of factors that came to bear on the direction of research into sports centres. This mixture included two General Elections in 1974, which saw the return of a Labour Government and the indefatigable Denis Howell as Minister for Sport; the three-day week; 16% annual inflation; and severe pressure on public sector budgets. Key questions were increasingly asked about the financing of centres.

In 1977 a White Paper, ‘Policy for the Inner Cities’ sought to show, and put forward policies for redressing, the way in which many inner-city residents were being left behind by State provision. There was also an emphasis on ‘larger than local’ facilities in Sports Council grants to Local Authorities, which ensured the provision of some major regional and sub-regional facilities but did little for local communities. Thrown into the mix was the understandable curiosity of academics at this ‘new kid on the block’ – indoor sports centres – and whether their support with public funds was justifiable, and the prejudices and myths of a few local Councillors, and the field was ripe for some good research to try to pin down a few facts. Certainly, the research community then endeavoured to deliver.

Research community reacts with studies of sports centres

The research community reacted to some of the new publications, the general situation and imperatives, and the latest policy pronouncements of 1973/1975 on several fronts. As far as the financial imperative is concerned, at that time research was able to contribute little to the understanding of the revenue effects of providing indoor sports centres. The development of reliable revenue data essentially fell back on individual Local Authorities, exchanges between their officers within their professional bodies and Regional Sports Councils, and the annual statistical series produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). In contrast to the financial dimension, the research community responded to the user and political imperatives – who is using centres?; who is not using centres?; what sports are they playing?; how do they travel?; and a host of similar questions. Indeed, in the second half of the 70s it became a small cottage industry. The often-unwritten text was to seek to refine and develop the work of John Birch in the search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of indoor sports centre catchment areas.

Such studies arose from a variety of sources. Some were commissioned by The Sports Council to examine specific aspects in which it was interested, such as dual use or rural areas. Some were undertaken in house by The Sports Council. Some were undertaken by academia – a variety of self-generated work, paid commissions from Local Authorities and The Sports Council, Masters’ research projects, and occasionally undergraduate projects as well. Only a few were undertaken by Local Authorities where they had some staff capacity.

The following list identifies many of the various sports centre specific studies undertaken between 1974 and 1982.

Specific Indoor Sports Centres:
Year Centre(s) Year Centre(s
1974 Vernon Sangster (Liverpool) 1977 Harlow
1974 The Oval (Wirral) 1977 Moss Side (Manchester)
1975 Guildford 1978 Meadway (Reading)
1975 Hoyland 1978 Michael Sobell (Islington)
1975 Pontypool 1978 Community Schools, Walsall
1976 Park Hall (Walsall) 1979 Billingham Forum
1976 Broomfields (Warrington) 1979 Six Low Cost Centres
1976 Rugby 1980 Guildford, Leatherhead, Woking, F’bor’ & Elmbridge
1976 Haslingden 1980 Newton Aycliffe
1976 Congleton 1980 Torfaen Centres
1976 The Oval (Wirral) 1981 Rugby
1976 Guildford, Leatherhead 1982 Howe Bridge (Wigan)
1977 Billingham Forum

Click from left to right and enlarge with captions for research venues as they are today.

Inner cities: Moss Side Leisure Centre Study – North West Council for Sport and Recreation 1977

 In the latter half of the 1970s issues surrounding ‘Inner Cities’ were a key policy area. Work at Moss Side Leisure Centre, in Manchester, concluded, “Visit rates by local residents are very much lower than for centres in other situations……the use of the swimming pool is overwhelmingly by local residents……the catchment area for ‘dry activities’ is similar to other non ‘inner city’ areas……the centre is currently used well below capacity with marked low visit rates from the local population….. it is apparent therefore that the provision of recreation opportunities to residents of inner city areas does not achieve great success through conventional management styles”.

This was very much echoed in the study of the Michael Sobell Centre, in Islington, where skaters came from closer at hand compared with the participants in racket sports.

‘Identifying the Market’ (Catchment Areas of Sports Centres and Swimming Pools – The Sports Council 1982)

NO CAPTIONIt is interesting that after a review of studies of the catchment areas of sports centres and swimming pools had started, Mike Collins quickly concluded that there was sufficient information for a suggested development process, which was added before publication in 1982. Reflecting this, the title became ‘Identifying the Market’. Mike was able to write in the Foreword, “Much research on sports facilities in the past has attempted to assess what has taken place; now we can distil this descriptive research into prescriptive”.

On catchment areas and distances travelled to indoor sports centres the study highlighted that the number of visits from within one mile ranged from 10% (Crystal Palace) to 59% (Moss Side) whilst, at the opposite extreme, the number of users travelling more than 5 miles varied from 8% (Meadway, Reading) to 55% (Leatherhead). The conclusion was drawn that “the amount of variation between the individual centres is so great as to make average figures of limited value for planning purposes”.

On methods of transport to indoor sports centres there was again considerable variation. Car use ranged from only 38% (Afan Lido) up to 85% (Congleton), bus use from as low as 1% (Congleton) up to 34% (Vernon Sangster, Liverpool), and even travel on foot varied from 3% (Crystal Palace) up to as high as 50% (Park Hall, Walsall). The researchers concluded that “generalisations based on average results from surveys of travel patterns are also fairly meaningless in planning terms”. They went on to examine and summarise the factors which influenced these variations under three distinct headings:

  • Summary of User Characteristics (age/sex; social class; car ownership; education).

The exact relationship between the user characteristics and the catchment areas and travel patterns was difficult to establish, and several of the factors were closely correlated. Nevertheless, it was concluded that “as long as sports centres and swimming pools continue to attract different groups of the population in unequal volumes, their catchment areas and the methods of travel used to visit them will continue to be dependent on where the potential users live in relation to the centre or pool”.

  • Summary of Facility Characteristics (activities; age & attractiveness; size; pricing; programming and booking; joint provision; image & publicity)

The characteristics of centres and pools were seen to vary greatly and, for this reason alone, probably had a greater effect on individual catchment areas and travel patterns than any other factors. Clearly “what activities are provided, how attractive a centre is, and the way it is managed, etc., are all aspects that can be influenced by planners and managers, and it is important that the effects of such factors are recognised and taken into account when attempts are made to predict the potential ‘market’ of any centre or pool”.

  • Summary of Facility Location (distribution of population; geographical location; competition)

Four settlement types were identified for swimming pools, from conurbations and large towns down to villages. With less information on sports centres, comparisons were possible between conurbations and large towns and settlements of under 90,000. In the past the opportunism of many developments in terms of site availability made their precise location less than optimal. Some locations were affected by natural or man-made barriers to direct and convenient access to the facility.

‘Identifying the Market’ also highlighted earlier work at Billingham Forum and in Tameside, together with other references. With the mass of data, much conflicting, the researchers sought to draw constructive conclusions which would be helpful to practitioners moving forward.

They summarised as follows: –

“What is clear from the many studies that have attempted to designate catchment areas is that much more sophisticated techniques than have been used in the past are required if the results are to be usefully applied by planners and managers. The Billingham and Tameside examples indicate that facilities do have definable catchment areas and zones of transition where catchments ‘fade away’, but each individual pool or centre has a unique catchment which cannot be reflected in general terms. Simplistic statements in relation to average distances or population provision targets are of little value and may in fact serve only to confuse”.

The conclusions went on to suggest that there was really no substitute for planners and managers undertaking regular detailed monitoring of existing centres and gathering similar local information when planning new centres. A suggested development process to assist, which gained wide acceptance, was also suggested (see full study for the process).

The ‘before and after study‘: ‘The Impact of a New Sports Centre on Sports Participation and Sporting Facilities: A Case Study of the Atherton Area 1976-1981’

This particular report, whilst completed too late for inclusion in ‘Identifying the Market’, is highlighted not because it is the longest title in history, but it is the only known published ‘before and after’ study of the provision of an indoor sports centre. The ‘before’ study was carried out in 1976 at a time when a new sub-regional indoor sports centre, Howe Bridge, was under construction. In addition to this reason, the town of Atherton (just north of Leigh and incorporated into Wigan MBC in 1974) was chosen because it was a reasonably compact and self- contained entity, had no purpose-built sports centre or sports hall, and was manageable in terms of size and population (21,000) to allow a detailed research examination. The town was re-visited in 1981, both to conduct follow-up surveys of the clubs and facilities revealed in the 1976 survey and to undertake a comprehensive user survey of the new Howe Bridge centre.

Somewhat unusually, the researchers summarised their conclusions from the studies in a style based, with a bit of poetic licence, on some of the comments from local Councillors that they heard at meetings of the North West Council for Sport and Recreation. The issues will be very familiar to those in recreation management, especially around this time!

‘Sports Centres are only costly replacements for older buildings that could still be used’ – WRONG – Most older buildings are still used. Only one building in Atherton has stopped being used as a result of Howe Bridge opening. Since the centre opened the number of other buildings used for sport has increased from 40 to 44.
‘Sports Centres help all sorts of people take up new sports’ RIGHT Just over a third of all users had never played their sport before Howe Bridge opened. This includes 40% of all elderly swimmers, over 50% of young sports players (under the age of 24), and nearly 60% of all female sports players.
‘Sports Centres simply provide additional facilities for players who already have somewhere else to play’  – WRONG – Only about a third of Howe Bridge users go on playing elsewhere. Amongst those living close to the centre in Atherton, 3 out of 4 swimmers no longer go elsewhere and 2 out of 3 sports players have similarly stopped using their previous facility.
‘Sports Centres help young players carry on playing when they leave school or college’ – RIGHT – The most common reason given for no longer using another facility was ‘leaving school or college’, and as many as 40% of young people (under the age of 24) give this reason. What would they be doing now if the centre wasn’t there?
‘Sports Centres are mainly used by people who live close to them’ – RIGHT – Even though Howe Bridge is halfway between two towns with few people living nearby, 3 out of 4 users live less than 3 miles away. Only 4% live more than 6 miles from the centre.
‘Sports Centres aren’t needed as they only provide the same sort of things as voluntary sports clubs’ – WRONG – They serve a different sort of player. Only a third of players using Howe Bridge had ever been a member of a sports club. Moreover, only 15% of the facilities used by players before the centre opened were owned by sports clubs.
‘Sports Centres help kill off local clubs by taking players away from them’WRONG Indeed the reverse seems likely. Despite the fact that many casual users of Howe Bridge have stopped playing elsewhere, this is not the case with club players. In fact club membership in Atherton has increased by nearly 25% since Howe Bridge opened.
‘Sports centres prevent new sports clubs developing’ – WRONG – The Howe Bridge Centre has actually helped new clubs to get off the ground. At least 6 new sports clubs have been formed as a direct result of players having facilities available regularly at the centre.
‘Sports Centres are used mainly by private club players using them for extra games’ – WRONG – Only 1 in 4 players using Howe Bridge were active members of a sports club, and many of these were actually members of a club based at the centre itself, either for club activities or for training.
‘Sports Centres are too expensive and too crowded for sports clubs to use’  – PERHAPS – Some smaller clubs in Atherton can’t afford to book the centre. Nevertheless, 61 clubs used the centre during Autumn 1981 and some Atherton clubs found it difficult to get a regular booking because the centre is so popular!
Howe Bridge today

Howe Bridge today

‘Sports Centres can be built near to one another because each will generate its own users locally’ – RIGHT – At Howe Bridge, 2,000 new users were generated in under 5 years, and yet there are 7 other sports centres and 12 swimming pools within 6 miles of the town.

TO CONCLUDE  Far from undermining the position of existing clubs and facilities, Howe Bridge Sports Centre has helped new clubs to form and existing ones to expand their membership. Local sports centres can therefore co-exist with local clubs, each serving a different type of ‘sportsman’. Ultimately the needs of any community are best met by the existence of healthy clubs and well-managed public sports facilities, with public money invested in both sectors of provision.
Torkildsen’s overview in 1982

George Torkildsen, reflecting on the overall picture in 1982 in his masterful ‘Leisure and Recreation Management’ (1983) very usefully concluded that:

  • First, it is clear that new indoor centres increase participation substantially. In the 1970s there was an increase of over 200% in indoor activities.  This change in the pattern of usage may, in part, be attributable to the slowing of the indoor sport centre building programme during the late seventies coupled with the rise in the provision of outdoor all-weather synthetic pitches and courts.  The 1983 GHS figures show only minor changes to the general picture of participation since 1980.
  • Second, at present levels of indoor sports provision, it would appear that new ‘dry’ centres scarcely affect the use of existing facilities.
  • Third, the centres are used by a far higher proportion of young people in virtually all centres.
  • Fourth, sport centre users generally have higher proportions of participants from the professional, non-manual and skilled groups than from the semi-skilled and manual groups.
  • Fifth, at present levels of distribution, the bulk of users of centres continue to come from within 4 miles, although a recent survey undertaken for the Sports Council (Study 24 – Identifying the Market) (56) reveals that within this generalisation there is an enormous amount of variation from centre to centre.
  •  Sixth, jointly provided centres appear to be more cost-effective than separate provision, especially in ‘dry’ centres and especially in large or small centres rather than medium sized centres”.

However, by 1982 the ‘ground rules’ had changed. The ‘golden days’ of user surveys and catchment area studies had passed, perhaps forever. There were yet new political and policy imperatives, and therefore a whole new research agenda.

4.2.3 The demise of the catchment area study and the priority of people

‘The Teesside Recreation Project’

The period from 1983 to 1992 saw the development of the new political and policy imperatives and their implications for sports centres. It was also set against the background of a substantial shift in the scale of facility provision and an even greater shift in The Sports Council’s grant funding. The Sports Council’s new Strategy in 1982, ‘Sport in the Community’…the next Ten Years’ was not however a revolution, but an evolution which started in 1975 when the Sports Council agreed to fund a research project, jointly funded by the Arts Council, to investigate sporting provision in Teesside which, as noted in Chapter 2, had led the country in the wide provision of sports facilities.

The new project, broadened to the County of Cleveland because of Local Government re-organisation in 1974, was entitled ‘The Teesside Recreation Project’ and its objectives were to identify the urban recreation facilities and clubs for sports and the arts, and the supporting structure for them across Teesside. As well as the traditional detailed analysis of the ‘membership’ catchments of four of the five major sports centres in the area (Billingham Forum, Thornaby Pavilion, Eston Leisure Centre and the Stockton YMCA Centre; the Stockton North End Centre did not operate a membership scheme), the project analysed the distribution of clubs and the structure of provision for five sports and arts interests (soccer, badminton, fencing, bowls, and folk clubs) and the specialist arts facilities at Thornaby Pavilion and the YMCA Dovecot Centre.

The conclusions on the sports and arts club structures were largely in line with the more detailed study in Atherton in 1981, as previously recorded. Although the large sports centres had leagues based at them for five-a-side soccer and housed clubs for badminton, most of the sporting provision, and the league and club structure, for the sports studied operated in much smaller halls and other facilities totally independently of these major centres. The membership catchments of the four major centres also reflected the later conclusions of ‘Identifying the Market’ with one additional significant factor emerging. The closeness of the four centres to one another allowed a study of the way the catchments overlapped. It was clear that members travelling some distance away from the smaller towns in County Cleveland, and from County Durham and North Yorkshire, were almost exclusively from the more affluent areas; more mobile users and more able to afford the time for the journeys involved. However, one of the most interesting parts of this analysis was the number of members of the four centres living in Middlesbrough district, which itself had no large indoor sports centre provision. These members also came almost exclusively from the more affluent areas of the district.

The conclusions of this initial analysis of the Cleveland sporting structure led to the extension of The Sports Council’s funding for the project for a further three years. The extended study was designed to focus on the changing structures of provision, but also to concentrate on the ‘social aspects’ of participation. If the indoor multi-sport centres were operating largely outside the overall sporting structure, and more affluent users dominated their membership and usage patterns, how could provision be changed to better reflect the overall needs of the wider population of County Cleveland and how could the outcomes of the research be best applied across the country as a whole?

The extended research included a focus on the ‘Development of Guidelines for Local Indoor Multi-Sports Provision’. If the current indoor sports centres were not the answer to equitable participation patterns, what could, and should, be done to make better use of the facilities which were being used for sport locally and how might these uses be extended? The aim was to “understand more fully the possible social contexts and procedural problems for establishing such local centres with less emphasis to the technical problems of local provision”. The study included an analysis of the potential for wider sporting use of schools, colleges, evening institutes, community centres, social clubs, and public houses, as well as the potential for wider community use of facilities owned by sports clubs.

The general conclusions were that, even within any one of these categories of potential local provision, the particular circumstances of each facility “would attract or repel users or potential users”. In particular, for the community facilities, high prices versus subsidised pricing, membership versus non-membership, the presence of ‘social facilities’ or not, and the style of management were all important factors. The concluding paragraph of the report noted that “there is no doubt that there is sufficient gross demand for sports facilities to justify the provision of local indoor centres, [but] we have tried to show that local demand is not simply mass demand on a local scale; local provision should thus aim at specific local needs. Unfortunately, this raises the ever-present problem of the measurement of need for recreational facilities; we must reiterate here that assessment beyond purely technical matters is a socio-political exercise”.

The second part of the extended research reflected the changing Sports Council funding for facilities across the country in 1977/78 linked to the new grant-aid programme, ‘Providing for Sport in Areas of Special Need’. The main thrust of this new approach centred on the concept of outreach work. The main conclusions of all of this research were confirmed by later Sports Council studies in other parts of the country. It was clear that in the future any successful ‘intervention’ to increase local casual participation would be more about how these types of facility were promoted and micro-managed rather than their location. Just putting small scale facilities in to deprived neighbourhoods was not the answer. If the facility was not embraced by the local community it was just as likely to be perceived as ‘not for them’.

The third aspect of the Teesside research project was entitled ‘Response to Innovation’. An analysis of the impact of a new Indoor Bowling Centre in Newton Aycliffe in 1978 was included. Although some sports halls provided opportunities for indoor bowls, and as recorded in Chapter 2, Thornaby Pavilion had an indoor bowls hall built into its design, the Newton Aycliffe centre was one of the first modern, separately managed, indoor bowls centres in England. It also marked a wider trend; the shift towards indoor single-sport provision, and the fact that many of these facilities, even in sports centres, would now function more like local ‘clubs’ with a membership base attracted by the common interests of their fellow members and by the ancillary facilities on offer, as much as by playing the sport itself. A further study of indoor bowls centres carried out by The Sports Council in 1981 suggested that free-standing bowls halls, rather than rinks within sports centres, would be the preferred model, although this study did recognise that rinks within sports centres had raised the visibility of the sport. Indoor bowls centres would be provided in large numbers over the next twenty years.

The impact of sports centre research on strategy and planning

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, whilst the number of sports centres had grown, so too had the research projects. The point was reached where all the research results and the issues identified started to bear more forcibly on broader strategic thinking, and especially on the role and work of The Sports Council. If one were to give an overview title to the strategic actions that followed it would be based around ‘participation and non-participation’. This was the start of a long process over several decades whereby sports centres moved from ‘the be all and end all’ focus, to their role in a much wider strategic sporting agenda. This was epitomised by the development of the North West Regional Recreation Strategy, which was published in 1980 after a two-year research programme. (The first of the other nine regional strategies which would be published during the next two years). The research had been based on evidence that recreational provision across the region was not accessible to many of the residents of the North West. This applied equally to the many indoor sports centres that had been built. This led the Strategy to focus many of its recommendations around the concept of identifying target groups.

Sport in the Community…The next Ten YearsAt national level the publication of ‘Sport in the Community…The next Ten Years’ in 1982 was the most significant strategic development by The Sports Council. Not surprisingly, the analysis behind the Strategy highlighted that growth in participation in indoor sports had doubled in the 1970s and recognised that “the mainspring of the growth in indoor sport has been the multi-sports centres”. However, it also recognised the conclusions from much of the research outlined above. “These [indoor multi-sport centres] are essentially local in their impact and introduce new people to sport without emptying existing facilities or damaging clubs. Where they are readily accessible and well marketed and managed, they attract a wider use by the local population”. But the Strategy went on to confirm many of the other research findings, noting that “there are groups which are low in participation – housewives, especially those with young children, semi-and unskilled workers, people over the age of 45, and the handicapped [sic], ethnic minorities and the unemployed”.

Although in its ‘claim for resources’ the Strategy recognised the continuing contribution these types of facilities could make, with an identified need for a further 800 sports halls, 150 of them in areas of special need, there were significant caveats. Firstly, the sources of the funding needed to change and “partnership schemes with sporting and other voluntary bodies and commercial interests will need to be widely used”, in addition to the contribution of Local Authorities and the wider public sector. It also said many smaller and cheaper indoor sports centres could be provided through converted buildings or package designs (as outlined in Chapter 4.1).

‘Sport in the Community’ marked the significant shift from a very heavy focus on achieving more indoor sports centres towards ‘sports development’ through funding and training resources that focused on experimental initiatives which could also be promoted within the context of the management of indoor sports centres. The Council also committed itself to carefully selected demonstration projects aimed at increasing participation amongst the target groups identified in the Strategy.

Arun Study

It was in the 1980s that local councils also started to take a wider strategic interest in leisure needs and demands. One example was Arun District Council’s comprehensive ‘Recreation and Community Needs Study’ (1986). It was carried out in-house, over 2 years, and moderated by George Torkildsen. (See Chapter 9 – Consultancy).

The new emphases on initiatives such as publicity programmes, intervention schemes, outreach work, working with non-traditional partners, and delivering local opportunities through a new workforce of sports development officers and local activity promoters might, on the face of it, seem to be marginalising the role of indoor multi-sport centres. However, this was not the case and although the ‘related’ research would change dramatically in its style and delivery, the focus on ‘non-users’ certainly did not marginalise the research into the continuing impact of the indoor multi-sport centres.

Most of the evidence from studies of projects which sought to attract new participants identified the need for these new ‘sports players’ to find a venue or club to continue their sporting interests, and in many cases indoor sports centres provided this local opportunity. In addition, the growth of Local Authority Sports Development Units, whose main remit was to increase sporting participation, led to partnerships with Local Authority indoor sports centres and, in some cases, written agreements to allocate time and space in the centres for use by the Unit’s participants.

However, there was a growing body of evidence that many of the indoor sports centres were not as welcoming as they might be to these new participants. In 1985 the Polytechnic of North London was commissioned by the Greater London Council under its ‘Stress Boroughs’ funding programme to take a different look at the ‘performance’ of seven ‘Leisure Centres in Inner London’, including the London Boroughs of Hackney, Southwark, Lewisham, Haringey, Islington, Camden and Brent. It would be one of Tony Veal’s last contributions to the UK indoor sports centre research agenda before his departure to Australia.

This particular piece of research is included here because of the different emphasis to the usual research agenda of the 1972 – 1982 period outlined above and because it makes a useful link to the predominant agenda of the post-1992 period, which is covered in Chapter 9.

The objectives of the research were wide ranging, but significantly the focus was on the ‘management’ of the centres as well as their users. Specific objectives included:

  • an examination of the centre’s stated policies and objectives
  • an examination of each centre’s programme and the effectiveness of their marketing strategy
  • the organisational efficiency of each of the staffing structures
  • and the pricing policies of each of the centres.

Some of the general conclusions were fundamental, and frightening, at the time! The authors noted that “the centres are making a significant contribution to the quality of life of Inner London, but this contribution could be even greater if management were guided by clearer policy objectives against which progress could be measured”. They were very critical of data collection methods, in particular with regard to delivering on a wide social agenda; “how can an Authority know whether it is providing for the whole community or is achieving ‘Sport for All’ if this sort of information is not available”? They noted the “relatively poor financial performance of some centres due to their failure to generate sufficient income” but felt that “managers could be given more freedom to experiment with special events in slack periods, to vary prices to create ‘special offers’, and so on. A more commercial approach need not involve abandonment of social objectives”.

But the authors reserved their biggest criticism for the ‘image’ of the centres and the following report quotes from the Report sounded a worrying note for everyone involved in the world of indoor sports centres in the late 1980s:

  • “generally speaking the centres studied offer a rather sombre, even forbidding face to the world”
  • “they do not, from the outside, or even from the inside, appear to be ‘fun’ places”
  • “in the recent campaign against rate-capping, colourful banners have proclaimed the existence of Local Authority facilities to the citizen: perhaps in future such banners can be used to tell them what goes on inside!”
  • “the image projected by many Local Authority leisure facilities is a dour, ‘municipal’, inward-looking image, whereas a facility which is meant to be providing an enjoyable service to the community should have an image which is bright, outgoing and welcoming”.

By 1992 a host of fundamental changes had taken root that directly affected the delivery of leisure services, especially indoor sports centres, not least the introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT). Other changes were quickly to follow, and an entirely new environment then existed for research and future strategies for sport generally, and sports centres in particular, to which we will return in Chapter 9.

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