National Sports Centres

By John Birch


The early years 1945-1970

Although established for a different purpose, National Sports Centres have played a part in the development of the indoor sports centre.  The first two National Sports Centres, Bisham Abbey and Lilleshall were based upon large country houses. 

Bisham Abbey, the first Centre to be opened, in 1946, was a former Knights’ Templar house dating from 1188.  It had no indoor sports facilities, although a small Nissen hut was erected in the kitchen garden which provided very modest facilities for table tennis.  The ballroom was also used for some activities as was the River Thames, alongside which the Abbey was built. The Centre initially provided physical recreation holidays in 17 sports.

Lilleshall, a former shooting lodge, built in 1838, and purchased in 1949, had no purpose built indoor sports facilities, although the previous owner, who ran the facility as a country park, had converted a former stable yard, providing it with a maple floor, which was initially used for tea dances, but which created a very useful indoor sports facility, of a sufficient size to accommodate two tennis courts.  Both Centres had excellent outdoor playing fields and, more importantly, for their function, they had residential accommodation.

Crystal Palace NSC

The development of the Crystal Palace Sports Centre by the London County Council,[1] (LCC) and opened in May 1964, was, in fact, the first purpose built sports centre in the country.  The project, designed by the LCC Architect’s Department, at a cost of £2.9 million, or almost £60 million at 2019 values, was appropriately on a scale far in excess of the indoor sports centres that were to follow.  Although built as a national facility it was also the first of the national centres to cater for casual general public use. It had extensive indoor facilities including a main sports hall which was designed also for use as a spectator venue.

The centre had a threefold purpose:

  • to provide the best possible facilities for the residential training, to the highest possible standard, of athletes, coaches and leaders for the governing bodies of sport;
  • as a venue for national and regional competition, with accommodation for spectators, in swimming, diving, athletics, basketball, gymnastics,  badminton, netball and fencing;
  • to give opportunities for individuals, ranging from top class performers to novices and school children, to participate in physical activity for pure enjoyment and recreation.

A survey of Crystal Palace users[2], undertaken in 1971, revealed that more than 550,000 visits were paid to the centre in that year by casual users. Additionally, arrangements with the Inner London and Bromley Education Authorities produced more than 3,000 visits by school children each week.

Although developed and conceived by the London County Council, it was always the LCC’s

intention to invite the Central Council of Physical Recreation to manage the facilities on its behalf.  A management committee, composed of both CCPR and LCC representatives, was established to oversee the running of the Centre.

A combination of three agencies, the Ministry of Education, the City Parochial Foundation and the LCC guaranteed to meet the annual revenue costs, which at that time were a mere £45,000. Probably one of its most famous events was in June 1982 when Crystal Palace and 24,000 people welcomed the visit of Pope Paul II.

It is interesting, in the light of later experience of competitive tendering, to note that the CCPR at Crystal Palace was probably the first ever management contractor of indoor sporting facilities.

To their multi sports centres the CCPR added three specialist outdoor pursuit centres during the 50s and 60s.  The Plas-y-Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia was opened in 1955, a sailing centre at Cowes, in 1969, and a water sports centre at Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham, in 1973.  The last, although planned by the CCPR was opened by the Sports Council and provided the UK’s first, international specification, rowing and canoe slalom courses.

Plas y Brenin

Lilleshall Centre

Holmepierrpoint Canoeing

Cowes Sailing Centre IoW

Bisham Abbey

Development Years 1970-1990

During the 70s and 80s many additions and improvements were made to the National Sports Centres at Bisham Abbey and Lilleshall.[3]

The England Football team had trained at Lilleshall for two weeks prior to their World Cup victory in 1966.  Following that success the Football Association invested in improvements to the residential facilities at Lilleshall.  Much later, in 1984, the FA established its School of Excellence at the centre.  Among the first of their graduates was young talent whose names will be familiar, including David Beckham, Sol Campbell, Joe Cole, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes.

It was during these developments at Lilleshall that there was the start of a significant move away from the multi-purpose facility towards specialist facilities.  The most impressive was the new gymnastics hall, with pitted facilities, designed to cater for the specific events in that sport.  Lilleshall has become the National Centre for Gymnastics.  A rather more modest change was the provision of a new indoor cricket school, which was the forerunner of many other cricket schools around the country.  This was a recognition that both gymnastics and cricket were generally incompatible users of a multi-purpose sports hall.

Later improvements were to include the establishment of a sports injury and rehabilitation centre for professional and elite sports people, a hall for movement and dance and a 120-foot (37 m) square multi-purpose sports hall. These new developments gave the opportunity for the Sports Council’s architects, the Technical Unit for Sport (TUS), to gain ‘hands on’ experience which enabled them to enhance their advisory services.

Similar improvements were being made during this period at Bisham Abbey.   Apart from improved residential facilities[4], the main feature of the changes was a very large sports hall, (in size exactly equivalent to 1/3rd of the Wembley Football Pitch) purpose designed for football and tennis.  By this time the Football Association had transferred its international training from Lilleshall to Bisham.  The outdoor pitch had been sown with grass seed that precisely matched that provided at Wembley and the pitch was maintained to an international standard.

The indoor facility was of a size that enabled training in set moves, e.g. at corners, and was surfaced with artificial grass.  The hall was also large enough to accommodate four tennis courts.  Bisham at this time was chosen by the Lawn Tennis Association to be the National Tennis School for their outstanding young players.  Other specialist facilities consisted of a specialist weight lifting facility, used for international competition and training, clay courts for tennis, the first in the UK, and an artificial turf hockey pitch, all designed for international team training.  The 1988 Olympic Gold Medal winning GB Men’s hockey team had trained at Bisham as did the 2016 Gold Medal winning Women’s Hockey Team.

At Crystal Palace the emphasis was primarily on athletics and swimming and at this time the Centre provided the main competition venues for these sports.  The overhead walkway that formed the main spectator entrance to the centre was converted to provide a very good indoor athletics training area in the undercroft.

With the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC), in 1986, the ownership of Crystal Palace was somewhat unusually[5] transferred to the London Borough of Bromley.  Thereafter, unlike the GLC, the London Borough did not contribute to the centre’s revenue costs.  However the Sports Council’s grant from the Department of the Environment was adjusted upwards to take this into account.  This change of ownership led to a period which witnessed very little additional capital development.

Welsh Institute of Sport

National Centre Largs Scotland

Jordanstown National Institute NI

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have their own National Centres.

A Period of Retrenchment 1990-2010

It was at about this time that the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office were making critical observations about the growing costs of the Sports Council, and particularly the running costs of the National Centres.  This coincided with the decision of the Conservative Government, in 1989, to make it a requirement for local government to introduce competition into the provision of public sector leisure and recreation management, known as Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT).

This period coincided with the appointment of a new Director General of the Sports Council, David Pickup, who had arrived in 1988 with a missionary zeal to reduce the extent to which the Sports Council was reliant upon Exchequer funding and furthermore to subject the National Centres to the rigour of competitive tendering.

Pickup’s arrival witnessed several changes in the operation of the National Centres. In his desire to meet the then Minister’s expressed desire to reduce their cost, and to attract more private sector funding, the Council, working through its charitable arm the Sports Council Trust, introduced a number of commercial initiatives.  The first was to establish a private sector company, “Sportspartner,” staffed mainly by seconded Sports Council staff, designed to undertake consultancy work.  It had been appreciated that up to this time the Sports Council had provided this type of service at no charge where resources allowed. The National Centres Directorate was required to begin the process of preparing the specifications for the National Centres to undergo Competitive Tendering.  To carry this through it established another company, called “Sportsmanager,” which was designed as the agency for the management of the resulting contracts.  These moves met with concern within the leisure industry, both from consultants and managers, and did not sit at all well with the Public Accounts Committee and the Department of National Heritage, the Sports Council’s sponsoring department, which had been exercising a tight control of the Council’s expenditure.  There were a number of critical articles in the leisure and National press at the time.

The desire to increase throughput and thus income from the National Centres meant a considerable change of emphasis.  It might have been thought reasonable to make the specification compatible with the Centres primary objective, which was

to provide the best possible facilities for the residential training, to the highest possible standard, of athletes, coaches and leaders for the governing bodies of sport;

and to spend money accordingly, however, “value for money” i.e. cost reduction considerations, took priority.

The Sports Council’s Regional staff, familiar with working with local authorities, were somewhat surprised at this change of emphasis as the revenue costs of the National Centres were not high, when compared with those being incurred in many local authority facilities. Sports Council Annual Reports at the time will reveal these costs, but it is believed that the net annual cost of providing the excellent facilities at Bisham was less than £500,000, surely a justifiable expenditure to achieve success in international sport.

In hindsight the arrival of the National Lottery, in 1994, a development for which David Pickup had enthusiastically argued, made the Sports Council’s Centre budgets at this time look somewhat miniscule. In the past 5 years (2011 -2016) Sport England[6] allocated £280 million from the National Lottery for sports capital projects.

Some Governing Bodies of Sport, and on their behalf the CCPR, had been expressing concern at the charges they were expected to pay for the use of their centres.   Yet little thought was given, at the time, to provide the national teams with free use of the centres in lieu of payment of a revenue grant which many of them received annually.  National Lottery grants to Governing Bodies of Sport now provide sufficient funds for such payments to be made.

The solution at this time was felt to be an extension of the casual general public use of the facilities. Whereas Crystal Palace with an extensive range of facilities could cope with multiple use, such use in the other Centres might only be experienced to the detriment of the quality of the facility provided for elite sport.  Competitive tendering was planned to increase the range of sports users and to attract other non-sporting uses that might increase financial performance.  As an example, the attractive library at Lilleshall was converted into an up-market restaurant, which had no relevance to the governing bodies objectives of increasing sport performance.  The publicity leaflets for the Centres today give great emphasis to non-sporting events such as weddings and conferences.

In the event the management of the National Centres was put out to tender in 1990/1991.  Existing staff at the Centres were invited to become involved in the bidding process.   An in-house bid under the name of Sportsmanager was awarded the contract at Bisham, while at Crystal Palace and Lilleshall the staff opted to form themselves into in-house bids, both of which were successful.  The in-house bid at Plas-y-Brenin failed to be awarded the contract[7].

David Pickup recorded in his book[8] that in the period 1990-1995 the Sports Council Trust received payments of £1.3 million from Sportspartner, while the long term saving in operational costs at Bisham Abbey over the same period was £700,000.   It is of interest to note that none of the Centres is currently managed by the former in-house teams,[9] and that both Sportsmanager and Sportspartner have ceased trading.  It will also be seen later that, 20 years on, the net revenue costs of the three centres run by Sport England in 2015 is in excess of £3.7 million. (Appendix 1)

It is difficult to determine whether the receipt of £1.3 million over 5 years at Bisham was achieved at the expense of the principal objective of these centres.  However, in relation to the overall Sports Council budget the commercial ventures produced relatively small returns. In comparison, between 1994 and 2019, Sport England awarded some £4.583 billion from the National Lottery.

The post CCT period

The past twenty years have witnessed changes that have influenced the provision of National Sport Centres.  These changes have included:

  • The restructuring of the Sports Council
  • A greater emphasis on Specialist Sports facilities
  • Increased involvement of the Universities
  • The influence of major international events.
The Restructuring of the Sports Council

The restructuring of the Sports Council, which was begun in 1994, changed the role of the National Sports Centres.  The changes set up an organisation called UK Sport which was originally to be responsible for UK wide Performance and Excellence and Elite sports performers while the four national sports bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be more concerned with community sports policies.  This represented a change for England but not for the other home countries, which would retain a responsibility for both community sport and their more limited national interests.

It had always been envisaged that as the prime purpose of the National Centres was to assist the Elite Sports Performers they would be transferred to UK Sport.  However in the event they remained with the home country sports organisations.   As Scotland and Wales had National Sports Centres they were reluctant to see their centres merged into a UK umbrella, arguing that the home countries had representative sports teams of their own and that they wished to keep their Centres.

Holmepierrepont climbing

In consequence, three National Centres are now the responsibility of Sport England – Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall and Plas y Brenin (in Wales!) and are owned by the Sports Council Trust Company. Crystal Palace and Holme Pierrepont had been developed jointly with the LCC and Nottinghamshire County Council respectively and were owned by the London Borough of Bromley and Nottinghamshire County Council.  In 2014 Nottinghamshire County Council took over the management of the Holme Pierrepont National Facilities within its Country Park and invested £6.7 million in improvements to add to the international standard water sports facilities with a new ‘family fun park’! Holme Pierrepont is now managed on behalf of  the Holme Pierrepont Trust by Serco Leisure Operating Ltd. At Crystal Palace, responsibility was transferred to the London Development Agency (now GLA Land and Property) and it is managed by GLL under its ‘Better’ brand.

Serco also manages Bisham Abbey and Lilleshall. Plas y Brenin is currently managed by the Mountain Training Trust (MTT). MTT is a registered charity, set up by the British Mountaineering Council, the Mountain Leader Training Board, and the United Kingdom Mountain Training Board. Sport England therefore has a responsibility for three National Centres but does not appear to have substantial or significant policies for their role in developing Performance and Excellence or for their development.  Sport England has a Facility and Planning Directorate which has 7 objectives, one of which is to:

‘Manage the National Sports Centres, Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall and Plas-y-Brenin which provide training and rehabilitation facilities for elite and community athletes.

Lilleshall NSC Archery


Crystal Palace

Bisham gym

Bisham Abbey

Specialist Sports Facilities

The National Cycling Centre

Both at national and local level there has been an increasing provision of specialist facilities.  It has already been mentioned that some specialist facilities had been added to National Sports Centres, e.g. gymnastics at Lilleshall, weight lifting at Bisham[10].  The only other National facilities supported by the Sports Council have been the National Cycle Velodrome at Manchester and the National Indoor Arena at Birmingham.  There have also been other specialist facilities provided at local level.

Three sports which were found to be somewhat incompatible in indoor sports centres, gymnastics, cricket and tennis have encouraged specialist facility development in their local sports clubs.  Gymnastics because of the requirement for pitted facilities has been widely provided.  A number of Indoor Cricket Centres have been provided in association with County Cricket Clubs. Indoor Tennis Centres have been encouraged by the Indoor Tennis Initiative, a combination of the resources of the Lawn Tennis Association, the Sports Council and the All England Club[11].  Each of these bodies was to put £500,000 per annum each towards promoting the provision of (3 – 6 court) Indoor Tennis Centres.  Over 50 centres were provided by this initiative.[12] The National Badminton Centre at Milton Keynes has future plans to provide a Centre with 17 specialist badminton courts, costing £17 million.

The most spectacular specialist facility is unquestionably the St George’s Park National Football Centre at Burton on Trent.  Opened in 2012, this £105m facility, set in 330-acres of Staffordshire countryside, is the home for England’s 24 national teams. With 12 outdoor pitches, including a replica of the Wembley surface, a full-size indoor 3G pitch, a suite of rehabilitation and sports science areas, and an indoor sports hall, St. George’s Park provides world-class facilities for all England teams ahead of international fixtures. Sports science and performance is integral to St. George’s Park. The Centre has a bespoke sports medicine, rehabilitation and human performance facility which combine cutting-edge technology with elite medical expertise. Visitors to the site enjoy world class facilities and impressive accommodation with a 228 bedroom Hilton hotel, catering for individuals, groups or team bookings, along with major sporting or business conferences and banquets.

The development of a new International Rowing and Canoeing course at Dorney Lakes, funded by Eton College, and used for the London Olympics, has reduced the value of Holme Pierrepont for international competition, albeit it still remains important for regional competition and for training.  The Canoe Slalom Course at Eastway Olympic Park in the Lea Valley has had a similar effect on Holme Pierrepont.

With the growth of these facilities there is now greater opportunity for training and increased competition for international events.

Lilleshall Gymnastics

In addition, the English Institute of Sport has established 8 High Performance Centres which include Lilleshall, Bisham and Holme Pierrepont but in addition have bases in Bath, Birmingham, Loughborough, Manchester and Sheffield.

Increased involvement of Universities

It might be argued that the CCPR would have been wiser to have placed its National Sports Centre alongside universities from the outset.  Universities have many sports facilities and also residential accommodation which is often underused by students for long periods each year.  In the past ten years there has been a positive attempt to develop specialist national facilities at Loughborough University as part of the English Institute of Sport (EIS,) which currently include the National Cricket Academy, the National Netball Centre and a Swimming Training Centre. ‘Loughborough University in London is an ambitious and distinctive new development on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park offering innovative postgraduate courses. This includes an Institute for Sport Business which the university has established to respond to the demands of today’s global sport industry. Its programmes are designed to meet the needs of students who wish to understand the operating environment of the sports industries and develop the skills required to lead and manage sports organisations and businesses in the commercial, not-for-profit and public sectors.

Bath University is also part of the EIS network and has a number of excellent facilities, including a 50m swimming pool.  A number of the 2016 Olympic Gold Medal winning members of the GB Swimming Squad are based at Bath.

Surrey University has recently developed the Surrey Sports Park which provides a range of specialist facilities, including Netball, Swimming, Rugby Union (in association with Harlequins RFC) and Basketball.   In March 2018 the University of Birmingham opened its £55m University of Birmingham Sport and Fitness Club. Universities are also well placed to offer specialist support in Applied Sports Science, conditioning and sports psychology.

International Events

The UK has in recent years been very successful in attracting international sporting events.  This began with the Sheffield World Student Games (1991).  Specialist facilities associated with those games have included the Don Valley Athletics centre which, apart for its athletics track, has a significant indoor athletics training facility, and the Ponds Forge 50 m. Swimming pool.  The Commonwealth Games in Manchester (2002) and Glasgow (2014) and the Olympic Games in London (2012) have all added significantly to the stock of international facilities for both competition and training.   Birmingham has been successful in bidding for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. These facilities are widely used by the Governing Bodies of Sport and will have changed the role and rationale for the Sport England National Sports Centres.

APPENDIX 1.  Sport England 2015 Accounts – National Sports Centres






Other Expenditure



Centre Management Fees



Total Expenditure



Net Expenditure



John G. Birch – October 2019



[1] In 1965 to become the Greater London Council. GLC.

[2]  A summary of this project is included in Appendix III to HMSO Publication. Indoor Sports Centres by J.G. Birch 1971. P.48.

[3] In 1972 the CCPR’s responsibilities for the National Sports Centres were transferred to the Sports Council.

[4] The initial residential accommodation at both Bisham and Lilleshall was in dormitories, not unlike boarding schools. The changes brought about accommodation at both centres in single and double rooms.

[5]  As a national facility it would have been more appropriate for the Crystal Palace facilities to have been transferred to the Sports Council.  Ironically the GLC’s South Bank Facilities were transferred to the Arts Council at this time.

[6]   The Sports Council changed its name to The English Sports Council in 1996 and to Sport England in 1997

[7]  The contract at Plas y Brenin was only for residential facilities.  Instruction remained with Centre staff.

[8]  ‘Not another Messiah’ by David Pickup.  Pentland Press. 1996.

[9]  Lilleshall and Bisham are managed by Serco and Crystal Palace by ‘Better’ (Greenwich Leisure).

[10] It is sad to note that the Weight Training facilities at Bisham have been converted to more general fitness use.

[11]  The All England Club’s contribution was the revenue gained from the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. The ITI was a five year programme and has now come to an end.

[12] The Sports Council £500,000 a year for the Indoor Tennis Initiative might be compared with the receipt of £260,000 a year from the savings achieved by CCT at the three National Sports Centres. The ITI was a five year programme and has now come to an end.


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