Recollections of the Early Years (March 12th, 1971 – April 2nd, 1978)
In 1960 Sir John Wolfenden drew national attention to “the serious shortage of facilities for indoor games and sports”. His report (Sport and the Community) persuaded many local authorities to plan for the “greatest challenge of the seventies”. One such authority was Hawarden in North Wales where the Rural District Council, led by Councillor Arthur Ketland was considering the replacement of a local recreation playground with the Queensferry Sports Centre on what proved to be a perfect 17-acre site at Queensferry.
The site was duly purchased for approximately £23,000 and early in 1964 Hawarden Rural District received an invitation from the Welsh Office to discuss the Council’s proposals for a Sports Centre. However, before that occurred, a subcommittee of members and three principal chief officers visited all existing dual-user and sports centres in the country including Harlow.
Mr Bill Rogers, the Council’s Treasurer, was the officer driving force of the team. In September 1964 the Welsh Office approved a two -phased scheme in principle and the Council instructed Gerry Williamson of the Williamson Partnership, Consultant Architects and Engineers of Porthcawl, to proceed.
In 1966 the Council considered revised plans with Bill Rogers’s financial statement and gave approval to go ahead. Work on site started on 1969 and I arrived in May 1970 to see the steel cladding walls of the Sports Hall, forged at the local steel works, in place.
The Centre opened 11 months later in March 1971
Ten years previously I had been teaching pubescent boys the one-two rhythm of the lay-up shot in a standard 70’x40’ wall barred school gym in Harrow. The nearest, and as far as I can recall the only Sports Halls in the area were at RAF Stanmore and USAF South Ruislip.
I was designated the Principal Leisure Activities Officer on an annual salary of £1875 reporting directly to Bill Rogers
Facilities, Costs and Staff
Phase 1 of the Deeside Leisure Centre at Queensferry (North Wales) costing £415,467 opened doors for business on March 12th1971 with a wide-ranging programme of displays and coaching courses. The formal opening of Phase 1 by HRH Duke of Edinburgh KG took place four months later.
The facilities included a Sports Hall (120’x120’), 2 squash courts, floodlit hard porous area (110’x70’) and 2 tennis courts, children’s play area and grass football pitch. A multi-purpose social room became home for a variety of activities and events including tap dancing, indoor bowls, discos, dog shows and gymnastics. Supporting amenities included a crèche and cafeteria. A licence for a bar was granted after my court appearance to answer objections from the Licensed Victuallers Association.
The only significant change to Gerry Williamson’s plans in Phase 1 was the conversion of an inadequate storeroom to an equally inadequate weight training facility. However, it was needed and revenue earner. In 1971-1972 there was total expenditure of £70,920 call upon the rate fund. Phase 1 was essentially a “Sports Centre” serving local and regional sporting needs.
Phase 2 of the “Leisure”, as it became known locally, costing £679,946, opened its international sized ice rink on December 29th, 1973, with an International Gala featuring the GB Team lead by John Curry and Robin Cousins.
Dennis Howell formally opened the extensions on June 9th, 1974.
Two squash and tennis courts were added as a consequence of the considerable demand. However, the addition of the Hawarden Suite (Entertainment Suite) with dance hall, stage seating for 400 and 2 bars, grill room and 3 additional bars serving sport diners and ice, a sports shop, sauna suite and improved weight training room that gave licence for the management to market Deeside Leisure Centre as “Britain’s Number One Leisure Centre”.
The total investment at the Deeside Leisure Centre by the Hawarden Rural District Council amounted to £1,220.000. The product of a penny rate at the time was £15,000. The population of Hawarden, was 43,000, spread over 50 square miles in North Wales. £653,000 was raised by loan sanction, £540,000 by capital resources, £15,000 by way of a grant from the Sports Council of Wales, £8000 from Flintshire County Council and £3000 from a brewery.
From being a local sports centre with a bar and cafeteria the “Leisure” had become a major business leisure enterprise competing for the family leisure pound in North Wales and Merseyside requiring business management skills and experience.
Arising from a paucity of information regarding the “Staffing and Finance of Sports Centres” I accepted an invitation from Harry Littlewood (Principal Officer Facilities) at the Sports Council (now Sport England) to present a paper to the National Recreation Management Conference in Cardiff in 1971.
My paper took a swipe at the prevailing confusion within local authorities regarding the “titling”, “duties” and “status” of the “officer” managing the Centre. Far more relevant were the statistics related to staffing, usage and financial performance embracing eleven British sports centres, which had been compiled with the help and support of Bill Rogers. Upon Local Government reorganisation in 1974 he became Chief Financial Officer for Alyn and Deeside District Council, with me as Recreation Officer; and subsequently because of another internal re-organisation “Director of Leisure Services”.
Sadly, the Conference will not be remembered for my presentation of Bill’s facts and figures, but for the gaffe of the Welsh Office, or was it the Home Office? Someone had forgotten to order the food for the banquet. However, it will be affectionately be remembered for Ted Blake, one of the founding fathers of Recreation Management, scouting all the local “chippies ‘to feed’ the hungry delegates. Roy James’s students from the North London Polytechnic Diploma in Recreation Management Course became the waiters for the evening.
I taught Physical Education at two secondary schools in Harrow (1959-65) before taking a three-year appointment in the Physical Education Department at Bristol University. With a wife and two children on board consideration of “what next” became a priority. Opportunities outside secondary education were limited to becoming a Regional Officer with the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR), now “The Sport and Recreation Alliance, joining the Sports Council or lecturing at a Teacher’s Training College or University.
It was whilst I was at Bristol that I had the good fortune to hear Dr George Torkildsen speak about his responsibilities as Manager of the Harlow Sports Centre Trust. After listening I had no doubts as to the career I wished to pursue. However, I knew little about officer power, management, local government, politics and politicians, trade unionism, operations management, financial accounting, bars, catering and entertainment, and sales and marketing. On the plus side I knew a lot about the “lay up” shot and was described by my referees as “enthusiastic”. In September 1967 I became a lecturer at Leeds Athletic Institute and Vice Principal. My duties were to manage the day time programme of Physical Education for the Further Education Day Colleges in Leeds. I shared an office with the Principal, Laurie Newby, and assisted in planning and implementing a city-wide community sport and leisure programme. Laurie had replaced Geoff Bott who had moved on to open the Billingham Forum, taking John Williams, his assistant, with him. John later went on to manage Bletchley Leisure Centre.
In 1974 I when I became Recreation Officer for the new Authority Fred Smith from Billingham Forum, was appointed Manager of the Deeside Leisure Centre.
At the time academic attention was being given to “Training in Recreation Management”. In February 1972 John Jeffrey, Director of Recreation Management Courses and Director of Physical Education at Loughborough, issued a paper outlining the course content and outcomes of the master’s degree in Recreation which had started in 1969. The paper included the background experience of the course members in the first three years and the areas of appointment of post graduates. Of the 22 post graduates only two had become Sport Centre Managers.
As far as I can recall the response from our advertising for a Deputy Manager and Recreation Officer yielded a mixed bag of teachers, ex-armed forces, steel workers, clerks and administrators, but no MSc’s. I was looking for enthusiastic teachers with excellent coaching experience, proven success and who would supplement my own strengths.
My administrative and managerial strengths were in basketball. Most of my free time was given to coaching and refereeing in the Middlesex and Bristol Leagues. I had also assumed regional and national responsibilities including National Coaching Secretary to the ABBA (now England Basketball) and England Team Manager to both Junior and Senior teams in my time.
With the support of Chairman Arthur Ketland and the Recreation Committee, two teachers were appointed. First in was Mike Evans as Deputy Manager, who after eleven years teaching had just completed a master’s degree at Nottingham University, and was seeking a new challenge. Mike held professional tennis qualifications and headed the development of racket sports and day to day operations. I knew Mike well from our student days on the Diploma in Physical Education Course at St Luke’s, Exeter.
It was Mike’s attendance at the Rothmans Hoylake Tennis week that sparked their interest in bringing World Championship Tennis to Deeside. Who would believe Ken Rosewell, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg et al playing in the opening of the European Zone finals of World Championship Tennis on a special carpet in a 120’x 120’ Sports Hall with bleacher seating in rural North Wales. Sports Illustrated went over the top when reporting in Jan 1973 that “A Sports Centre was constructed for the event by Hawarden Rural District Council “. Even better was to follow when we won the contract to stage the Prudential sponsored Wightman Cup in the Ice Rink in October 1974.
Mike left in 1973 to become Recreation Officer with Bracknell Development Corporation and later Director of Leisure Services for Easthampstead District Council. John Roberts was appointed Recreation Officer with direct teaching and coaching responsibilities. John supervised and trained all the part time staff within the activity programme. He left in 1973 to manage Mold Sports Centre.
The Management team for Phase 1 was completed with the appointment of a Catering Manager. This aspect of the Centre’s management was never free from problems until the appointment of John Townley Davis (our fourth Catering manager) in Phase Two.
He was joined by Neil Slaughter from Mecca (Ice Rink) and Jeremy Spencer (Entertainment agent) and artist. Both experienced managers from their respective commercial worlds. However, the most relevant addition to the task in hand was the appointment of John Mills, a cost and management accountant, who reported directly to me on our management performance in every area of the Centre’s operation. The frustrating wait experienced by me in Phase 1, and many of the “pioneer” managers for relevant performance indicators from the treasurer’s department was over.
Programme and Promotion
Dennis Howell MP formally opened the Ice Rink in June 1974 by which time the Centre had ice hockey, curling and skating clubs and engaged a corps of self-employed professional ice-skating teachers.
An indication of the many ways in which all ages could enjoy their leisure hours, learn new sports, join a club, watch top class entertainment and generally socialise can be gleaned from various flyers, leaflets and brochures leaflets attached with these recollections.
From day one the “Leisure” promoted itself as “THE FAMILY LEISURE CENTRE open to everyone but with a discounted scale of charges for members. Coaching courses were organised in conjunction with the Sports Council for Wales and a Saturday morning Mini Club catered for children of all ages. Six new sports clubs were formed following introductory courses. (trampolining, basketball, tennis, volleyball, squash, badminton). The ” Recreation” sessions for men and women became popular. Most encouraging from a sports development and bar income viewpoint and was the popularity of floodlight Leagues covering football, netball and tennis and attracting teams from the Wirral and North Wales.
The Centre was never far away from the attention of the local media and this contact was extensively used to promote our programme of events. All the floodlit leagues were sponsored by the local and regional press. In our first year North Wales Newspapers Ltd hired the indoor and outdoor facilities from August 21-30 to stage The Homes and Leisure Exhibition (15) based on the Earls Court format. The publicity was priceless and served us well.
I became Promoter of Britain’s first ever sponsored basketball team “The Bruno Roughcutters” (Ogdens) which filled the Sports Hall every Saturday night during the season. Admission was 10p for members and 15p for nor non-members. A season ticket for nine games was 60p to watch the best teams in Britain.
Media attention was never far away and winning the BBC’s TV Sports Town KO competition kept the “Leisure” in the public eye as we overcame Aberdare, and Milton Keynes before meeting Huddersfield in the Final at Deeside.
The sponsorship of the Centre’s five a side, netball and tennis leagues ensured ongoing and regular reporting by the local newspapers as did their coverage of the Recreation Committee, which received monthly management reports which are currently housed in the Archives at Hawarden Library.
Quality of Life Experiment
Late in 1973 the Government announced its intention of instituting special campaigns in four separate areas (two in England, one in Scotland and one in Wales) with a view to improving the range and quality of leisure facilities. The area in Wales selected comprised the Alyn and Deeside and Delyn Districts “This became known as the Quality of Life Experiment”. It was to have a critical and positive influence on the development of sport and leisure in North Wales.
I assumed the Chair working closely with Clwyd County Councils Administration Officer. One of the projects we successfully instigated with the managers from existing Associations/Institutes was the formation of the North Wales Leisure Forum. It embraced management staff working in the well-established Parks and Gardens sector, Industrial Sports Clubs (later to become the Recreation Managers Association (RMA), Institute of Baths Managers (IBM) and Association of Recreation Managers (ARM). One of the first regional initiatives on the long and changing road leading to the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA).
The Forum had both an educational and social programme with its own football team and supplemented the training and educational programmes of the various Institutes and Sports Council. As importantly the ARM’s Golf Society became the ILAM Golf Society in June 1984 and continues to meet regularly under the Spa Golf Society banner.
Deeside Leisure Centre re-visited
Since leaving Deeside in 1978 to enter the commercial world of Aer Lingus (Foxhills 1978-80) and to work with the late and great innovator Jimmy Hill at Coventry City Football Club (Sky Blue Connexion 1980-84) I have returned to Deeside from time to time. On one of those occasions I was delighted to be given a conducted tour by Danny Mapp-Jones, the great grandson of another innovator Councillor Arthur Ketland.
Danny works there as a Recreation Assistant. and I returned recently to admire the extensive developments brought about by Alliance Leisure.
The regeneration of Deeside Leisure Centre is setting new standards for public-private partnerships. Flintshire County Council (the 4th owners) entered into a four-year collaboration with sector specialists Alliance Leisure to help deliver its corporate leisure strategy.
The entertainment Suite which burnt down some years ago now houses a health and fitness facility and toning suite including an 80-station gym and in 2012 opened the Afon Spa; the first Welsh public day spa.
The original ice rink has become the UK’s largest Extreme Centre catering for climbers, BMX, skateboards, scooters and in-line skaters. A new ice rink has been built alongside and the curlers are hoping that a space and finance can be found for their own rink.
Deeside’s love for the round ball (home of Ian Rush, Michael Owen and Trevor Radcliffe) among many others has replaced its hard-porous areas with six five a side 3G Turf Football Pitches.
Whereas Hawarden Rural District Council in 1974 rightly claimed to be Britain’s number 1 Leisure Centre Alliance Leisure now claim Deeside Leisure Centre as their “Flagship Leisure Centre is now a Model for Success.”
The concern for the cost of providing for local authority services and in particular “Sport and Leisure” has been with us since Day 1. It was clear from my first Recreation Budget meeting 45 years ago, when a lady councillor with the best of intentions suggested that she could ask some of her lady friends to help run the cafeteria on a voluntary basis. At one time in my eight years at Deeside the Council considered closing the Centre during the day to cut costs but common sense, trade union pressure (it is Deeside) and a public outcry won the day.
So, it never did and despite the change of owners, management and facilities, it appears to be going from strength to strength; not least because way back in 1960 Councillor Arthur Ketland and Bill Rogers chose “the perfect 17-acre site” at Queensferry.
Only time will tell whether Flintshire County Council have found one of the answers by their business partnership with Alliance Leisure.
Geoff Gearing 12th January 2016