Chapter 6: The era of rapid progress

6.1 The exponential growth in sports centres 1976-1999

6.1.1  The early platform was a springboard

The platform of early centres up to 1975 was a springboard for growth in the type and numbers of centres thereafter. In earlier chapters we detailed the arrival of the first UK sports centre in Harlow in 1964. We saw the trail of centre developments after Harlow up to Local Government Re-organisation in 1974/75. Between Harold Wilson (who had resigned as Prime Minister in 1976) and Tony Blair (Prime Minister from 1997) major developments on the political, social and sporting scenes provided an important context and came to bear on the development and operations of centres. These are set out in Part Three (Chapters 7, 8 and 9). Importantly in Chapter 8, we focus on two major areas of change and development in centres – the arrival of competitive tendering and the increasing role of joint provision. Both have had long term impact and deserve close and separate consideration.

This chapter concentrates on giving a flavour of the pace of growth and the centres and the people and activity that characterised the progress over the quarter century. The significant social phenomenon of sports centres became increasingly replicated across towns and districts. From 1976 to 1999 the number of sports centres rose from 320 to approximately 1,800.

6.1.2  Numerical growth of centres
1981 needs Provision for Sport

1981 needs Provision for Sport

‘Provision for Sport’ (1972) published by The Sports Council recorded that in 1969 there had been 27 indoor sports centres across England and Wales [extant at Dec 1969, including loan sanctioned – Wales was 3 extant]. Chapter 2 (Paragraph 2.15) listed a small selection of those opened from 1968 to 1973. The very first centres had led onto a period of rapid expansion and by 1972 there were around 100 centres, including conversions. By the end of 1973 this had quickly grown to around 170 centres.

The Foreword of the Sports Council’s ‘Sport in the Community – The Next Ten Years’ (1982) said “For sport in Britain the 1970s were years of remarkable achievement; achievement in facility provision, in the growth of playing sport indoors, and in challenging for world supremacy in several sports”. According to the 1993 British Leisure Centre Guide a total of at least 150* new centres opened during 1974 and 1975 (*about 90 and 60 respectively), partly reflecting the impact of Local Government Re-organisation, implemented in 1974. By 1976 there were approximately 320 centres, setting a strong platform for future provision for all the new local authorities that had not inherited new sports centres, had centres in planning or were wanting to extend their provision.

In 1979 the total had reached approximately 600 centres. Whilst sports centres had arrived steadily during the late 1960s and early/mid 1970s, a slight tailing-off of developments, caused by some financial restrictions, meant that the Sports Council target, set in 1972, for a further 815 centres, including a potential deficit of 56 for Wales, was not realised. Nonetheless continuing growth was fuelled by the support and encouragement of the Sports Councils in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the inevitably envious eyes of some councils yet to develop centres in each town or area.

Impact of Neighbouring Centres

Impact of Neighbouring Centres

The great majority of centres were developed by local councils, and of course within their boundaries, and as numbers increased the location of centres in adjoining authorities became a consideration from the viewpoint of usage and income. In the light of John Birch’s research study in 1971, 1972 ‘Provision for Sport’ had suggested, at that time, that centre catchments should be 4 miles or 20 minutes travelling time (see Chapter 4 – Research hyperlink). In 1980 The Sports Council published ‘The Impact of Neighbouring Sports and Leisure Centres’. This was based on an in-depth study with surveys of usage undertaken at Guildford, Leatherhead, Woking, Farnborough and Elmbridge Sports and Leisure Centres from 1975 and 1977. One issue for attention was the proximity of Guildford (opened 1971) to Woking (opened 1976) and the impact of the latter’s opening. They were approximately 8 mile and 20 minutes travel time apart. Amongst the detailed findings, was the analysis of visits by geographical origin, which showed limited impact of Woking at Guildford, and vice versa. The bigger factors seemed to be management policies, programming, events, and building fabric and repairs.

‘Sport in The Community’ recorded 770 community sports centres by 1981 [460 major centres and 310 smaller multi-purpose sports centres). This meant that in two decades from the mid-1960s to 1983, the number of indoor centres [including free standing sports halls], rose from a mere handful to approximately 875 in England and over 1100 in the United Kingdom by 1983. Close to 500 of the 1100 had been provided jointly by county councils and district councils under joint management partnerships or in conjunction with education facilities.

By 1987 the total in England reached around 1,200 centres. By 1994 there were 1600 centres in England An interpretation of Mintel Data kindly provided suggests that by 1999 the number was approximately 1,800.

Such has been the growth in the number of centres that the various chapters, including this one, can record interesting but only representative specific references to a fraction of all the sports centres developed. At the same time there has been growth in publicly accessible, freestanding sports halls, not least on school sites, that do not fit the original base definition of a community indoor sports centre, but nonetheless has made a huge difference to indoor sports provision.

[By 2011 Sport England’s Active Places recorded that there was a total of 4,700 sports halls with 3+ badminton courts and one third had been built between 1986 and 1996, especially reflecting the growth of joint provision and school-initiated sports halls].

6.1.3  The swimming pool moves into sports centres

Despite the historical origins and emphasis of sports halls in centres, one of the ever-present factors over the six decades of centres has been the role of swimming pools. From Victorian times the predominant indoor municipal recreation facility had been the ‘public baths’ – usually a rectangular swimming pool of 25yds or 33⅓yds length (before metrication). The arrival of the community indoor sports centre eventually altered the approach to the location of swimming pools. Initially there was no clear pattern for new pools, with some being built as part of new sports centres and others on separate, free-standing sites. Incredibly, in 1982 there were still 138 pre-1914 swimming pools in public use (15% of total) and there were also 174 outdoor pools. Between 1960 and 1969 there were 146 free-standing pools built and just 20 within sports centres. Some rejuvenated baths still thrive today – such as Smethwick Swimming Centre.

As more councils began to incorporate swimming pools into their new sports centres, bringing ‘wet and dry’ facilities together, the picture changed. Between 1970 and 1977, whilst 209 free standing pools were built, a further 176 were built within sports centres. By 1988-1989 CIPFA statistics recorded Local Authorities as operating some 1,700 indoor facilities with an almost equal split between the three categories – wet, dry, and wet & dry. This eventually leads, in a later chapter, to the role of swimming pools in the 21st century, which, with the boom in fitness activity and the technology of moveable floors, took pools to new programming potential.

View 5 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

 6.1.4  The nature of centres diversified

The broadening nature of provision was a characteristic of this quarter century, as was the changing nature of facilities. Prior to this the first centres tended to follow the pattern of the first centres such as Harlow, where the sports hall focus was on a simple box design with limited social and ancillary facilities. As design ideas and facility aspirations developed we saw a greater variety of types of centres. There was not, however, a consistent pattern to the type of new centres developed over the next 3 decades. Very broadly, the 1970s and 1980s saw the development of numerous sports centres very much along the lines that had become the accepted early pattern, together with some larger, more adventurous schemes that we see in para 6.3, which formed part of the new ‘leisure age’ for centres. Each decision was a local one, although the experience of previous centres and those being developed in parallel, together with new architectural ideas, played their part. Writing in 1983 (‘Leisure and Recreation Management’) George Torkildsen reflected these changes, referring to several signposts depicting the journey from the early centres to the larger, more comprehensive centre.  The progress was characterised, he said, not only by the number of new facilities but by the variety and type of provision.

6.1.5  Evolving facility provision and locations

Broadly two types of centre provision can be discerned from 1976 to 1999. Firstly there were the centres developed largely by local authorities that had not previously provided a centre and were in ‘catch up mode’, or had more than one centre of population and added a centre[s]. These followed the early pattern of facility provision. Secondly, there were those local councillors and architects who were brave and pushed the boundaries with ‘leisure age’ centres that we see in para 6.3.

So, the early general pattern of centre provision and design largely predominated across the UK for at least 20 years from the mid-1970s. Detailed building structure designs varied and technical lessons on fit-out and equipment had been learned on many fronts, but the core essence of the sports centre largely remained – a sports hall (either of one or two basketball court size), a swimming pool (if provided, usually the traditional type) and some form of catering or vending provision. Other facilities that increased in number in centres due to their popularity were squash courts, indoor bowls and additional smaller activity rooms for yoga, dance and martial arts, and sauna/solarium suites.  The British Leisure Guide 1993 analysed facility provision within its c.1300 recorded centres. In accordance with our adopted definition of a centre, the analysis identified that: –

“100% had a Sports hall; 72% a fitness room; 62% squash courts; 59% a bar; 43% traditional swimming pool; 38% cafeteria; and  13% indoor bowls hall”.

We also see the impact on design and facilities with the ‘Leisure Age’ centre. These had added dimensions with additional facilities, softer furnishings, more circulation space provided and an increasing emphasis on ‘leisure’ (para 6.3).

By the late 1970s numerous centres had been opened in cities and towns across the UK. District councils often had the task of balancing the needs and demands of different towns within their boundary. Some districts had a large geographical spread and that made achieving adequate indoor sports provision across the area especially challenging. Centres continued to be developed in a variety of locations, but as the period went on fewer town centre sites were chosen. The need for easy access by both car owners and non-car owners, and for enough car parking, increasingly favoured suburban and out of town sites. Joint provision centres on school sites flourished through this period (see Chapter 8). The rise in the number of centres we have recorded over the 25-year period gives the immense scale of the development process across all UK regions.

From the mid-1970s to the end of the 20th century the role of the Sports Councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in extolling and supporting the provision of community indoor sports centres ran parallel in thinking, encouragement and support to that of The Sports Council in England (see Chapter 7: 7.2 The Role of The Sports Council). Across the UK, differing demographic, geographic, political and social differences all came to bear on centre developments in each region.

6.2 The projects and places across the regions of the UK

Centre development activity across the countries and regions of the UK is summarised here with some exemplar provision, providing regional perspectives embracing both similarities and differences across the country providing, on the one hand, for cities and towns, and on the other hand for less populated areas. A small number of representative centres are referenced for each region.

6.2.1  Sports Centres in Scotland

The development of sports centres in Scotland largely ran parallel to England in terms of timing and the nature of the centres developed. Perhaps the biggest difference however (as in the case of Wales and some English regions) was the ‘town & country’ challenge of provision in towns and cities and in large areas of less populated countryside.

Scotland’s first centre, Bellahouston, had opened in 1968, the same year as the Bells Centre in Perth. The Meadowbank National Centre had opened in 1970 and all three of the first sports centres set the scene for Scotland’s progress (a converted drill hall had also been operating as a sports hall in Greenock since the mid 1960s). The 1960s and early 1970s saw approximately 20 centres constructed. One of those was the Olympia in Dundee (1974). Plans were first approved in January 1970. It was constructed beside the old swimming baths and it opened with a new pool in 1974. Perhaps indicative of the times, it closed on bank holidays, which caused a public outcry and protests, and led to a change a year later.

A Question of Balance

A Question of Balance

In the 11 years following 1968 sixty-five community sports centres were constructed in Scotland and at least a further 25 in the 1980s. An important benchmark for the UK, and Scotland in particular, was established by The Scottish Sports Council in 1979 with an extensive research exercise – ‘A Study of Sports Centres and Swimming Pools – ‘A Question of Balance’. It was one of the largest research exercises into indoor sports facilities in the UK. The voluminous research study report led to four follow-up National Seminars being presented by The Scottish Sports Council in 1980 and 1981. In the Foreword it tellingly stated: –

“The initial capital costs of constructing sports centres and swimming pools, and the resulting revenue expenditure, often are one of the largest elements in the budgets of providing local authorities. Yet despite their importance in both recreational and financial terms, relatively little is known of how these facilities are used, what effect they have on participation and to what extent the allocation of financial resources to them represents value for money”.

Bells Sports Centre under construction 1967

Bells Sports Centre under construction 1967

The study selected 21 community facilities, including swimming pools, which were operational across Scotland at the time, 9 of which were community indoor sports centres: –

  • Bellahouston; Bells; Bishopbriggs; Danderhall; Dingwalls; Forfar; Grangemouth; Jedburgh; Tryst.

Gracemount Leisure Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1989, the Fraserburgh Centre in 1990 and the Citadel, Ayr, in 1997. One of the centres to open at the end of this period in 1999 was the Forth Centre in South Lanarkshire (renamed the Willie Waddell Centre in 2019). The geography ‘north of the border’ is also exemplified by the development of centres on The Shetland Islands. Here it was the oil resources which provided the significant funds for what is the most intensive local sports centre provision in the UK – 6 leisure centres and 2 swimming pools across the islands serving a total population of 23,080 (Clickimin; Unst; Yell; Whalsey; North Mainland; and West Mainland leisure Centres and Scalloway and South Mainland Pools).

View 7 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

6.2.2 Progress in Wales

The development and growth of centres in Wales had similarities with Scotland, with the few main cities and large towns taking a lead, with more rural locations presenting more of a challenge. Thus dual use and joint provision, arranged between county and district councils, played an early major role in providing community sports facilities. In the early years Wales had proportionally more such centres than elsewhere in the UK. As we have seen, Afan Lido (1965) and Deeside LC (1971) had initially led the way as major pathfinder centres in Wales. The National Sports Centre for Wales, Sofia Gardens, Cardiff also opened in 1971. The  Sports Council for Wales report “Sport in Wales – Facilities” published in 1975 recorded 37 indoor sports centres available in that year and identified 21 of those jointly provided sports centres and halls and 16 provided directly by districts.

By regional categories the 16 district/LA centres, as recorded by The Sports Council of Wales in 1975 [’Sport in Wales – Facilities’], were: –

CLWYD (Deeside; Flint; Plas Madoc, St. Asaph, Rhyl); WEST GLAMORGAN (Afan Lido); GWENT (Pontypool, Ebbw Vale, Llanmartin, Abertillery); MID GLAMORGAN (Abercynon, Caerphilly, Aberdare [Sobell], Bridgend, Rhondda, Rhydcar). Changes to these areas were made in a re-organisation of Welsh authorities in 1996.

Schools listed as joint provision centres in 1975 included: – Alun High School (Mold SC); Alyn (Connah’s Quay SC); Prestatyn;  Pembroke; Llandindrod; Caldicot; Nantyglo and Cwmbran (both Fairwater and Llantarnam). The 1975 review also identified the need for 109 more one-court (basketball size) sports halls across Wales by 1986 (60 jointly provided and 49 by ‘district’ authorities).

Princess Margaret opened Colwyn Bay Leisure Centre in North Wales in May 1981.The leisure centre in Newport opened in 1985 and had a leisure pool with flume and wave machine and a multi-purpose sports hall. Cardiff and the surrounding area were active into and through the 1980s in developing new sports centres – Western LC (1979); Eastern LC (1982); Fairwater (1983); Llanishen (1987 – with leisure pool); Pentwyn (1989); in 2001. It also took over control of the Star Centre in Splott (1981).

Swansea and the surrounding areas opened a small centre, Morriston Community LC, in 1970 and Swansea Leisure Centre in 1977 but several centres were developed through the 1980s and 1990s. These included Penyrheol (1985), Pontarddulais LC (1992), Penlan (1995) and Hengoed LC.

View 7 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

6.2.3  The special factors for centres in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland provides a very different picture of sports centre development to the rest of the UK. This is largely because the spread of sports centres in the UK coincided with such a difficult political and social period in Northern Ireland history. Widely referred to as the ‘Troubles’, meaning the sectarian conflicts leading to violence and terrorism across communities, the scenario presented obstacles and parameters for provision over a 25-year period, not present elsewhere in the UK. Prior to 1973 Northern Ireland lagged behind the rest of the UK with half a million population and no sports centre. Indeed at that time there were no multi-purpose leisure-based buildings in Northern Ireland, except for the Queen’s University PE Centre. There were simply swimming pools, including The Grove Baths in Belfast (famous for hosting a dolphin show in the pool in 1978) and Larne swimming pool (1968), much later to become a leisure centre with a sports hall.

The Sports Council for Northern Ireland (SCNI) produced ‘Future Indoor Facilities for Northern Ireland’ in 1975. It recorded two recreation centres as operational in 1975 (Antrim Forum, which had been the first [see Chapter 2 para 2.13] and Brownlow in Craigavon) and 5 under construction. So the provision of sports and leisure centres started slowly compared to the rest of the UK. However it soon got underway from 1974, with an input of government funding not seen in the rest of the UK. The Seventies saw £26M invested in major Northern Ireland public centres (c. £200M at 2019 values). Despite the critical situation, both economic and political, 1976 saw the opening of two new centres in Enniskillen (Lakeland Forum) and Templemore Sports Centre, Londonderry and the start of what some called the Ulster Recreation Revival. 1977/78/79 saw the completion of the Valley Leisure Centre in Newtownabbey and centres at Carrickfergus, Strabane and Downpatrick and three in Belfast – Anderstown, Avionel and Maysfield. Anderstown, known for the wrong reasons previously, took on new meaning for Northern Ireland sport, with a 3-pool complex with sports hall, squash courts and outdoor pitches. The Shankhill (Belfast) and Lisnagelvin Leisure Centres (both with leisure pools), and Carrickfergus Leisure Centre, all opened in 1979. In 1983 the Seven Towers Leisure Centre opened in Ballymena (based on the original 1971 swimming pool).

There is little doubt that spending on recreation and leisure became partly geared to trying to ease social divisions and tensions, but whether it achieved that is a matter for debate. Nonetheless centres were developed on a conveyor belt! Students from the 1980 North London Poly DMS Recreation Management Course visited Northern Ireland in 1980 and noted in their report “the importance of centres in providing a focal point of the community and hence assisting in establishing a sense of identity for the user. The situation in Northern Ireland gives some credence to the belief that recreational opportunity can act as an agent of social control.” The report, in parallel with the wider UK experience, also highlighted that the large capital investments made over the previous 7 years were made with little concern for running costs.

By 1989, under what was known as the ‘Belfast Experiment,’ the public leisure facilities in Belfast were unmatched by any city in the UK and sports participation in Belfast was at a high by UK standards. It attempted to take the young unemployed, a major element in the street riots, off the streets and into centres. The Government had proposed 7 large leisure centres for Belfast. A change in Government policy  then reduced this to 4, but the “Belfast Areas of Special Social Need Report” recommended a further 10. Within the very favourable financial and grant context at that time, Belfast then boomed with centres, opening 14 new leisure centres from 1977 to 1984. Nine of the centres opened in the 1980s. These were: – Belvoir Activity Centre; Brook; Falls; Girdwood; Grove Wellbeing Centre; Lisnaharragh; Loughside; Olympia and Whiterock.  The planning problem had been where to build the centres. Originally the plan was to place them on boundaries between Catholic and Protestant areas for shared use. The approach failed as there were seen by each side as provided for the other! Thereafter locations became geared to one community or other, reinforcing rather than negating divisions and presenting challenges for equal provision.

Thus by the late 1980s consolidation of existing facilities became the main priority. In 1989 SCNI published a research study ‘Community Response to Leisure Centre Provision in Belfast” examining their impact. The overriding conclusion was that the investment in Belfast was paying off.

The developments in Belfast and the rest of the UK had been a spur for the rest of Northern Ireland to provide for their communities. Other centres developed during the period included Omagh, Lisburn and Coleraine. Sports and leisure centres had taken root in the country. As time has gone on, decisions on sports and leisure centres have become a little less partisan and political.

View 10 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

6.2.4  The English Regions

All the English regions also continued to progress new centre developments. However geographical, social and demographic characteristics meant there was a slightly different emphasis from one region to another. Here we highlight some of those differences, with examples of the approaches taken and some of the centres developed in the period (centres in some regions are also recorded elsewhere).

  • Evolution in South West England

South West England provided a different perspective on centres to some other regions. The picture in the South West of England over 20 years of the indoor sports centre revolution from the mid-1970s, as recorded for the Project by Peter Barson (1938-2017), former Sports Council Regional Director, SW Region, is included below.

In some parts of England local government reorganisation provided an incentive (and the resources) for local authorities to invest in a “local sports centre”.  In the South West local authority interest in such investment was more circumspect.  Many local authorities serving coastal resorts largely continued in their traditional way of providing for the tourist/visitor markets with an emphasis on upmarket conference centres such as at Bournemouth and Torquay and in maintaining attractive gardens.  Investment in new swimming pools, particularly in the emerging leisure pool concepts did attract political support however as amenities for residents and visitors.

During the 1980s a variety of “new” leisure pools were built which proved attractive, notably in Swindon, Minehead (Butlins) and Torquay. Indeed Thamesdown Council’s Link Centre at Swindon, with its ice rink, theatre and pool attached to the public library galvanised thinking on the part of local authorities across the south west of England.  A fully integrated leisure service, including sports and leisure centres, under Director Denys Hodson helped Thamesdown’s reputation.

Meanwhile in Bristol and Plymouth, the South West’s two significant centres of population, political interest in developing local (“dry”) sports centres was slow to materialise. The emergence of the standardised approach to sports halls (SASH) – a national Sports Council project – did however generate interest and the first South West project was built in Exeter closely followed by a second at Horfield in Bristol.  Both projects proved successful in providing the concept of attractive, cost effective local sports centre provision and in Bristol it also contributed to the City Council’s first integrated leisure services department under Alan Barber, previously the City Parks’ Manager.

The Sports Council’s regional team had during the 1970s concentrated its facilities’ planning efforts on governing body of sport aspirations (not all of which were fulfilled in a local sports hall), but with the sports centre revolution having taken hold nationally, matters changed in the 1980s. With various strategies, promotions and capital grant incentives the Sports Council aided by the South West Council for Sport and Recreation moved the sports centre revolution on across the South West.  For example, in 1967 the South West had no sports centres as such and just 8 sports halls with some public access. Barnstaple Leisure Centre, a major centre, opened in 1975 as did Bath Sports & Leisure Centre. By 1984 the region had 65 community sports centres, plus 30 existing sports halls (mainly education), and had identified a need for a further 122. Exeter’s Riverside Centre opened in 1986 and by 1993 the South West recorded 147 sports halls in total, a rise of 40% from 1989. The region had the second highest population growth of 7.8% between 1981 and 1991. A major element in advancing the process across a region with so many small towns and scattered communities was the appreciation on the part of many local authorities that dual use and joint provision of sports facilities on school sites can make social, economic and educational sense.

Sports Council grant aided centre schemes up to 1993 included Lux Park Leisure Centre in Liskeard; Lords Meadow LC, Crediton; Taunton Sports Centre; and Salisbury SC. District Councils in the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire), North Dorset and Caradon (South East Cornwall) were amongst early successful partners of their education authorities on school sites in the creation of accessible indoor sports centres for school and community. Mid Devon Council opened Culm Valley Sports Centre on a school site in 1985. Taunton Deane Borough Council led by its Leisure Services Manager, Alan Itter, created an effective indoor sports centre strategy for the community on school sites (with Somerset County Council) to complement the strategic indoor tennis centre adjacent to the M5 and its swimming pools. In Tisbury in 1992 Salisbury District Council developed a low-cost sports hall with fitness gym based on all-timber structure to serve the district’s western parishes. It was also a regional winner in the Sports Council Management Award.

View 7 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

  • South East England – not all populous!

1976 saw the South East welcome a large new centre in one of its major towns, Crawley in West Sussex. Crawley Sports Centre was bolted on to an existing swimming pools complex and was one of the most comprehensive centres in the UK at that time, combining an array of indoor and outdoor facilities. The Dolphin Leisure Centre also arrived in 1976 in Haywards Heath. Hastings  Sports Centre opened in 1980 and Battle Sports Centre in 1987. Progress in the South East had seen 44 centres by 1981 and, by 1986, 63 sports centres and halls with public access. By then 9 of the 15 priority locations identified in ‘Prospect for the Eighties’ (1982 GLSECSR) had indoor facilities, 8 of which were supported by Sports Council grant.

Arun District’s first centres were Arun Leisure Centre (1978), a joint provision centre, and Littlehampton Swimming & Sports Centre (1983). Centres opened in Kent included Medway Park in 1979, Rye in 1987 and the Weald Centre, which opened in 2000. An interesting and unusual development was Surrey Heath’s Arena Centre (1984) in Camberley as Surrey Heath Council purchased the design plans of Farnham Sports Centre (1981) from Waverley DC for £45,000. The Arena Centre became an early private sector management contract, in advance of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (see Chapter 8). Chichester’s Westgate Centre opened in 1987 and the major centre for Guildford, The Spectrum, opened on the outskirts of the town in 1993, replacing the original town centre sports centre built in 1971.

However, despite widespread centre developments across towns in the region, not all local authorities rushed to have sports centres. Some of the geographically larger district councils formed by Local Government Re-organisation that did not have any centres, had the challenge of serving several towns or large geographic areas. At the time these projects were large, costly and, in some respects, unproven. Conversely, such councils that did have a centre were under pressure to make provision in the other towns. Certainly, this was the case in some parts of the South East England, which, whilst a generally populous region, did not present a straightforward picture for centre provision. For example, Mid Sussex DC in West Sussex was created in 1974 from parts of East Sussex. It then embraced the towns of East Grinstead, which did have a sports centre, and Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill which at that time did not.

One district which developed a successful strategy to tackle the challenge of provision for a large semi-rural area with small town settlements was Horsham District. It provides a useful example. The District covers 205 square miles in West Sussex, and apart from the main town of Horsham, included the large villages of Steyning, Pulborough, Storrington, Henfield and Billingshurst, and other villages in a total of 32 parishes. Horsham provided a good example for similar districts.



David Fisher was appointed as the District’s Leisure & Recreation Manager in 1974 and with enthusiastic Councillor support, led a positive and diverse strategy. As he arrived, The Park Recreation Centre in Horsham (pop. c.24,000) was under construction. That alone was a difficult project, with the complexities of being in a public park. Prior to Local Government Re-organisation, the County Council had built a sports hall for the Grammar School in Steyning (pop. c.6,000), as recorded by Tony Veal in ‘Six Examples of Low-Cost Facilities’. The District Council then decided to contribute towards the operating costs to facilitate some community use for the first time, on a pre-booking basis. A swimming pool was added in 2000. The centre is now run as a dual use partnership between Steyning Grammar School, Horsham District Council and Steyning Parish Council.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s the Council developed a range of different projects to meet community recreation needs and demands. Dual use schemes between the District and County Councils were developed for the existing sports hall and swimming pool at the Weald School (Weald Recreation Centre) in Billingshurst (pop. c.7,000) and the sports hall at Forest School in Horsham. A grant from the District Council also enabled Henfield Parish Council (pop. c.5,000) to develop a 1-court sports hall (basketball size) at a Henfield primary school.

To complement these centres, one of the earliest ‘Sportsmobile’ schemes was developed, like its London Docklands forerunner. Under the leadership of David Bridges, the Council’s ‘Sportsmobile’ successfully took games and fun into the villages and rural areas. Later, in 1987, Broadbridge Heath Sports Centre (pop. c.3,000) opened with the District’s largest facility in 1987, as an adjunct to a Tesco supermarket development. In 1989 a sports centre was developed in Storrington (pop. c.6,000) by the Parish Council, with a grant from the District Council. Dave Fisher later moved on to Hove Borough Council and was subsequently succeeded at Horsham by Chris Dier, former Manager of the Walnuts Centre when it won the Sports Council’s National Management Award in 1981.

View 7 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

  • Development also went on apace in the other UK regions
  • Eastern

With a large geographic spread of towns and villages, the challenge for sports centre provision in the region was similar to that of the South West region. In December 1974 the region had 42 centres and between 1974 and 1981 29 further new sports centres were developed. By 1982 the Eastern Council for Sport & Recreation was reporting that “the continued provision of facilities is still important to meet ever-growing demand….. but… believes the emphasis for the next few years should be on the promotion of participation…”; and refers to targeting low participation groups. The towns of Bury St. Edmunds, Cambridge, Colchester, Felixstowe, Great Yarmouth, Hemel Hempstead, Ipswich, Luton, Norwich, St Albans, Stevenage, Sudbury and Welwyn Garden City all had sports centres by 1999, some from the 1970s. However, as with the south-west given the spread of towns and villages, joint provision was much in evidence. Haverhill was one of the region’s earliest joint provision centres in 1971 and others followed. By 1994 the region had 158 sports centres, including 56 on education sites.

  • East Midlands


The East Midlands region had 14 centres in 1973 and 38 centres in 1976, 18 of them in Nottinghamshire, and there were 169 centres in the region by 1993. 59 were on school sites including the ground-breaking Nottinghamshire joint provision centres (see Chapter 8). Other prominent centres in the East Midlands included Moorways in Derby, Charnwood in Loughborough, Hinckley, Braunstone in Leicester, North Kesteven, Grantham and Daventry. Benham Sports Arena (operated by NAYC/ACUK), one of the region’s largest with a 45m x 42m sports hall, opened in 1990 in Northampton.

  • West Midlands

The West Midlands had progressed from 13 centres in 1973 to 125 in 1987. By 1994 there were 198 centres. Coventry figured prominently. All the city’s pools had been bombed in the war and as part of the long city-rebuild a new pool complex opened in 1966 (the Lord Mayor claimed that it was ‘finest baths in  Europe”). It became a leisure centre with the addition of a sports hall in 1977. Sandwell Council’s Haden Hill had opened in Warley in 1976 and became a Sports Council Management Award Winner. The 1980s saw a spurt in the region, including Perdiswell in Worcester (1982), Hereford (1985) and Cocks Moor Woods in Birmingham (1987). The Crystal Centre in Stourbridge opened in 1990.

View 2 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

  • Southern

After the arrival of Bletchley’s ground-breaking leisure centre in 1973/74, the Southern Region went on to reach 130 centres by 1994, of which 79 were on education sites. Notable centres included Montem in Slough (1972), the Magnet in Maidenhead and Fleming Park in Eastleigh, both in 1974, Northcroft in Newbury (1980), Ringwood in the New Forest (1982), Mountbatten in Portsmouth (1983), and the Kennet Sports Centre jointly provided in Thatcham (1988).

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  • North East

As we have seen in earlier chapters, the North East was at the forefront of providing some of the first centres. Apart from the pioneering centres of Lightfoot, Stockton, Ponteland, Billingham, Thornaby, Eston and the Carlisle conversion recorded in Chapter 2, other early centres had included Wallsend, Killingworth and Ashington (all 1972) and Newbiggin (1973). These provided a valuable context to developments from 1976. The Eldon Square Centre in Newcastle in 1976 was in an unusual upper shopping centre location and purported to be taking a more commercial approach. Apart from the ‘landmark centres’ of Concordia and Crowtree (both 1977) previously mentioned, spread across the region and the quarter century were Cockermouth (1978), Blyth (1979), Louisa Consett (1980), Redcar (1982), the Dolphin, Darlington (1982) and The Sands in Carlisle (1985). The Wentworth Centre was opened in Hexham in 1986 and the Swan Centre in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1990. Riverside in Castle Morpeth opened in 1991. The pace was maintained with 170 centres having been opened by 1994. Alnwick’s Willowburn Leisure Centre was opened later, in 2003.

Over the years Northumberland, the most northerly county in the region and England, has been an interesting and ever-changing element of northern sports centre provision, not least because of its administrative arrangements. Northumberland has existed as an administered area since the 14th century. In 1974 six district councils were created from the existing Northumberland area by various amalgamations. These six councils were Blyth Valley, Wansbeck, Castle Morpeth, Tynedale, Alnwick and Berwick-upon-Tweed, with Northumberland operating as a county council. However later, from 2009, the districts became one unitary authority – Northumberland County Council. Thus some centres have moved around from one council to another. In 2019 all Northumberland CC centres are operated by Active Northumberland.

  • North West

Congleton, Sandbach and Alsager leisure centres opened in 1976 and by that year the North West had achieved 31 multi-sports centres. Over the next 20 years this reached 198. Major developments in this period included Horwich in Bolton, Moss Side in Manchester, Everton Park Sports Centre in Liverpool and the Hyndburn Centre in Accrington. Activity in the North West is also reflected in Chapter 4 through the special research paper.

  • Yorkshire & Humberside

The centres opened included Hull (Haltemprice and Woodford), Scarborough, Barnsley (the Metrodome) and Sheffield (the Concord). The Richard Dunn Centre opened in Bradford in the 1980s, the Middleton Leisure Centre in Leeds in 1986 and the vast Doncaster Dome in 1989. Yorkshire and Humberside had 145 centres by 1994.

Apart from provision in the major towns and cities the region also had some extensive rural areas. This led, in 1987,  to a major study, with surveys, of the rural areas of Ryedale and Swaledale – a total area of 895 sq. kms and a total population of 8,000. This was undertaken for the Yorkshire and Humberside Council for Sport and Recreation and directed by Sue Glyptis. At that time the only Ryedale sports hall facility was at Ampleforth College, with limited public use. Swaledale had one facility, The District Council’s  Richmond Swimming Pool and Richmond Sports Centre.

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  • Greater London

Greater London had 158 centres by 1994. This included Vale Farm in Wembley, Redbridge, Walnuts in Orpington, Waterfront in Woolwich, Harrow, Brentford Fountain, Tolworth in Kingston-upon Thames, and Lewisham and the Elephant & Castle. Battersea opened in 1996. The choice of locations in the London Boroughs was not only influenced by existing centres in that Borough, but also by the location and catchment of centres in close-neighbouring boroughs.

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  • Islands not excluded!

The project has explored all the mainland regions of the UK in pursuing the story of the sports centre. It is easy to forget that there are a great variety of inhabited islands off our coast which have also made sports and leisure provision. The Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, all self-governing British crown dependencies, have developed centres. The Isle of Man has a National Sports Centre in Douglas, opened in 1991.  Jersey has its famous converted fort, whilst Guernsey developed the impressive Beau Sejour Centre. The Isle of Wight Council has several centres including the Medina, Heights, Westridge, West Wight and Fairway (Sandown).We have referred to one of the most well-known examples, the Shetlands, where an amazing level of leisure centre provision has been made. The islands of the Hebrides (Innse Gall) have also built centres. The Hebrides has Castlebay Sports Centre (and hall at Castlebay School) and two separate swimming pools. Lewis Sports Centre was opened in December 2004. It is the regional sports facility for the Outer Hebrides and was supported by the largest-ever sports facility grant from SportScotland.

The Orkney Islands Council operates five swimming pools on school sites, one on the Mainland (Stromness) and four on the isles (Westray, Sanday, Stronsay and North Walls). The Pickaquoy Centre at Kirkwall opened in 1999. The Pickaquoy Centre is a first-class sports, arts, conference and social facility run by a Trust, which was set up to manage the Centre on behalf of Orkney Islands Council.

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6.2.5  Conversions still playing a part

We illustrated the role of converted buildings as sports centres in Chapter 2. Victorian mansions, factories, maltings, town halls, stations, gas holders, an aircraft hangar, a corn exchange and churches had all been used – even the Fort on Jersey. Cockermouth Sports Centre has been developed in stages over the years, but still has a drill hall sports hall from the 1970s. Whilst from the mid-1970s new sports centre buildings were the order of the day, funding for new centres was a challenge throughout the period. Consequently, although there were sometimes questions about converting buildings to sports centres, they still played a small part, either as the original conversions continued, or a few new ones came along. Greenock Sports Centre to this day utilises the old drill hall as part of the centre. Shettleston Sports Centre in Glasgow was a 1924 public washhouse and swimming facility which was converted to a sports hall and opened in 1987. 1980 saw the first commercial conversion, Cannons Fitness Club in the arches under the Cannon Street railway station platforms.

One of the most successful conversions was undertaken in the 1980s by The Jubilee Hall Trust, which to this day operates a sports and fitness complex, which was part of a wider development, created over a long period from the Jubilee Hall Flower Market at Covent Garden. It was opened by the Queen in 1987. The Trust now runs four sports and fitness centres in London.

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6.2.6  Inner City Provision

The provision of sports centres in inner city areas was an issue from the 1970s and throughout this period.

Two 1977 Government reports (HMSO) highlighted the focus on inner city issues. ‘Policy for Inner Cities’ and ‘Recreation and Deprivation in Inner Urban Areas’, plus a paper, ‘Fair Play for All’, set the context by highlighting the factors which militate against the disadvantaged using public facilities to the full. ‘Recreation Deprivation in Inner Urban Areas’ had stated that the policy to provide sport and recreation facilities ‘for the whole community’ had not benefited the disadvantaged, who make proportionately less use of them. Social class was also a big factor in determining the activity interests of inner-city residents. Whilst centres were being quickly developed elsewhere, it started to be evident that provision in inner cities and other areas of social deprivation was lacking. Factors, including long-term unemployment and poor housing, were highlighted as the roots of social and economic malaise. Racial integration was another important matter. Constructive use of leisure time was recognised as important and inner-city partnership projects endeavoured to embrace the importance of recreation opportunities. The location of provision was also crucial, given low car ownership in inner cities.

The riots in Toxteth, Liverpool and Brixton in 1981 brought significantly extra focus and action. It also fuelled the debate about equality and inequality of recreation opportunity. In the immediate aftermath of the riots in Toxteth in July 1981 Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for the Environment, was sent to Liverpool by Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to meet the local community and interested parties, and to develop a Government response. One such meeting was held at Anfield on 31 July with sporting interests in the City. Heseltine offered ‘sport’ £1m (2019: £4.2m) of Government funding on the spot if it could be matched £ for £ from other sources. The fund became known as the ‘Merseyside Initiative’.

One project funded from this source was a sports centre in Toxteth. The timing coincided with the development by The Sports Council of its Standardised Approach to Sports Halls (SASH) project (see Chapter 4). Although the nine regional prototypes had already been chosen, the legendary Norman Wilkinson, Head of Sport & Recreation at Liverpool City Council (see Legacy Legends and Gamechangers), suggested that the proposed Toxteth Centre also be to the SASH design, thereby saving time, saving design costs, and ensuring quality and design attractiveness. Toxteth Sports Centre was opened on Upper Hill Street, Liverpool, 8, at the heart of the Toxteth Community, in 1984, and became a major community focus for many years. [The centre closed on 30 July 2011, almost 30 years to the day since Michael Heseltine came to Liverpool. It was demolished and replaced in 2013 on an adjacent site by the ‘Fire Fit Hub’, a unique co-operative venture between the City Council and the County Fire Service].

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Other inner-city centre construction projects about this time included Brixton Recreation Centre, the Moss-Side Centre in Manchester, and Manningham Sports Centre and a Pakistani Community Centre both in Bradford. We have also referred previously to how the government and the City of Belfast responded to its particular problems of inner-city social unrest with the provision of sports centres.

6.2.7  UK overview

The table below gives an approximate overview of regional UK centre development during the quarter century covered in this chapter.

Distribution of Leisure centres (based on approx. 1300 British Leisure Centre Guide 1993 responses)

% of UK centres % popn
Scotland 9.7 8.9
North West & N. Wales 11.1 13.2
South Wales 5.3 4.2
Northern Ireland 4.0 2.7
Northern 5.0 5.0
Southern 7.2 7.7
Greater London 8.3 11.8
South East 7.1 5.9
Eastern 9.7 7.9
East Midlands 6.6 6.9
West Midlands 9.3 9.1
South West 9.5 8.1
Yorkshire/Humberside 7.2 8.6

The table suggests that, overall, the number of centres broadly reflected population, notwithstanding the variations in regional demographic profiles.

6.3 The ‘age of leisure’ arrives at centres

6.3.1 The leisure age had been predicted

As we see have seen in Chapter 4 (research), and Chapter 5 (catering), and will see more fully in Chapter 7, various political, economic and social changes and consequent architectural design ideas (in Chapter 9) began to bear on centre provision. As we have seen, the ‘leisure age’ had been predicted for some time, with more free time and holidays to spend on activities of choice.  Already, through management enterprise, leisure activities such as roller skating, dances, circuses, and spectaculars of all kinds had become part and parcel of many a sports centre programme.  Indeed it could be argued that all sports centres from Harlow onwards were ‘leisure’ centres. Deeside was the first to open with the label ‘Leisure Centre’, although Sale Leisure Centre opened in 1973 and claimed to be the first to call itself ‘leisure centre’ even though its facilities were those conventional at that time.

However, with the benefit of hindsight the move from sports centre to leisure centre was a significant one from the mid-1970s. The Sports Council had promoted the idea that higher specification, with social facilities and quality finishes, would further increase participation.

The Forum at Billingham had certainly been ahead of its time when opened in 1967. With its theatre, ice rink, pool and sports hall it showed that the facilities can themselves dictate the type of leisure use and user. In the Billingham case the architecture and facilities met known demands (e.g. theatre) and created new demand (e.g. ice rink) and management played a key part in dictating the leisure programme. However the Forum did not, at least not immediately, set off a wave of similar leisure buildings as sports centres continued to follow what had become a largely repetitive pattern, given the special focus on sports halls.

One of the earliest UK ‘leisure’ building designs was Gillinson and Barnett’s ill-fated Summerland in 1971 (see Chapter 5 – 5.2.9). It was not a leisure centre as we know it, but it was a sign of a trend that would influence public sports and leisure centres. It was specifically designed for Isle of Man holiday makers. It accommodated up to 10,000 people and comprised a dance area, five floors of holiday games, restaurants and public bars.

6.3.2  English leisure pools lead the new age

In the early months of 1974 there had already been some ‘leisure age’ portents for public sports and leisure centres. England’s first three leisure pools had opened at Bletchley (February – architects: Faulkner-Brown, Hendy, Watkinson, Stonor); and Rotherham (March) and Whitley Bay (April) – both by architects, Gillinson and Barnett). Indeed the arrival of the leisure pool was the most significant sports and leisure centre development since the Harlow and Crystal Palace NSC sports halls. The pools were of free-form shape, lagoon like, with shallower depths and a colourful Mediterranean/Caribbean atmosphere and temperatures. They provided better fun for children and families splashing about. New technology helped with wave machines and new water purification systems removed the impact of chlorine on the eyes. They would it was argued, revolutionise swimming patterns and appeal to a wider section of the community, many of whom had been put off by the clinical, tiled traditional swimming pool, sometimes described as akin to the ‘flooded downstairs of a hospital’! Of course conventional pools were ideal for competition and swimming lessons and towards the end of the period the innovation of moveable floors arrived to broaden the  programming flexibility of such pools.

Bletchley and Rotherham were multi-purpose centres with a range of facilities including a sports hall. Whitley Bay was a free-standing pool complex in a traditional seaside location seeking to meet both local and visitor demands. These centres helped to start a ’leisure’ trend and a shift from titles like ‘sports centre’ or ‘recreation centre’ to ‘leisure centre’.

Bletchley Leisure Centre aimed to provide a quality and range of facilities not seen in centres before. Social, meeting and informal aspects were of great importance with cafeteria and bar becoming focal points. Phase 2 of Bletchley Leisure Centre (phased from 1973) was the UK’s first public leisure pool, opening in 1974. It marked the new benchmark in UK sports and leisure centres. It was housed within a glazed pyramid, with a 300m2, freeform pool. The architects had aimed to simulate the best elements of Mediterranean seaside conditions, with an irregular lagoon shape with breakers rolling across the pool from a wave machine, plus large areas of shallow water stretching gently up to a beach with palm trees and deckchairs – all decked out with colourful carpets. It also had an exciting water slide, kiddies’ sand pit, and exotic real, 10m tall, palm trees imported from Portugal – which produced a harvest of dates in 1975! Bletchley also had a sports hall, indoor bowling green, youth centre and a ‘Kegilbahn’ (a small bowling alley).

Bletchley led the way for what were described as the new ‘glossies’. Caribbean beaches with waves and palm trees were the order of the day, with carpets, lounge furniture, hi-fi and solarium sunshine. Architects started to take the social and fun aspects as being as important as the functional sports participation aspects within centres, whether a pool of any kind was included or not.  The first Manager of Bletchley, Bryan ‘Griff Jones’ recalls the early days at the Centre.

The same year, Herringthorpe Leisure Centre in Rotherham opened with a leisure pool as part of an integral sports and leisure complex, with a large sports hall. The pool was on a larger scale than Bletchley and had a small teaching pool like Whitley Bay, which also opened in 1974.

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Oasis Swindon

The leisure pools of 1974 at Bletchley, Rotherham and Whitley Bay, were followed over the next 25 years by a succession of similar pools, though the number of new traditional pools continued to grow, as we have seen. One of the earliest to follow the leisure pool trend in 1976, was the Oasis in Swindon, built on the former British Rail Workshop site. This saw the re-emergence of the dome design not seen since the Lightfoot Centre in Newcastle and the Bells Centre in Perth. It was Europe’s largest dome at the time. Looking back on The Oasis in 2015, the Swindon Advertiser said – “Readers could have been forgiven for choking on their morning cuppa when they unfolded…their Advertiser on Oct 6th 1972 to……a 180-point headline “Hawaii plan for Swindon”.

1977 and 1978 were boom years for leisure pools with at least eight new pools opening and by 1980 there was a total of at least 16 across the UK. The spread of centres and leisure pools in the 1970s, despite some of the national economic pressures, seemed evident and swift validation of the pioneers and planners.

The Bletchley architects had followed with a leisure pool in the Concordia Centre in Cramlington. Very much influenced by the success at Bletchley, this Cramlington New Town centre retained some features but progressed the freeform pool design by including a 4-lane 25m long stretch for swim-training, recreational swimming and local school competitions. Also included was a sports hall, a suite of multi-purpose social and conference rooms and a dedicated play group unit and parents’ gallery directly overlooking the leisure pool. Northgate Arena in Chester, designed by Building Design Partnership, also opened in 1977. In 1978 Gillinson & Barnett’s vast Crowtree Leisure Centre in Sunderland (phased from 1977) opened its leisure pool with teaching and diving pools.

Other English leisure pools of note during the period were: –

Scunthorpe Leisure Centre (1984) – which was promoted as “a tropical haven where every day is a holiday”. The Centre was opened by Kevin Keegan, then recently retired from football and returning to Scunthorpe where his famous football career started, before playing for England, Liverpool and Hamburg.

Broxbourne Pools was a freestanding leisure pool, owned by Lea Valley Regional Park.  It opened in 1978 and was refurbished in 1998 (£4.5M). It closed in 2008, its future having been under review for some years.

Fulham Leisure Pool opened in 1982 adjacent to historic Normand Park House. It closed in 1995 and a new leisure centre opened elsewhere in 2002.

Windsor Leisure Pool was opened in 1987, needless to say by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Woking’s Pool in the Park (1992) leisure lagoon was based on consultancy advice to develop a “small is beautiful” leisure pool, given the proximity of Bracknell’s Coral Reef, and the Spectrum, Guildford, which was being planned at the time. Woking was the first UK leisure centre to have a fuel cell – a combined heat and power (CHP) system – installed at the back of the centre.

Probably one of the peaks of architectural and user excitement in local authority 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. Coral Reef seems to have influenced the design of Romsey Rapids. The first private Center Parc’s leisure pool in the UK (based on one in Rotterdam) was a contemporary of Coral Reef.

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6.3.3  Wales

Swansea Leisure Centre was the first true leisure pool in Wales (Bridgend’s ‘leisure’ pool in 1974 was a 33.3M traditional pool with a beach area). Swansea opened in 1977 and quickly became one of the country’s top attractions with 800,000 annual visitors. Sadly it closed in 2003 temporarily. After a hugely damning technical report on the dangers of the building (leaving much local political fallout), it did not re-open until 2008, after a £32M refit. Newport Leisure Centre opened with a leisure pool in 1985. Cardiff has the largest Welsh public leisure pool, Llanishen, which opened in 1987. Afan Lido added a leisure pool in 1996 but it was destroyed by fire in 2009.

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6.3.4  Scotland

In Scotland leisure pools mainly came on to the scene in the late 1980s and 1990s. Apart from the vast Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine, which had opened in 1976, more leisure pools started to appear in Scotland from 1985 with the Mariner Leisure Complex in Falkirk.  Lagoon Leisure Centre, with a free form leisure pool and six-court sports hall, opened in Paisley in 1987. An unusual, if not unique, leisure pool development was on a school site at Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.

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6.3.5  Northern Ireland

The development of leisure pools in Northern Ireland reflected the generally slow, but soon accelerating growth of indoor sports centres during the ‘troubles’. Shankhill and Lisnagelvin Leisure pools opened in 1980. Shankhill leisure pool has a range of water features, a flume slide and baby pool, and is the only pool in Belfast with a wave machine; and the pool still operates. Lisnagelvin leisure pool offered a 25-metre section for swimming lengths and a spa pool on poolside. It closed in 2015 after 35 years’ service. The Lagan Valley Leisureplex opened in 1999 and has both a leisure pool and a 25m pool.

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6.3.6  Leisure pool development

Each leisure pool provided the architect with the opportunity to differentiate the pool from others, given the design opportunities afforded by the wide choice of slides, fountains, colours and other features. Many also had wave machines which created great excitement for children (and some adults!) and really gave the seaside feel. When the wave machine was first tested at Crowtree, Sunderland, it was set so high it flooded across the beach area and into the street!).

Where leisure pools were replacing conventional pools, some public concern about the loss of lanes led to a number of the leisure pools not being so free-form and being designed to combine 25m lane pools with flumes and wave machines. Cotgrave Leisure Centre in Rushcliffe Borough (1998) and Wavelengths (1989) in Nelson, Pendle District, are examples. However, overcoming some of the inadequacies of the leisure pool for keen swimmers and swimming clubs in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to a small number of authorities providing an adjoining traditional swimming pool as well. Good examples included the Northgate Arena, Chester (1977) which included a training pool alongside the leisure pool, and Crown Pools, Ipswich (1984), which. though not provided with a sports hall, had a 25 metre/8 lane pool as well as a leisure pool. Woking ‘Pool in the Park’ has a competition pool as well as a leisure lagoon and teaching pool. The Dundee Olympia had opened on the City’s waterfront back in 1974, with a traditional 50m pool and a separate wave machine pool.

Traditional pools and leisure elements

Some existing traditional swimming pools were tempted to add in a water flume for use at designated times. Some such flumes were installed as part of a financial agreement with a private company. King Alfred Leisure Centre, Hove, which was in effect a 1930s pool converted into a wartime navy training base, made such an arrangement. King Alfred had a traditional pool but a private investment created an additional splash pool extension for a newly constructed flume. The centre managed the flume and the private company took a share of the income. However the firm went into administration and the centre gained ownership of the facility. When Parkside Pools, Cambridge, was re-built in 1999, a flume and splash pool were provided at the end of the traditional 25m pool and diving pool.

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Leisure pools peak

Leisure pool development was at its height from the later 1970s and through the 1980s. By 1999 it is estimated that there were approaching one hundred leisure pools of various types and design across the UK. Leisure pools by then had begun to fall out of favour – with the high cost of lifeguarding and the general operation of the pools, and the increasing trend for ‘fitness lane swimming’ – being given as reasons for switching back to the emphasis on traditional pools with at the most some limited play pools with slides alongside.

The leisure pool meets tourism – the commercial attraction

Whilst conventional swimming pools had no attraction for any more commercially minded interests, the leisure pool was not quite the same. A few seaside local authorities saw the leisure pool as an attractive addition to their tourism offer as well as a local community facility.

The North Wales holiday resort of Rhyl opened the £4.25 million ‘Sun Centre’ in June 1980 – an indoor leisure centre on the beach. The architects, Gillinson Barnett, claimed it as the 20th century answer to the old seaside piers.  It had three leisure pools, one of which is the first indoor surfing pool in Europe.  The centre included an island cafe, licensed night club, refreshment and souvenir kiosks, radio-controlled car circuits, porthole windows looking out to sea, palm trees, children’s splash pool with an octopus and elephant slide and a 200-metre monorail; an aqua slide was added in 1984. In 2017 the centre was demolished and a new centre – called SC2 – is to open in 2019/20.

Great Yarmouth Marina Centre opened in 1981 with a leisure pool, sports hall and a range of other facilities. It was developed by the local Council using a lease/lease back financial arrangement and was managed under an agreement with Trusthouse Forte plc. In 2019 plans were revealed to demolish the Centre and develop a new multi-million-pound health and leisure complex including a 6-lane swimming pool, a water flume facility and climbing wall.

In 1987 Torbay Council also opened the International Riviera Centre with the Waves Leisure Pool, with a view to extending the tourism season. Leisure pools are a key part of the Center Parcs operation in the UK and Europe and were also added to the Butlin’s Holiday Centres at Bognor Regis, Minehead and Skegness. The Bluestone National Park Resort in Narberth, Wales, has The Blue Lagoon. Freestanding commercial leisure pools were also built, but eventually closed, in Croydon (Waterworld) and Dartford (Fantaseas). Blackpool’s Sandcastle opened in 1986 as a public/private partnership but was taken into full Council ownership in 2003. Since then there have been further investments and extension of the facilities. Wet ‘n Wild in North Shields (managed by Serco) is a more successful commercial leisure pool venture. When it opened in 1993 it was the UK’s largest, until the Sandcastle developments. (What happened to the leisure pool? See Chapter 10).

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6.3.7  Large centres exemplified the ‘leisure’ age

The scope and size of leisure centres continued to vary greatly from small centres, with little more than a sports hall plus another hall and/or other facilities, to some leisure age ‘giants’, with or without a leisure pool. Many centres between 1976 and 1999 reflected a desire to build on past experience and this often led to larger buildings. Conventional as well as new boundaries were being pushed in design and facilities. There was also a selection of centres that stood out as genuinely larger complexes. These had a wider range of facilities, often a leisure pool and a bowls hall and sometime an ice rink as well. Chapter 5 has referred to some new leisure management challenges, including spectator issues, emerging from the development of bigger sports and leisure centres with larger capacities. Whilst the larger centres tended to be of the new ‘leisure’ type, there were already some with the more established design and facilities, also capable of catering for large numbers of people. For example, Wyndley Leisure Centre, Sutton Coldfield (1970), had yearly attendances approaching one million, with over 10,000 members, over 400 coaching courses and over 600 special events each year.  Deeside Leisure Centre (1971) was a large centre with an ice rink and the Picketts Lock Centre ice rink (1973), part of Lea Valley Regional Park, was similarly large.

Several larger centres epitomised this leisure age. The large Magnum Leisure Centre, in Irvine, Scotland, opened in 1976 and paved the way for larger leisure centres. It was the largest in Europe at that time. It was in a way an update of the Forum at Billingham.  It was situated at the Harbourside of Irvine and Scotland’s western seaboard and was surrounded by 150 acres of beach park. It had a leisure pool, children’s pool, traditional pool, sports hall, bowls hall and ice rink, and like Billingham Forum, a cinema/theatre. Following Billingham in the north-east, ten years later,  were Concordia and Crowtree Leisure Centre,  as previously recorded, both of which opened in 1977. Crowtree took over the mantle of being the largest in Europe when it opened. Other such large centres to follow included Doncaster Dome (1989) and The Spectrum at Guildford (1992), both with leisure pools and ice rinks.

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6.3.8  The Ice Age

The emerging and developing ‘Leisure Age’ also brought the ‘Ice Age’ to leisure centres! Ice rinks have a long history going back to the mid-19th century. From the late 1920s new rinks began to open in England and Scotland, and by 1931-32 there were enough for an English Ice Hockey League to be formed with teams in Oxford, Westminster, Golders Green (London), Manchester, Hove and Cambridge. The whole complexion of the game changed in the mid-1930s when a series of large ice arenas opened in London at Wembley, Earls Court and Harringay. With the addition of smaller buildings in Brighton, Richmond and Streatham a virtually professional league was created in season 1935-36. By the late 1960s rinks were largely confined to commercial operators such as Mecca; the Durham and Whitley Bay rinks; and Scottish rinks mainly used for curling (with the ice usually set on a bed of sand with pipes for chilled brine for winter use only). Grimsby Ice Rink opened in 1974 and was handed over to a community group in 2017. It is sited behind a newer leisure centre. Oxford Ice Rink opened in 1984 and is still going strong.

Leisure centres brought a resurgence in ice rinks – and ice hockey. Billingham Forum’s ice rink (1967) had set a new precedent. Deeside LC (1971) opened with a large ice rink and the Sobell Centre, London (1972) with a small rink (the Sobell rink was managed by Mecca originally). The Sutton Recreation Centre in Nottinghamshire was constructed in 1973 as a pioneering joint-use community facility. It was in the centre of Sutton-in-Ashfield and had multiple facilities, including a small ice rink (now closed; but now a replacement centre in the area, the Lammas Leisure Centre, has a small ice rink). Grimsby Ice Rink opened in 1974 and was handed over to a community group in 2017. It is sited behind a newer leisure centre. Oxford Ice Rink opened in 1984 and is still going strong, as is the Dundonald International Ice Bowl which opened in 1986 in County Down, Northern Ireland.

However, the ice rinks at Magnum LC, Irvine (1976), and Crowtree LC, Sunderland (1977) provided a further impetus and ice rinks fully came to the fore in the leisure arena. Some other centre ice rinks followed, including the Link Centre in Swindon (1985), the Doncaster Dome (1989), the Spectrum in Guildford (1992) and the Greenock Waterfront Leisure Centre (1997). There were, however, probably no more than about ten leisure centre ice rinks at that time.

Some centre rinks have now gone, including The Magnum and Crowtree. Of course there are not insignificant costs associated with running an ice rink, including constant ice maintenance with the ubiquitous Zamboni ice machine. However It is perhaps surprising, given the social and activity benefits, that there have not been more ice rinks developed in community leisure centres. There are still a good number of free-standing ice rinks spread across the UK including the Lea Valley Ice Centre (1984). Planet Ice, Europe’s largest ice rink operator, runs many of them. Ice rinks have a huge appeal, particularly to children and the youth market. The ice rink, with skates to hire, has been described as “the ideal youth service, catering for thousands, where boy meets girl with the best disco in town, and requiring no special clothes”.

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6.4 Other public providers

Notwithstanding the over-riding dominance of district and county local authorities in the provision of sports centres, there are other providers, facilities and activities which deserve acknowledgement.

6.4.1  The Achievements of Town and Parish Councils

Some smaller councils, both Parish and Town Councils, have played a part in pioneering centre developments. Parish and Town Councils have always been active in the sphere of community leisure, though generally this has tended to focus on small-scale local provision such as allotments, recreation grounds and sports pitches, children’s play areas, public open spaces, the arts, village halls, community centres and the like. However, these tertiary councils do also have powers to provide recreation and leisure centres and a small number have.

A few Town and Parish Councils, with significantly fewer resources than larger councils, were equally dynamic and efficient in providing dedicated purpose-built facilities to meet the increasing leisure needs of their resident populations and outside visitors.

Two of the better-known examples are at either end of the country; one in the north-east at Great Aycliffe in County Durham and the other on the south coast at Fawley in Hampshire.

  • The Sports and Leisure Complex at Great Aycliffe (known as Oakleaf Sports Centre since 1990)

The Sports and Leisure Complex at Great Aycliffe was built by Great Aycliffe Town Council. The architects for the project were employed by the Aycliffe and Peterlee Development Corporation. The Complex was formally opened by HRH the Prince of Wales on 31 May 1978. The land on which it was built was transferred to the Town Council by the Development Corporation, for the specific purpose of providing a sports centre on the edge of the town, with outside facilities, which would complement the existing indoor facilities provided in the town centre.

  • Gang Warily Leisure Centre, Fawley

Gang Warily opened on 16th February 1986. Initially this then state of the art Recreation Centre’s facilities included a four-badminton court multi-use sports hall, a general-purpose activity room, bar and café areas, eight changing rooms and associated office and service accommodation. The building cost £600,000 to construct and was part of a larger 86-acre site, which was developed later to provide a wider range of sports facilities and outdoor amenities.

The following Town/Parish Councils, for example, also actively provide/manage/or support sports and leisure facilities within their community.

  • The Town Council in the north west village of Bollington, near Macclesfield, supported the establishment of a trust from 1977 for Bollington Health & Leisure Centre.
  • Woodley Town Council in Berkshire runs the Woodford Park Leisure Centre.
  • Peterlee Town Council in County Durham own and run the Pavilion Sports Centre.
  • Stratton St Margaret Town Council in Wiltshire own and run the Grange Leisure Centre.
  • Swanley Town Council and East Grinstead Town Councils are pro-active in sports provision.
  • Southwater Parish Council, near Horsham, West Sussex, owns and runs the Southwater Leisure Centre.

View 3 pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

6.4.2  New Town Development Corporations
Glass Squash Court Event Warrington Spectrum

Glass Squash Court Event Warrington Spectrum

From the days of Harlow Sportcentre, Development Corporations have played a part in the planning of some sports centres but rarely become closely involved in providing a facility or setting up its management. Warrington Development Corporation was an exception and was closely involved in the sporting and social provision in north-east Warrington, where a population of 60,000 was planned by the mid-1980s. A District Centre with shops was built in Birchwood and the Spectrum Arena was developed there by the Corporation as a solution to sporting and social provision. A Charitable Trust was established by the Corporation to operate the Arena. It opened in 1981.

The main arena was a sports hall capable of conversion into a 1700 seat auditorium. A wide range of events were staged from a circus to pop groups and it regularly featured national league basketball. It closed as an arena in 1986, though there were a few occasional uses thereafter, including as a film studio/set. The empty building was the subject of a Parliamentary question to the Secretary of State in 1987. The building is now the head office of a bookmakers.

6.5 The role of independent organisations

6.5.1 Voluntary organisations

Our story of the sports centre started with voluntary action and the development of trust organisations (Harlow, Gosling, Billingham, Folkestone et al). Whilst local authorities became and remain the major provider of centres, voluntary management of centres has continued in different guises. We have chosen two modest examples to highlight that there have been, and are, other avenues of provision across the UK.

  •  Lordswood Trust, Chatham

Lordswood Leisure Centre on the Medway was developed with a sports hall as an extension to a sports and social club and opened to the public in 1982 and was expanded in the early 1990s. There was Council involvement but when competitive tendering came along a charitable trust was established to run it on a 20-year lease. Since then there have been a number of refurbishments as the centre successfully serves its neighbourhood. The trust board comprises of six members, it has an excellent mix of talents from various areas in the community and includes representatives from the Centre’s Management Team.

  • Antonine Sports Centre, Duntocher, Strathclyde

The Antonine Sports Centre was opened in 1980 by the Antonine Association, which is a not for profit, charitable organisation, seemingly linked to a housing association. It provides major indoor and outdoor facilities with estimated usage of 725,000 per year.

6.5.2 The significance of military sports halls

We have mentioned earlier the significance of the public use of military indoor sports facilities prior to the arrival of the UK sports centre. Such use was usually occasional and on an exception basis and at the behest of the local commanding officer. This was certainly the case at major garrisons such as Aldershot. The use of former military facilities also contributed to community provision (as with the King Alfred Centre, Hove). Another example is Osprey Leisure Centre – a community leisure facility, located within the village of Castletown, Portland, Dorset. First known as the Boscawen Centre, it was originally built in the 1980s as a physical and recreational training centre for Royal Naval personnel based at Portland. When the Royal Navy closed their final operations on the island in 1999, the swimming pool was opened for public use by Weymouth & Portland Borough Council. Subsequently in 2007, the entire centre was opened to the public for the first time by the South Dorset Community Sports Trust, who continue to run it under its new name Osprey Leisure Centre, as a recreation and sports centre for the local community. More recently new military facilities at the Tidworth, Aldershot and Catterick garrisons have also been operated for joint military and public benefit.

View 7  pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

6.5.3 Role of youth-based organisations: YMCA and NAYC

YMCA CheltenhamAn important operator in the sport and fitness sector is the YMCA. The YMCA has quite a history in sport. Founded in London in 1844 and in America in 1851, it was promoted at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1881 the British YMCA incorporated personal fitness into its programmes and opened its first gym. The YMCA in America invented basketball in 1891 and volleyball in 1895. Within its wider role, in the UK the YMCA provides more than 270 health and wellbeing facilities across the country, including gyms, swimming pools, community halls and outdoor activities. It engages 125,000 people a year with 1.75M annual gym visits and over 500,000 swims. The London Central YMCA opened new facilities in 1977. One of the most recent developments by YMCA Cheltenham is the acquisition and operation of a fairly new sports hall left by the demolition of a former school.

As mentioned previously, another youth-based operator, NAYC (Northamptonshire Association of Youth Clubs) & ACUK (Action Centres UK), operates Benham Sports Centre (1990) in Northampton, probably the largest leisure centre in the region.

6.5.4 Provision by organisations representing people with disabilities

With the arrival of new sports facilities various groups across the country were established to provide sporting activity for those with both physical and mental impairments. Sports clubs for people with disabilities were created in many centres, though early centres were not always designed with disabilities in mind. Bellahouston Sports Centre (1968) in Scotland was an early exception and a pioneer in considering the needs of disabled people. As time went on this began to change as new groups developed and challenges arose. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) provided a new springboard for sports provision for disabled people, as adaptations to earlier centres had to be made. The DDA has now been repealed and replaced by the Equality Act 2010, except in Northern Ireland where the original Act still applies. The core concepts in the DDA 1995 continue and are related to:

  • less favourable treatment for a reason related to a disabled person’s disability; and
  • failure to make a “reasonable adjustment”.

The most significant impact was on older sports buildings that needed to upgrade general access and circulation and changing and toilet provision to acceptable standards for disabled people. From the mid-1970s there was a growing awareness of disability issues as centres began to host such groups. New centre design became much more sympathetic and the DDA helped cement that approach.

A Centre which stood out because it was developed as a specialist sports centre for disabled persons was run by the West Midlands Sports Centre for the Disabled Trust in Coventry. It was set up by an initiative led by Len Tasker MBE, who died age 97 in 2012. The Trust continues but the work of the original centre has been replaced by Coventry Sports Foundation’s Xcel Leisure Centre.

The most high-profile provision for people with disabilities is at Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disability sport, which boasts the highest grade of facilities for our leading sportsmen and women.

6.5.5 The chequered role of football clubs

Professional football clubs are one of the most established elements of national sporting life. Successful community commitment and involvement is a two-way street between club and fans. Despite the changes to the financing, televising and intensity of competition in the UK football leagues, retaining a community commitment and involvement remains important. At times that commitment has spilt over into community sports facility provision. One of the earliest clubs to pursue this was Bournemouth FC. In 1971, Mike Halpin (later a centre manager, Hon. Secretary of ARM, Sports Council officer and Salisbury Council recreation manager), was appointed by Bournemouth FC as Recreation Development Officer/Management Consultant from 1971-1974. His role was to develop the club’s community project and oversee the incorporation of an indoor sports facility into a grandstand development. Construction got underway but the community project faltered and several years later the initial construction work was demolished.

In 1980 Geoff Gearing (formerly of Deeside Leisure Centre and Foxhills Golf) was invited  by Jimmy Hill  (Chairman) to join Coventry City FC’s Executive Management Team as Recreation Manager. The Sky Blue Connexion, at Ryton, was built after a 47-week building programme at a cost of £1.5 million. It was opened on 13th November 1980 by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. The Sky Blue Connexion  served five main functions:

  1. The training headquarters for Coventry City Football Club.
  2. A members’ Country Club.
  3. The focal point for Junior Sky Blue activities  with the support of Mercia Sound.
  4. The focal point for the development of excellence in sports for young sports men and women.
  5. A venue for a variety of sport and recreational groups within the community.

Despite the  progress being made  within each  ‘function’ the club’s finances were stretched  by a  variety  of  initiatives and poor playing results. As a consequence, Ian Jamieson became Chairman and Jimmy Hill’s Coventry shares were divided among the board of directors and not long afterwards the Board sold the Sky Blue Connexion for less than £500,000.

Washington Sporting Club was developed by Sunderland Football Club in the early 1970s. It was intended primarily as a club training facility and had a very large indoor hall capable of accommodating large numbers of spectators and was available for community use. Later it was known as the Northumbria Centre. It staged many special events including national league basketball, European Cup tennis, and international badminton. Its most famous event was a Muhammed Ali exhibition bout on Ali’s visit to the north-east in 1977. The building went into decline and was largely disused by the late 1980s.

Aston Arena (formerly Aston Villa Leisure Centre and Aston Events Centre) is an indoor sports and event venue opened in 1978. The venue was situated adjacent to Villa Park, home of Aston Villa F.C. of the Premier League. The venue played host to many sporting events and was the home of the basketball teams Birmingham Bullets, Birmingham Athletics and Birmingham Panthers. Artists that performed at the venue include Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath, Paul Weller, Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers, The B52’s and Morrissey, among others.

Vernon Sangster Sports Centre, as the name suggests, was supported by the football  pools millionaire and opened in 1971, with an extension in 1974. It stood in Stanley Park, Liverpool, in the shadows of the Anfield football ground and was a venue for pre-match hospitality. The centre’s first manager was Dennis Hinds, later to manage Montem SC, Slough and then lead the opening and operation of Crowtree Leisure Centre, before becoming Director of Recreation for Sunderland. In the late 1990s the centre site was required in order to develop the planned new Anfield Stadium, which was to incorporate community facilities. In 2007, under an agreement with Liverpool FC, the Trust operating the centre agreed to a relocation to a former youth club building to enable the demolition of Vernon Sangster. Over a period, a series of grant-aided extensions and refurbishments to the replacement building means that now, as Anfield Sports and Community Centre, an excellent facility has materialised, and the very run-down Vernon Sangster building has been left in history. The ‘new’ Centre also houses Liverpool FC’s Community Foundation and activity programme. As it turned out, the new stadium did not proceed, but nonetheless the community has benefited.

View 7  pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

6.5.6 The role of industrial and private clubs

Whilst it represented a comparatively limited element of indoor provision, private clubs and industrial sports clubs were part of the recreation scene at the beginning of the period and deserve mention. Indeed, in the early days of centres the Institute of Recreation Management represented the interests of the managers of such facilities. Amongst the providers of sports provision, especially for outdoor sport, were the sports clubs provided for employees by a variety of organisations. These were funded by and linked to a variety of commercial, industrial and administrative organisations, including civil service operations like the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Many were related to big businesses and factories, such as Nestle, and also

Jaguar Sports Club Coventry

Jaguar Sports Club Coventry

had social facilities. The Jaguar club in Coventry, adjacent to the car factory at that time, provided and maintained excellent social and outdoor facilities. Whilst the emphasis was historically on outdoor sport, some also had ‘village hall’ type provision that served badminton and indoor carpet bowls. By the end of the period under review commercial changes had led to many of these grounds being closed and sold for development. Private clubs, especially in London provided swimming pools and fitness opportunities, and some still do today.

6.6 People to the fore in the growth of centres and recreation departments

6.6.1  People first

‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ aims to reflect the buildings, organisations, processes and the people that have been influential in the development of centres since the 1960s. Thousands of people involved (many millions including users!), have made a hugely significant contribution to that progress over the decades – directors, managers, planners, Sports Council officers, architects, researchers, councillors, the staff of the centres – and all the users.

6.6.2 Management merry  go-round

In chapter 3 we introduced the arrival of the first centre managers and Local Government Directors of Recreation. The first centre managers after George Torkildsen led the way in the early days and created an impressive roll call, including Graham Jenkins (Afan Lido), Bernard Warden (Bracknell), Geoff Bott (Billingham Forum), Ian Douglas (Bellahouston), Bill Leadbetter (Basingstoke), Bryan ‘Griff’ Jones (Grove), Nick Thomas (Sports Centre for Wales) and Denis Woodman (Oval). It was no surprise that these managers were at the forefront of the foundation of the Association of Recreation Managers (see Chapter 7) as members of the first National Executive Committees.

Up to about 1990, after the financing, planning and building of centres, it was the managers and directors of recreation who were centre stage for the operation of these community facilities and the foundation of a new profession. The special ‘Legends & Gamechangers’ section is representative of those that did most for sports centres in the pioneering period. However, both through direct contact and research, we came across numerous other professionals who also spanned the exciting development phase, especially through the 1970s and 1980s. Many were party to the rapid movement of managers, often from one new centre to another, or promotion to a recreation department. ARM News (the journal of the Association of Recreation Managers – 1970-83) has been an important source for some of the information. Some managers and assistant managers moved on to a new centre before they had opened the one they were recruited for – it was quite a ‘merry go-round’ at the time as this was a burgeoning new sector.

We have referred in Chapter 3 (and in Chapter 7) to the sources of recruitment for early managers, with physical education being to the fore. Given that some early centres were on school/college sites and were ‘dry sports’ centres it was not surprising that PE specialists were recruited. Another reason proffered for the large number of PE teachers moving to sports centres in the 1970s is that their love of sport had taken them to PE training colleges (rather than universities). It was not for teaching per se and when sports centres came along they proved a very attractive career move. However the diverse backgrounds of some early managers were also a feature. A few centres recruited sportsmen with an international track record as centre managers – notable examples were David Hemery (Sobell), Brian Kilby (Leicester), and Jim Douglas (Sands, Carlisle). Gateshead Council famously appointed Brendan Foster as its Recreation Manager. As time went on early managers progressed to other centres, and a range of assistant managers sought promotion.

With all the new centres and directorates of recreation & leisure created up to 1976 during local government re-organisation, there were a vast number of job opportunities. New career structures emerged, especially in the national framework of local government. Some people were ambitious, curious and mobile enough to transfer their skills and advance their status. For others, who enjoyed a direct operational role, centres were local, secure employment with a pension, so some managers did not look to move into the more senior roles in the council offices. Not all councils formed departments of recreation & leisure before or after Re-organisation, with some councils retaining sports responsibilities within broader directorates.

There was surge of recreation director appointments and promotions, particularly between 1973 and 1976. Prior to 1975/76 Spencer Hudson (Islington) had been one of the first directors. Others who became Directors by the mid-1970s included Denis Molyneux (Luton), Jimmy Munn (Torfaen), Denys Hodson (Swindon), John Birch (Waverley), Geoff Bott (Northampton), Ken May (Lewisham) and Chris Field (Greenwich). Later, centre managers added to the new breed of directors, including Ian Douglas (Inverclyde), Roger Quinton (Arun) and Bill Breeze (Colwyn Bay). A few even went on from there to be Council Chief Executives. There were also notable councillors who gave significant support to the development of centres. Councillor Bernard Atha (Leeds City Council and a Sports Council member – see Gamechangers) was a good example as was Councillor Don Robson of Durham County Council.

Such was the originality, interest and excitement around all the new centres that a different professional outlook and camaraderie was present among those involved in the first decades of centres, compared with today. Certainly the originality and newness of the development of centres attracted a range of differing personalities and backgrounds (and dare we say a few rogues!) through the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the earlier European progress with sports centres, there was no influx of managers from the continent. One exception was Dutchman Joost (Jeff) Dobbelaar [1942-2018] who came from the Netherlands, via Australia, and added enthusiasm to his swimming background and managed a number of centres.

6.6.3 Growing professionalism

Professionalism in the new employment of sports centre management was the order of the day from the early 1970s and it was within this expanding context that the Association of Recreation Managers flourished from 1970 to 1983 [see Chapters 3 and 7] when it then amalgamated with other like-minded organisations into the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (ILAM). Recreation management training and education became entwined with the developing profession over the next decades [Chapter 7].

6.6.4 Women in management and staff positions

In the early phases of sports centre history senior managers (and LA directors) were male and that was matched by a preponderance of male Council Committee Chairmen and committee members who appointed them (and indeed male architects). From the outset there were very few female managers. Indeed whilst there has been much documented about gender issues in sports participation, female management in sport has been inadequately recorded. It was very indicative that all the Association of Recreation Managers Officers and Committee members were male throughout its existence from 1970 to 1983, when it amalgamated in the new Institute of Leisure & Amenity Management. Looking back, in the context of the 21st century, sports centres were no different in their general approach and attitude, and some would say prejudices, to any other employment sector. Eileen Hinson and Julie Bowers, two early female centre managers, have recorded their experiences as relatively early female managers.

The most common posts for women were in coaching, swim teaching, lifeguarding, administration, reception and catering. In general, through the 1970s and 1980s particularly, the proportion of staff that were female was often dependent on the facilities. A swimming pool and/or ice rink seemed to increase the need and scope for female attendants.

Tisbury Sports Centre 1992 – ALL women’s Management Team

Consequently female centre managers were very much the exception. In 1977 Tess Edmondson became one of the first female managers in the country, managing Skelmersdale Sports Centre at the age of 26. Born in the town, Tess, a very keen sportswoman, had started her career in the legal department of the Development Corporation and joined the centre as a recreation assistant in 1971 and became assistant manager in 1975 (Skelmersdale SC was converted from a former factory – it eventually closed in 2012). Sally Maidment gained a degree at Sussex University (where Jan Thole was Director of Sport and succeeded by Karren Creffield) and became manager of South Wansdyke Sports Centre in 1980 at the age of 23. May Richardson was the first Assistant Manager to Manager, Pete Johnson, at Hyndburn Sports Centre in 1977 (where John Knowles was Recreation & Amenities Officer). May was also leading member of ARM in the North West and sat on the Regional Committee. Vivienne Monahan progressed the hard way to being a centre manager. Linda Plowright was another female manager in the 1980s and later, in 1987, was Salisbury’s first Leisure Officer. Irene Lucas was appointed as Catering and Entertainments Manager at Crowtree in 1977 and went on to manage the Centre in the late 1980s, became the Council’s Recreation Director and then CEO.  Harlow Leisurezone’s General Manager is Tonia Gosling.

[see 1980s – ‘Womens’ Leadership in Sport’]

Later, as time went on and people worked their way up through ‘the ranks’ of centres, female managers became more common. In the late 1990s and through a long period until retirement in 2018, Liverpool’s Vernon Sangster Centre and its successor, Anfield Sports & Community Centre, were managed by the highly respected Marie Rooney.

6.7 Usage and reflections

6.7.1  Participation and usage

Multi-sports centres were the mainspring for the growth of indoor sport over the period. The provision of facilities over the quarter of a century greatly extended opportunities to participate in sports that were popular, despite previous, limited facilities, but also promoted activity in less popular and newer activities. Participation and usage were essentially at the heart of the ‘Sport for All’ ideology driving public sports centres from the outset. Sports Council figures indicated that alongside the development of sports centres, indoor sports participation doubled in the 1970s. By 1980, according to the General Household Survey (GHS), 23% of men and up to 10% of women were participating in indoor sport. In 1990 The Sports Council published a ‘People in Sport’ fact sheet. It recorded that indoor sports participation by adults on average rose by 6.2% from 1977 to 1986 (4% for men and 8.2% for women). Swimming, badminton, squash, bowls and gymnastics were the main beneficiary sports. The fact sheet also highlighted that social class strongly influenced participation rate in the community.

Usage of the centres (referred to in Chapter 5 at 5.2.4 – ‘Yes Honestly’) was an important political and management issue. Attendances at centres varied enormously, dependent on the size, facilities and locality. The British Leisure Centre Guide 1993 provided a detailed listing of the top 200 centres  for attendances with ranges from Crowtree (2,075,484) and Harrow (1,500,000) to Valley Leisure Centre, Antrim (418,518) and Colwyn Leisure Centre (401,839).

George Torkildsen, through his books and articles, was ideally placed to comment on the first twenty years of centres. In 1983 he observed that “there have been considerable advances in technology – free form pools, wave machines, flumes, automatic entry systems, improved equipment and improved administration and accounting systems”.  He noted that voluntary enterprise and initiative had set the course for public authority action but then there had been a rapid swing from voluntary projects to local government provision. He noted that by then over 90% of the community recreation centres were local authority controlled. Mike Collins, as Head of Research for The Sports Council, led a programme of study that better informed all parties of the realities of the provision made (see Chapter 4 for full research review). Mike suggested that over the period ‘the municipal leisure sector came of age’. Torkildsen noted the recognition by central government of the need, not only for improved provision, but also for better use of all resources through good management.  “For example, just one powerful decision – to give loan sanction priority to joint provision schemes – has resulted in over one third of the present-day centres being provided under the joint provision umbrella”.

He also recorded the support of the Sports Council in two other main directions over the period:

  1. Facility advice and small grants to providers (prior to the National Lottery)
  2. Actions directed towards improved management performance.

Torkildsen also noted the movement from structured physical recreation to greater social recreation.  Quite critically he said that “there has been little coordination in the field and a whole series of ‘one-off’ projects have been built and many of the recreation centres have not been thoroughly planned.  The economic recession and the spiralling costs of energy, manpower and building means that every attempt needed to be made to get the best value for money in meeting the needs of the community via recreation facilities and programmes”.

6.7.2 The National Lottery Arrives

National LotteryThe great majority of investments in sports centres up to the mid-1990s was made by local authorities. The advent of the National Lottery in 1994, with sport as one of the five ‘good causes’, saw an important new source of funding for sports centres and other facility provision (see National Sports Lottery Fund – Chapter 7 – 7.3). The biggest impact of the National Lottery Sports Fund on sports centre provision came in the five-year period from 1994-1999. This was at a time when there was more pressure on local council finances than previously.

Lottery awards were made to 76 new indoor sports centres between 1994 and 1999, spread across England from Portsmouth to Alnwick and from Portishead to Grantham. New indoor leisure centres were provided in Wigan, Bolton, Liverpool, Todmorden, Sunderland, Whitechapel, East Ham, Ledbury, Wadhurst, and Peacehaven.

In addition, some 125 earlier sports centres took advantage of Lottery grants to add a facility or undertake some refurbishment.

6.7.3  Final reflections on the period

The arrival of facilities designed to meet the new leisure age was a significant change on the centre scene. Whilst more traditional recreation centres also continued to be developed through the period, the heads of many providers, architects and users were turned by the larger, leisure pool-based centres. The period therefore saw a greater diversification of provision. Inevitably many sports and governing bodies relied heavily on the growing number of sports & leisure centres for club sessions, coaching development programmes and national and international events. As the 1990s came along the pressure on centre time and space and the benefit of dedicated space, saw the start of more free-standing specialist facilities developed by clubs and other organisations. Early examples were gymnastics, bowls and cricket centres, sometimes new build, sometimes converted buildings. Exemplifying this, in 1999 a report by Kent Sports Development Unit had reviewed the specialist facility requirements of 16 indoor sports.

The period also saw the advent of ‘sports development’ as a separate function within local authority activities. Whilst it can be argued that the development of sport was the first purpose of sports centres, indeed all sports policy over the decades, “sports development” really emerged as a new ‘function’ of non-facility-based outreach programmes of sports activities for the community. Successful sports development is based on effective partnership and networking with a wide range of community groups, service providers, facility operators, National Governing Bodies, local authorities and voluntary groups. It has usually been operated by small specialist teams, often working independently of centre programmes. Such ‘community sports development’ was mainly the domain of local authority recreation departments and originated from a pilot project called “Action Sport” funded by the Sports Council. However many national and regional governing bodies and professional sports clubs also developed programmes of ‘sport specific sports development’ e.g. numerous ‘football in the community’ schemes, often in partnership with local authorities.

Even television began to recognise the arrival of sports centres and gave a boost with BBC Sportstown, A TV programme that used sports centres for town-based competition. Bernard Warden, then Manager of Bracknell SC, was on the advisory panel for the programme. As Mike Fulford, then of Stretford Sports Centre, explained “Sportstown was about preparing the tv audience for coverage of a wide range of Olympic sports rather than simply boosting sports centres. We at Stretford as one of the centres involved, went along with it of course for the excitement and certainly not for income purposes”. Later, as we have recorded, ‘The Brittas Empire’ amusingly reflected the glory of sports centres. Recently Llantrisant Sports Centre featured on one of the regular BBC ‘interludes’ with the Osprey wheelchair rugby team.

View 2  pictures below, left to right, click to enlarge for captions.

It is also interesting to look back now at some observations made in the 1980s and 1990s that the early centres needed refurbishment. Whilst through the 1980s and 1990s there were some refurbishments undertaken, at that time a make do and mend approach often prevailed. It was much later that a huge programme of refurbishment and replacement of centres got fully underway, as we see in later chapters.

By 1999 the whole sports centre scene had been transformed from its early foundations, and the sector was heading towards the 21st Century and a further challenging phase.

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