Recollections and Reflections: John Birch – Former Director of the Regions, Sports Council

It was late in the autumn of 1964 that I had a phone call from Peter McIntosh, who at the time was the Senior Inspector of Physical Education for London County Council asking was I interested in applying for the post of Research Officer for the Central Council of Physical Recreation. I was at that time Head of Physical Education in Wandsworth School, a very large boy’s comprehensive in South West London. I had heard of the CCPR and had attended some of their courses at Bisham Abbey but had never considered joining them. At the time they were very much a ‘hands on’ sports organisation, organising courses for coaches, introducing beginners to a range of sports that they would not have experienced at school, and running the 5 National Sports Centres.

Peter McIntosh was a member of the CCPR Executive Committee and, as my boss in London, I took his advice to apply to join the CCPR, little knowing what the role of Research Officer was. Following a daunting interview faced by a formidable row of academic sportsmen and the blazer brigade of governing bodies of sport I was, to my surprise, offered the job. I arrived at the Sports Council Offices in London’s Park Crescent, on 2nd January 1965, hoping that someone would tell me what was expected of me. At the time Walter Winterbottom was the General Secretary of the CCPR and it seemed that only he knew what he wanted and ‘I gave him a good listening to,’ but was still not much the wiser. So I set to, trying to find out as much as I could from other people. It seems that WW had persuaded the Department of Education that this post was what was needed for the CCPR and they had provided the funds for it at a fairly high level in the organisation. But he had told nobody else and as there was no job description I was left largely to my own devices.

At the time Walter was intensely involved with the new Government in setting up an Advisory Sports Council, which was announced and appointed on 11 Feb 1965, not long after my arrival. As might be expected Walter was seldom seen in the office in these early days and none of the other staff at Headquarters were aware or interested in research or documentation. They were all practitioners. The CCPR has been sometimes derided as a ‘bean bags and skittles’ organisation but this was far from the truth. If one went into a Regional Office at that time you would certainly have to fight your way through piles of skis, bags of footballs and tennis racquets, but there were a number of dynamic minds, many of them fresh from war time service, and they had plenty of original ideas of ways in which the adult population could be directed to take an interest in sport.

The advent of the Advisory Sports Council was to see significant change and I was able to ride on the back of that wave. One thing that was immediately evident was that in order to encourage greater participation there was a’ need for more facilities. Grass playing fields there were a plenty but the nation was clearly severely deficient in indoor playing spaces. In a country which had long, dark, often wet, winter evenings it was surprising that we had so few large indoor spaces for sport. There were many school gymnasia but few that could accommodate anything more than a single badminton court, and even those were seldom available after school hours.

Right from the start the Sports Council had identified four areas in which they would work; Facilities and Planning, Coaching and Development, International Participation and Research. However while they had a highly talented group of members and plenty of ideas they had no permanent staff. Apart from WW who had been seconded from the CCPR, they had agreed with Birmingham University to second also Denis Molyneux, a dynamic young Physical Education lecturer, who had extensive experience of sports facilities in Europe.

Walter quickly recognised that, if he was to make progress, he would need to harness the resources of the CCPR. In early discussions I had with Denis Molyneux it became evident that a major priority was to obtain some understanding of the way in which the very small number of indoor sports centres that had begun to appear in England was working and I was encouraged to set to work on a study in this area. In what was also another shrewd move Denis Howell, who was the new Minister for Sport, had also persuaded the CCPR that they should allow their Regional Staff to provide the organisational support for a network of Regional Sports Councils which were established throughout the country based upon the CCPR’s network of ten regional offices.

Graham Morse’s Biography of Walter Winterbottom says of this:

‘A key part of the Sports Council Strategy was the creation of regional sports councils – devolving the execution of policies to a local level – and establishing them as a priority. Councillors and planning officers from local authorities wanted a majority representation on these councils and initially this was some concern among the sports bodies but Howell – a former local authority man himself – knew that the local authorities would be the great financial providers. The results were a revelation bringing about an astonishing change in the attitude of local authorities.’

Almost immediately the Sports Council’s staffing problems were solved. Not only had they got the services of a network of regional staff but much of the work that was accomplished by the Regional Sports Council’s was itself undertaken by local authority officers. This was a clever move and it had been made even more effective as WW soon after he had been appointed to the CCPR had convinced the Department of Education, who annually provided a large part of the Council’s staffing budget, to agree to the appointment of Regional Director’s in each of the regions, which enabled a higher level of recruiting to be undertaken. Indeed it was one of these Regional Directors, A. L. Colbeck, in the North East Region, who had already paved the way in persuading his local authorities to form a Regional Council, which provided the template for the rest of the country.

Meanwhile the first meeting of the facilities planning committee of the Sports Council had met and identified the urgent need to establish standards of provision for the major facilities such as sports centres, swimming fields and playing pitches. There was already an accepted standard for playing fields and local authorities had experience of providing swimming pools but there was little or no information about the use of the indoor sports centres. I at last had a purpose in life!!

It seems strange in hindsight, 50 years on, to recall that there was almost no experience of indoor sports provision in the UK. The foreword to the publication I was eventually to produce started thus:

‘The indoor sports centre is a newcomer in the hierarchy of sports provision in Great Britain. While some large halls have in the past been used for sporting purposes the community sports hall, purpose built and freely available for use by all sections of the general public is basically a new concept and one which remains unfamiliar to the vast majority of the population.’

The first centre fitting this description was the Harlow Sports Centre and that had opened its doors to the public only in 1964. There was an immense interest in this facility however there was only limited information and little on which to base recommendations for provision elsewhere. It was decided that my first priority was to study the use of the few examples of similar facilities that were then in existence. The criteria for selection of the centres that were studied were that they:

  • had facilities additional to a sports hall
  • were widely available for use by all sections of the general public
  • had been in operation for 12 months at the time of the survey,

It is surprising, when now there are probably well over a thousand facilities that fit these criteria, that at the time in 1967, there were only five centres that met that standard. These were:

  • Afan Lido in Port Talbot
  • Bracknell Sports Centre
  • Harlow Sports Centre
  • Lightfoot Sports Centre in Newcastle
  • And Stockton Sports centre in Stockton on Tees.

This is not the place to do more than outline what resulted from that research. The results of that study were published in 1971 by H.M. Stationery Office as Sports Council Study No 1, and long prior to that date had been fed into a previous publication of the Sports Council, Planning for Sport, Report of a Working Party on Scales of Provision. Published in 1968.
It was clear that these facilities were very well used, appealed to all ages and both sexes, men and women. Perhaps the main finding was that they were fairly local in their catchment. It had at one time been felt that they had a regional impact and there were people coming from as far afield as Southend to Harlow. However the study showed that in all the centres their impact was relatively local – 80 % within 4 miles of the centre – and that few users travelled for more than 20 minutes. It was these results that led the Sports Council to adopt the standard of provision for both Indoor Sports Centres and Swimming Pools of ‘the 20-minute journey time’.

At this time the Regional Councils for Sport and Recreation were undertaking strategies for sports provision and local authorities were encouraged to provide facilities in line with the Sorts Council standards. The Regional Councils proved to be very effective agencies for promoting this work. In the 70’s and 80’s the Sports Council Regional staff had close working relationships with local authority officers and the Regional Councils themselves had a ready access to Local Authority members. The large majority of members of these bodies were Committee Chairmen. It was a two-pronged attack which was backed by good publicity material and technical advice. The Sports Council had seconded a group of architects from the Department of Education and Science, who were to form the Technical Unit for Sport and their publications were readily available.

It was while undertaking the survey of Sports Centre that it became evident that the Sports Centre Managers themselves, now a growing number, needed a forum to exchange ideas and good practice. The Sports Council set up the first gathering, in a conference held at Crystal Palace and it was following this event that the Association of Recreation Managers was formed. The Sports Council was often the catalyst for this type of development at this time. This led to the establishment of the series of Recreation Management Conferences organised by the Sports Council, and enthusiastically led by Harry Littlewood, from the Sports Council, and Ted Blake from Nissen, a company who were for many years the sponsors of the event. Scheduled over the best part of a week and supported by an extensive trade exhibition of sports manufacturers and suppliers, this event attracted influential audience. It was ‘the place to be seen’ and was for more than a decade the gathering place for Chairmen and Chief Officer of Local Authority Leisure Committees.

The late 1960’s and the 1970’s witnessed an amazing growth in sports facilities. Local authorities were realising that a significant area of their expenditure, both capital and revenue, was being absorbed by activities that were bringing real benefits to their communities. No longer were these ventures capable of being dealt with as a minor part of a Technical Services committee, they deserved greater attention. Thus began the trend of merging these interests in a Leisure Committee, bringing together the whole range of sports centres, swimming baths, parks and open spaces, countryside, arts, museums and cultural activities. Such a range of activity deserved a chief officer of substance with influence at Senior Management level. Thus began the appointment of Directors of Leisure and the establishment of Leisure Committees, to which potential committee chairmen were very keen to be appointed. This move was further accelerated by the Reorganisation of Local Government in 1974 whereby large local authorities were formed.

Aware of the importance of Local Government in the field of Leisure at this time I was keen to be part of this action and was appointed to a post having the somewhat grandiose title of ‘Chief Leisure and Cultural Services Officer’ for Waverley Borough Council, later to be renamed Director of Leisure. It was a fascinating period of my career in which I probably gained far more in experience than achievement. Five years later I returned to the Sports Council as Regional Director for London and the South East Region and later, when this rather large region was split in two I was appointed to be Director of Regional Services, encompassing responsibility for all ten Sports Council Regions.

These were fascinating times to be involved in the leisure profession. There was huge growth in opportunities and the country has benefited from the facilities that were then provided. The Sports Council was continuing to play its part by promoting the use of these facilities through a series of campaigns, some to greater purpose than others. However in today’s less expansive times the campaigns for 50 +, for sport for disabled people have had their effect, witness the number of sports centres who still enjoy significant use by senior citizens and the interest and growth there has been in sport for the disabled as witnessed in the Paralympic movement. Other campaigns were less successful. Who can remember the young people with light bulbs coming out of their heads!! Another prominent but more successful campaigning issue of both the Sports Council and Regional Councils was the encouragement of joint provision of facilities with schools, many more schools are now open and managed for public use. Probably one of the more successful promotions that the Sports Council initiated was the introduction to Local Government of sports development officers whose role was to initiate sporting activity within the community. Although initially pump primed by Sports Council grant, most authorities retained them at the end of the grant period.
The Sports Council was also instrumental in organising the National Sports Centre Management Award (see *) in the late 1970s and 1980’s. The Award was organised through regional winners leading to the national accolade. Visits and assessments were made by judges with a broad management background including from the British Institute of Management. The Sports Centre Management Award was extremely valuable at that time to existing managers, providing expert advice through a comprehensive process.

In the late 1980’s Central and Local Government were becoming concerned at the growth in their expenditure and this almost certainly resulted in the introduction of Competitive Tendering in 1988. This has been a somewhat mixed blessing. Local Government is not well placed to manage facilities for profit, heavy ‘on costs’ for central services and other restrictions in working within a political system where decision making can be frustratingly slow do not help. Working with contractors has in many cases reduced the revenue expenditure on sports facilities but there have been in consequence slight changes in management style and content. We have come a long way from the pioneering days of leisure Management but many will look back upon that period with satisfaction.

I can look back on 50 years of involvement with indoor sports facilities and their organisation. With few exceptions, indoor sports facilities are now in place. Almost every secondary school now has a sports facility and most are available to the public. However times have been hard. Many of the most successful developments of the 1970’s and 1980’s have gone to the wall. Regional Sports Councils were no longer recognised for the advantages that they gave. Many of, what was then, the new breed of Directors of Leisure has fallen under the axe of financial constraint. The Sports Council itself has changed direction under its new title Sport England concentrating much more on elite sport and on sports for school age children. When I retired from the Sports Council in 1994, as Director of Regional Services, I was overseeing the work of ten regions all with an establishment of some 20+ members of staff. They were in the main well known and well liked; they were the subject of many butts of the local authority officers, nonetheless most of whom they could count amongst their friends. However they could through the Regional Councils bring influence to bear and get their ‘better’ ideas accepted. The financial influence of grant while small in relation to the overall cost, and especially to today’s Lottery money, was often the influencing factor in getting a result. The other Government Agencies, Arts Council, Tourist Boards envied the Sports Council in its networking capability through its staff and regional organisations.

What is the situation today? Ask any local authority officer who their Sport England representative is and the result is generally a blank face. There are now effectively three ‘local’ teams Central, North and London and South each with some 5 or 6 regional staff, largely operating from home, or at least from an email address and phone number and required to cover a huge area. There are 16 members of the ‘local’ staff, each with title ‘Local Government Relationship Manager’.

Whereas in 1994, when I retired, one senior officer was responsible for liaison with the whole of Kent, with the back-up of a Regional Director and a regional office, today, one single officer of the present Sport England South ‘Local Team is required to cover Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Kingston-upon-Thames, Lewisham, Merton, Reading, Richmond upon Thames, Slough, Wokingham, West Berkshire, Bracknell Forest, Windsor and Maidenhead, Brighton & Hove, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Medway, Milton Keynes, Reading, Surrey, Sutton, East Sussex, West Sussex.
I was privileged to work in those times and to meet so many able and amenable pioneers of the leisure industry.


John Birch, September 2014

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