Reflections and Perspectives on the 60 ‘Diamond’ years of Sports Centres

The Summary Reflections of the Project’s Editorial Advisory Group

Any attempt to summarise 10 Chapters covering 60 years, and seven years’ research work, is a challenging task, and to do so succinctly is fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, the Editorial Advisory Group sets out below its own reflections in summary on the growth and development of centres over the 60 years, where we have currently reached, and prospects for the future. The individual reflections of the Group members follow.

  • the growth in the number of indoor sports centres from zero to 4,500 in 60 years is nothing short of a social phenomenon;
  • however, there is evidence that the growth in net provision has slowed in recent years and may shrink in the future as the inevitable closure of older facilities may not be matched by the opening of new centres;
  • the economic and social drivers for such provision have changed significantly over the period, but inequalities of access remain an issue facing today’s centres;
  • the rationale for provision has shifted in emphasis over time from sport ‘for its own sake’, through attempts to alleviate anti-social behaviour and various forms of deprivation, to contributing to personal and community health;
  • the results of the latter have seen a shift from casual use and promoting use by ‘target groups’ to membership systems, particularly ‘high end’ gym-type membership, driven largely by financial considerations;
  • despite regular changes in the structures and funding of local government, local Councils remain the leading facilitator and owner of centres but, under significant financial pressures, they have needed to find ever more inventive approaches to the funding and management of centres;
  • the Education sector has grown significantly from passive gatekeepers of a few school gyms to the major player numerically in public provision. Universities have also become major providers;
  • however, with the drive towards Academies in England and investment in new schools in Scotland both slowing down, there may be fewer opportunities for new provision in the sector in the future;
  • the design of centres has moved from ‘black boxes’, through ‘leisure palaces’ often with leisure pools, to a more ‘open-view’, glass dominated and functional design internally and a more prestigious external appearance;
  • changes in facility provision have been led by health and fitness trends, especially the growing importance of providing flexible swimming pools and extensive, technology-driven fitness gyms. This, together with the improved availability of outdoor provision, has diminished the central significance of the multi-purpose sports hall itself;
  • the management profession has matured from the initial former PE teachers and military officers, through Local Authority Leisure Directorates, to local and national Leisure Trusts and a focus on the greater importance of financial outcomes;
  • however, the recent demise of senior leisure positions in Local Authorities and national agencies is of concern as policy advice may be absent or diluted by financial considerations;
  • the continuing pressures for the ‘externalisation’ of Local Authority management have widened the gap between social and commercial provision and led to greater inequalities of access;
  • sports and leisure centres have an impressive past, a relatively stable present, but an uncertain future due to financial pressures, largely unpredictable customer choices, and the medium and longer term impact of Covid.

The Editorial Advisory Group, and a number of other experienced recreation professionals, have provided an interesting array of individual reflections on sports & leisure centres. These range from specific experiences to overviews of the centre scene.

The Individual Reflections of the Editorial Advisory Group


John Birch – Diamond Reflections

As the Granddaddy of the Project Team, I can offer reflections over some 75 years of indoor sport facilities during my lifetime!!

My school days gave me no memorable opportunity for indoor sport.  My three schools, Primary, Secondary and Independent had no memorable indoor sports facilities.  I completed my education at an independent boarding school which I am told had a small gymnasium, but it was not used.  In the five years that I was in the School, I was not even aware of its existence!! In comparison we had the use of very fine playing fields and my experience was almost entirely of outdoor sport which I enjoyed thoroughly.  The only other form of Physical Training was that each day, at morning break, the prefects would lead classes in static exercises undertaken in the yard behind the school building.  As a prefect I had to lead one of the classes in this rather pedantic activity.

National Service followed and initially I can recall that we did very little other than similar static exercises as part of the initial training. During my National Service I decided that I would like to become a teacher of Physical Education and I applied for, and was given, a place at Loughborough College, which at that time, with Carnegie College in Leeds, had a near monopoly on the appointments of Physical Education teachers to English secondary schools. Aware that I might need to have experience of gymnastics during my course I persuaded the army to send me on a course at the Army School of Physical Training in Aldershot.    The course, of three months duration, not only widened my physical training experience, but awakened me to the value of indoor facilities for physical activity. To start with the Fox Gymnasium, which was the base for much of the course was of an immense size and gave me an appreciation of what was possible for sport if a sizeable floor area was provided.

During this course I also had to attend for an interview at Loughborough and, in a spare moment, I took the opportunity to observe one of the PE Course groups undertaking a lesson in the College’s main Gymnasium.   This was a mind-blowing experience and by chance the group was being led by Clinton Sayer, who was later to become my College Tutor, and even later a colleague when I worked at the Sports Council.  One of the features of the course at Loughborough was that the Victory Hall, which was one the earliest of Sports Halls of a size to accommodate sports requiring significant space, like basketball and volleyball, and had none of the encumbrances of wall bars and beams, which were then the norm in most school gymnasia.

My first appointment was to a small Grammar School where the gymnasium was barely big enough for one badminton court and which inevitably had beams and wall bars.  Thus, more or less negating its use for sport.  Fortunately, my next appointment eventually brought significant improvement in the indoor space available.  Initially it was a grammar school of around 300 boys and it had a minute gymnasium.   However, it was destined to grow incrementally to a school for 2000 boys and as part of that growth a Physical Education block was provided with three gymnasia, each of a respectable size sufficient to accommodate a decent basketball court. During my time at this school, I was sent on a one-year course to Carnegie College in Leeds.  At the time this college only had one small gymnasium, but, during my time there, I recall undertaking a visit to Sheffield University to see their newly provided Sports Hall.   It was one of the first of the halls being provided in the wake of the recommendation being made in the Wolfenden report.

It was soon after my return from this course that I was to gain employment as Research Officer for the Central Council of Physical Recreation. My arrival in this post was coincidentally at the time of the establishment of the Sports Council.  One of their first areas of attention was to promote the recommendation of the Wolfenden report that ‘more indoor facilities were required for sport’. It was also at about this time that the Harlow Sports Centre was opened and the initial policy emphasis of the Sports Council was to encourage the provision of more facilities of this kind.

The story of my involvement in this work and the publication of my study of the first tranche of indoor sports centres has already been documented on the website. Needless to say, this was to remain an important area of my work while employed by the Sports Council.  Considerable emphasis was placed on such provision and this has been reflected in the remarkable growth of indoor sports facilities over the period that I was working for the Sports Council. In 1984 I began a period of five years as Chief Leisure Officer for Waverley District Council.  It was in this period that I was to prepare the brief for a new Indoor Sports Centre for Farnham, one of the larger towns.  This brief was chosen to appear as an Appendix to the Sports Council’s Technical Unit for Sport publication on Indoor Sports Facilities. By 1989 I was back working for the Sports Council, initially as Director of the London and South East Region, and later as Director of Regional Services.  The provision of indoor facilities was a major emphasis of our work.  The website history has highlighted what a significant growth was taking place in the provision of Indoor facilities. This was before the period of management by sports trusts and competitive tendering.  I was however aware of the advantages of seeking outside specialist advice and help in the management of sports centres as Farnham Sports Centre was chosen as the model for a similar centre at nearby Camberley where the earliest of non-local authority management was involved as the first local authority sports centre to be managed by contract.  The Camberley Sports Centre was built to the plans developed for Farnham which I had overseen.

When I retired, in 1994, I established a small consultancy business called ‘Second Innings’.  I had not at first intended to go on working but my local Secondary School, Weydon School, invited me to advise them on the need for them to provide an indoor sports centre.  It is encouraging that not only did this result in a new sports centre but this led to the appointment of a Sports Centre manager who was to ensure that community use was freely established. This school now leads the way in the overall provision of both indoor and outdoor sporting opportunities in the town.  Perhaps my final involvement in this field is one which has disappointingly not been a great success.  It was the brainchild of two well-meaning local enthusiasts who were hockey players.  With Lottery assistance they achieved their objectives of establishing an indoor centre which was designed to provide facilities for indoor hockey.  What they had not appreciated was that there was insufficient demand for indoor hockey to contribute significantly to the overall centre revenue.  The Centre is now run by the local council but very little indoor hockey is being played.

Despite this disappointing example there is nonetheless a requirement for facilities that can be purpose built for specialist sport but there is also a need for these to be well used to enable them to cover their revenue costs.  For this reason, it is important for the sporting bodies themselves to ensure that they are well used.  A comparable Indoor Hockey Hall run entirely by East Grinsted Hockey Club in has been able to contribute significantly to this sport. Similar experience has been seen in other sports such as basketball, gymnastics and badminton. The last decade has seen the provision of indoor sports facilities growing at pace, predominantly with commercial or semi commercial involvement.  The size of the ‘palaces’ that were emerging in the early years of the 20th Century are quite mind blowing in comparison with the centres being contemplated when I was involved. The Pandemic has slowed both the use and the provision down and it will be interesting to see what happens if and when we enter a world free of the risks we now face.Now in my 90th year with various parts of the body showing signs of the wear and the memory definitely slowing down I can look back with pleasure on my involvement in this Project.  The product is a great credit to all involved and has ensured that the efforts of the many in this field of activity do not pass unrecognised. January 2022

Gerry Carver – Reflections on Pioneering Managers            

The historical record of the UK indoor sports & leisure centre encompasses 60 years of progress and change since Harlow Sports Centre was first planned. A diamond celebration! ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ up to 2021/22 is about the organisations, places, buildings, philosophies, politics, processes and resources that make up the story. Yet, above all, it is underpinned by the people who made it all happen.

My career and involvement in centres have spanned more than 50 years since I first experienced the Victory Hall at Loughborough. In various capacities I had the privilege and pleasure of visiting hundreds of centres and managers across the UK, and some in Europe. The centres were interesting, and, in the very early days, new buildings were exciting to visit. However, my strongest personal reflections over those years are of the people that promoted, planned and managed UK sports centres, especially the founding generation of managers.

It is the enthusiasm, commitment and friendship of the managers I have met over the years that are my most lasting reflections. We have recognised some of the early ‘Legacy Legends and Gamechangers’ in a special section, and some others in Chapters. In early research for the Project we were fortunate to have the opportunity to gain the support and contributions of a Legacy Legend in Australia, Denis Molyneux [1925-2019]; of Bryan Griff’ Jones (Grove Centre and Bletchley LC); and Bill Stonor (an early doyen of Faulkner Brown Architects). However all that only scratches the surface and reflecting here, I can only do the same for a few of the early pioneers.

Mike Paxman had launched Carlisle and as I arrived in 1973 he left to open the new Newton Aycliffe Centre and Peter Thornham had taken over as Carlisle Manager – a better work colleague I could not have had. At that time so many new centres were opening that the appointment and movement of managers was helter-skelter. A few managers appointed to new centres moved on to another before it  had opened! From 1975 to 1982, through the Scotland & North of England Region of the Association of Recreation Managers and then editing ARM News, I motored in my spare time the hundreds of miles across the UK for regional and editorial visits. Regional meetings were always held in a new centre (there were so many at that time) and with an enthusiastic new manager.

The new buildings were always interesting, but it was the welcome and subsequent ongoing contact with the managers that stands out. In Scotland, there was Ces Lowry at Forfar Leisure Centre, Conrad LaPointe at Allander Sports Centre, Milngavie, John Ridge at Strathclyde Park and Stan Robertson at The Magnum in Irvine; In the north-east there was Billy Bell at Wallsend, Bob Brind at the original Ashington Sports Centre in Wansbeck District, Neil Proctor at the original Killingworth Centre and in Whitehaven, Bob Hastings.

They were pathfinding leaders in the region and all extremely welcoming. Overall there was at that time a national comradeship amongst managers. This was generated by the arrival of the new profession of ‘recreation management’, the challenge of the first new sports centres and the growth of ARM.

At Crowtree (1977-82), I had the support of my boss and Centre director, the late Dennis Hinds. Dennis masterminded the successful operational planning and management of Europe’s largest public centre and was the wisest manager I met. Some of the contacts and friendships arising from those early days have endured through the years, notably, John Birch (Sports Council), David Fisher (Horsham and Hove), Mike Fulford (Concordia), Geoff Gearing (Deeside), John Wright (Harlow), Jack Wilkinson (Sports Council) and John Stride (Arun). Other friends have sadly passed on, including ‘the father of centre management’ George Torkildsen, John Williams (Billingham and Bletchley) and Peter Barson (Sports Council). The management foundations and legacy of professionalism from those early managers remain and should not be forgotten as we continue to enter new and challenging waters.  May 2022

David Fisher   –   Over fifty years of reflections

I was amongst the first generation of recreation managers, having joined the management team of Basingstoke Sports Centre from teaching in 1970. I subsequently managed at Worthing Sports Centre before becoming responsible for recreation and leisure first in Horsham District and then in Hove Borough as Director of Leisure & Tourism. I am one of the reducing number that can reflect on the whole lifetime of centres and all the developments and changes recorded in ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’. The posts held epitomised the ongoing development and scope of centres in the UK. The Basingstoke Centre was located in a shopping centre and was opened by Prince Philip; Worthing’s served a large seaside town with indoor and outdoor provision; Horsham encompassed a major centre and satellite facilities across a large urban and rural District; Hove saw the strong links between sport, leisure and tourism.

I have two overriding personal reflections. Firstly, the provision of centres across UK communities has had a huge impact on the development of indoor sport for all ages over the years. Secondly, I have greatly valued all the friendships and acquaintances I have built up with other managers through my career, especially through the professional associations.

‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ is a magnificent testament to the success of UK sports & leisure centres.   May 2022

Mike Fulford – Diamond Reflections

The seeds of my career in sport and physical recreation were sown at school in PE/Games lessons and more especially in extra-curricular school sport, an interest that I was able to pursue later in higher education when training as a specialist PE teacher at Loughborough. Other types of higher education courses referring to sport had not been developed at that time. It’s disappointing to note, more than 50 years later, that the debates continue around the importance (or lack of it) of PE as a subject in the school curriculum;

  • What its aims should be as between education ‘of the physical’ or ‘through the physical (my first college essay topic!);
  • The status and training of PE teachers (including the use of sports coaches in schools);
  • The need for school sports facilities.

The opportunities for sport and physical activity in schools are surely fundamental to participation in adult life and stimulate the subsequent demand for publicly funded facilities such as sports centres.

When fitness training emerged as an end in itself rather than primarily the route to better sports performance it changed the facility requirements as well. ‘Gyms’ rather than ‘sports halls’ became the order of the day. Competitive indoor sports, which were already struggling to obtain sufficient court time for a club programme, then faced even more difficulties booking the space they needed. Increasingly such clubs are now seeking to own their own facility helped by sponsorship and broadcasting rights. Unless they can do that the UK will not have the indoor facilities to be competitive on the world stage in those sports.

I have seen huge advances in the range of fitness equipment available for both commercial and domestic users. People who can afford high tech cloud-based equipment have a choice whether they carry on going to a public gym or stay at home to exercise. Will the loss of such customers plus those who are catered for by private sector once again raise the suggestion that publicly financed facilities are second best? The answer will be ‘yes’ if public investment in facilities and staff cannot be maintained at a high enough level.

In my early career the physical and mental benefits of participation in sport and recreation were not a high priority in terms of public policy, except perhaps the need to keep children safe by teaching them to swim. Over the years there have been times when health issues that benefit from physical recreation, such as obesity, have been talked up. In the post pandemic era that approach will no doubt be tried again. However any new public investment is likely to be targeted with a requirement for measurable results with new challenges for health professionals or fitness practitioners or both in a partnership.

In the last 50 years the sport and physical recreation sector had its moments but never received as much resource and support as was hoped by those working within it. As someone once said ‘the future is different’ but it certainly will not be any easier to promote a sport and physical recreation agenda – especially the indoor competitive sports element. January 2022

Hywel Griffiths – Trends, Fads and Fashions

I worked professionally (I hope) in the recreation management industry from 1974 to 2014. Not the full 60 years of the Project, but enough to see that change in this industry is constant and inevitable. During this time I saw squash boom and bust, marathon running become an obsession followed by a largely fundraising opportunity, five-a-side football move from an indoor to a largely outdoor pursuit thanks to synthetic pitches and a whole gamut of exercise styles from Boxercise to Zumba come and go and sometimes come back again.

Given the lack of media attention for most recreational sport it doesn’t seem to be public exposure that drives these changes in customer behaviour. Neither, if the trend data is to be believed, is exposure to the Olympics or top-class sport any reliable guide to participation (with the exception of a couple of weeks use of outdoor tennis courts during Wimbledon.) Neither, I’m sorry to say, is it generally genius management actions through promotion and development; we’ve tended to be reactive in most cases. It just seems to be some form of herd mentality where the zeitgeist moves in mysterious ways. On top of the trends in customer activity we’ve seen other trends in governance and management from Trusts to Local Authority in house management to “outsourcing” and back to Trusts. Government policy has also fluctuated between viewing sport as a “social good”, a palliative to social deprivation, an economic regenerator, an adjunct to the health service and recently a tool towards “levelling up” (whatever that means.) So as managers, change should not be completely surprising to us. However, and here’s the big WHAT IF?…

The current trend towards ever larger gyms and the increasing reliance in the business plans and strategies of so many operators on the health and fitness market, with investment channelled into ever more sophisticated equipment and technology, seems to be increasingly making the industry dependent on a single income source. So that sports centres whose common sub-title “multi-purpose” was once a given, now seem more and more dependent on a single aspect of customer behaviour. Can such a situation be sustainable given the history outlined above?

At a time when “Sport for All” seems to have been replaced as a national mantra with “Sport for All who can afford a gym membership” it’s tempting for managers to assume that this situation will always prevail and that customers will always invest their leisure pounds in losing a few corporeal pounds and in self-improvement and lycra. But if past trends are to be believed, this may not be the case in the longer term. When will today’s gym become yesterday’s squash court or today’s spinning class be as poorly attended as yesterday’s step aerobics session?

We may have seen, during the 2019 -2021 lockdowns and Covid restrictions, a prelude to some potential change. Despite the optimism of industry bodies, will customers want to return to sweaty and poorly ventilated gyms when a home Peleton bike with internet connectivity can give them something similar in the safety of their own homes, or even a real bike in the open air? What if they conclude that the health benefits of exercise are overridden by the health risks of infection? Or what if they just become dissatisfied, disinterested and therefore reluctant to part with cash for something they use less and less often?

I have no wish to be a Jeremiah who makes negative predictions, or indeed an ‘old fart’ who thinks that things were always better in “my day.”  Maybe Gyms and the whole health and fitness industry may buck the trends of the past 60 years and go on being profitable for a very long time yet. But it seems to me that the wise recreation manager should be aware of the pitfalls of overreliance on single activities. They need to take very careful note of trends in membership renewals, attendance graphs, income projections and all of the tools that we developed as we became a more mature profession. More than ever they will need their ears to the ground and their instincts sharpened as to what customers are thinking and wanting, while at the same time keeping fingers firmly crossed, that expensive investments will continue to realise the returns that the business plan envisaged. Alternatively, they will need very good instincts about what the next “big thing” in participation might be.     January 2022

Mike Fitzjohn and Malcolm Tungatt – Our Diamond Reflections

We are writing this in the early days of the awful Covid-19 ‘lockdown’. It occurs to us that in one very limited sense it is not very different to 1960. The Sports and Leisure Centres and their successor fitness clubs and gyms are all closed, the swimming pools are all locked up, and the lights have gone out, quite literally, on the large football clubs in both of our hometowns. We all find a void in our lives and, to quote the old maxim, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

With the exception of a few hundred swimming pools, all at least 25 years old and many built before the First World War, indoor sport was almost non-existent in 1960.  Many secondary schools had gymnasia, but their use outside school hours was severely limited and public access was rare. Indoor sports participation, such as it was, largely took place under the aegis of closed groups, often small sports clubs operating in a wide variety of non-purpose-built facilities, such as badminton clubs in church halls. Youth organisations sometimes provided for table tennis in youth centres, snooker was to be found in many social clubs, and there were a few ice and roller skating rinks. The appearance of 10-pin bowling alleys was still a new phenomenon. There were also many differences in society from today. The manufacturing sector still accounted for 40% of employment (now 15%), just seven million women were engaged in economic activity (now 15 million), only about 20% of households owned a car (now almost 80%), and Richard Beeching had not yet swung his axe. The only choices for a night out for most adults were the pub, the cinema and the dance hall, while for the jiving teenagers there was also the Wimpy Bar. Sadly, in today’s ‘lockdown’ all of these venues and their 21st Century equivalents are also closed for the foreseeable future.

This website has documented in considerable detail the massive changes in indoor sports provision in the intervening period; the impact of the 1964 Labour Government, Local Government reorganisation and the municipalisation of indoor sport in the 1970s, the quasi-privatisation of the 1980s, the advent of the National Lottery, and the entry and growing diversification of the private sector. In aggregate it has been one of the largest social transformations of the second half of the 20th Century. Yet despite the best endeavours of Governments, The Sports Councils, Local Authorities and others there still remain nagging social divides in indoor sports participation by gender, age, occupation, social class, and ethnic background. People with disabilities, young people on the autistic spectrum, and teenagers locked-in to their social media platforms face additional issues.

And currently during the ‘lockdown’ speculation is rife about the future. The only certainty is that ‘the new normal’ is likely to be very different. Will some leisure centres and swimming pools close forever, either on health grounds and/or as public finances are squeezed? Will fitness clubs and private gyms go the same way as their incomes dwindle? And what of the massive number of walkers, joggers and cyclists we currently see on the streets and in our parks, legally there or otherwise – are they sports players, swimmers or regular gym users who have found alternative forms of exercise outdoors and, if so, will they return their trainers to the cupboards and their bikes to the garage in due course? Or might they be lost forever as sporting customers? Interesting times, and plenty for current researchers to address. April 2020

Postscript – May 2022: Recent evidence from Sport England’s ‘Active Places’ database indicates that there has been no acceleration of closures of indoor sports centres in the past two years. However, this cannot be ruled out for the future as Local Authorities continue to review their operations ‘post’ Covid.

John Stride – Personal Reflections

I spent many years of my childhood (the 1960s) visiting small church halls and community halls with individual badminton courts that had a wide variety of beams that had to be avoided with anything from shuttlecocks to table tennis balls. These halls had very poor bulb lighting and even worse heating and no storage room for any type of equipment, especially trampolines. They did however tend to have wooden sprung floors and darker coloured backgrounds, making the ability to see the appropriate projectile quite good. The best and most appropriate facilities for competitive events of indoor sports at the time tended to be provided by the armed forces, albeit with side wall electric heaters that were terribly inefficient. Those armed forces facilities often hosted local competitions where all the local clubs came together during the winter season. Squash courts were very sparse in number. Summers from April to October were spent outside.

As time moved  on towards the early 1970s more school halls gradually became available for hire and many small, but generally local clubs, moved in to make use of the new-found space. The local leagues were very strong for ball/shuttle sports with clubs having a number of teams and those teams played in a multitude of adapted single or maximum 2 court facilities. 5-a-side soccer was just getting going albeit this was often limited as other club sports with regular bookings had priority over casual play. Visibility was different but not necessarily better. By the mid-1970s leisure centres were becoming more commonplace and those same sports clubs moved into the spacious new accommodation. As with the schools these had  hard floors with multiple lines, paler walls, brighter strip lighting and large sections of glass in the tops of the walls or ceilings.

For a variety of reasons the introduction of mass participation leisure centres did not necessarily produce an increased level of provision for quality and competitive sport. Indoor tennis was too expensive and wholly impracticable, floors were often dirty, bookings were always time restricted and equipment or chairs were always needing to be cleared away by the participants. By the 1980s leisure and sports centres were becoming increasingly busy, particularly as the demand for squash and the number of squash courts grew rapidly. Whilst squash and 5-a-side football grew the number and size of gyms was limited. Healthy living trends were a long way off.

During this 30-year span the demand or need for better quality competition ball/racket sports facilities were being catered for in members clubs who had landholdings, although their design and the amount of space allocated did not produce many specialist competitive centres. Over the next 20 years or so, up until the 2020s , Compulsory Competitive Tendering has seen gyms proliferate and sports halls become very busy as populations and communities expand but increased levels of provision have not necessarily followed suit.

In summary my personal reflections are that the local authorities did their bit in the second half of the 20th Century by increasing access and attitudes for community provision. The vast bulk of the population may even now be prepared to pay for their sport and healthy related activities. However this could not be expected to continue into the 21st century and the question arises as to what the governing bodies of sport have and are doing to provide specialist indoor facilities for individual sports pathways at a realistically local level? May 2022

John Thorpe – Reflections over a career

Like the Roman Empire the ‘leisure profession’ and industry seems to have gone through something of a rise and fall. Certainly, this is true of the sector that was generally known as ‘public sector’ leisure provision. In my third year at St John’s College an advert appeared in the college PE Department seeking applications for the position of Assistant Manager at Redbridge Sports Centre (RSC). This was my way out of having to teach and my hoped-for route in leisure management. I applied for and was offered the job of Assistant Manager at Redbridge Sports Centre. (RSC). This turned out to be an excellent grounding for the future. The Trust was one of a very few early multi-sport facilities to be set up at that time as a charitable trust, limited by guarantee. Quite early on I was introduced to and came to know as colleagues and friends, many of the characters and early pioneers in the leisure profession.

Part of the RSC role was to provide PE lessons/experiences for children from ILEA schools (having been built on ILEA land). Therefore most of the Assistant Managers came with a teaching qualification but also managed the centre outside school hours. The centre also provided a new home for a local tennis and badminton club which needed to relocate. Interestingly it was also the base for the indoor training for the West Ham football squad. I and my then colleagues have fond memories of playing Frank Lampard (Snr), (Sir) Trevor Brooking, and Harry Redknapp at squash after they had completed their training  session. After about 4 years I left Redbridge for North Devon as Leisure Officer for the District Council. This diverse role included a small museum, beach lifeguards, a number of swimming pools, a leisure centre, tourist related seasonal undertaking, parks and open spaces etc. It reflected a tendency at that time to lump together a multifarious range of activities and facilities under the leisure banner. I was again fortunate to work with another ‘pioneer’ in the name of Len Thomasson, who as an ARM member established an annual pricing comparison for all public sector leisure facilities.

I later applied for and was appointed Regional Officer in the Greater London and South East Region of the Sports Council based at Crystal Palace. I obtained a reference for the job from the late John Lyall, manager for West Ham FC and was appointed by John Birch, the then Regional Director – two figures who, in different ways were influential in my career development. I was fortunate to have been funded to undertake MA studies at North London Polytechnic under Tony Veal and later Fred Coulter. I was responsible for the running of the Annual Sports Centre Management Award in the London and South East Regions for a number of years and I benefitted considerably from lessons that I learned from the award applicants and the assessors. My final move was to work for Worthing Borough Council. My role evolved considerably over the years. I ‘endured’ the machinations of central government, ranging from CCT, Best Value and other measures and finished my career as Executive Head of Leisure and Cultural Services for Adur and Worthing Councils. Worthing Council flirted with the idea of externalising its sport/leisure portfolio. Despite this the Council, to its credit, did decide to replace an ageing swimming pool with a new facility in 2010/11.

My personal career largely mirrored much of what was happening in sport and leisure. As many councils elsewhere, Worthing and Adur have now externalised most of their facilities to an in-house trust. Throughout the country very few, if any, major facilities continue to be managed directly by local authorities. Things have changed, though. Sport and leisure are less likely to be always seen as a public good and a tool of public policy. In my early career sports provision was seen as a legitimate public response, for instance, to the Brixton riots and more widely to address public health issues by seeking to engage wider sections of society in healthy activities and pursuits.

Provision for some sports and activities is now left almost entirely to voluntary and charitable organisations, sometimes without direct support from public funds, and independent trusts run local authority centres. How sustainable this will prove over the long term remains to be seen. Commercial leisure based mainly around fitness is currently successful and offers some form of career path for aspiring managers. New pressures are however always emerging, socially, politically and financially, and not least of late, Covid. This is but a brief reflection on my many experiences and excellent colleagues that I had the privilege of working with over the years. May 2022

Jack Wilkinson – Reflections on the impact of centres

Sports Halls and Leisure Centres are commonplace in British society. They are regarded as  fundamental and essential provision for communities, schools and universities.  They are as standard now as parks and recreation grounds, libraries and cinemas were in the previous era. Yet a generation ago they were a novelty.

The genesis, spread and evolution of these Centres in the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century has been remarkable. In themselves, collectively and individually, they have been a valid subject of enquiry. Not just because they are crucial to Sport, Health and Education but in terms of Planning, Architecture, Design, Construction and Engineering.  Not least because they were the catalyst for new Local Government services and a new recreation management profession.

The historical enquiry of the Project is a portal into wider themes and issues: of geography, social history, politics, diversity and inclusion. First-hand experience has recorded how a radical innovation became ubiquitous amenity. The comprehensive story also serves as a record of the past, as an introduction to the potential future of Centres and as a prompt for further critical enquiry. May 2022

Reflections and Perspectives from other Professionals

Barry Neville – Early Planning

I remember those heady days in the late 1960s. I could say “amazing”, perhaps “sobering” is a better choice! When I started at Mid-Essex Technical College in 1966, there were six of us, all graduates doing a Post-Graduate Diploma in Town Planning. It was a block-release course, so we had exclusive time for the course. In the College holidays, we went to work in various sections of Essex CC Planning Department. I went off to a Land-Use and Transportation Team (this was post-Buchanan Report days). A Course colleague went to help compile the data for the Eastern Sports Council’s first inventory of sports facilities – sports centres, swimming pools, golf courses, water sports – which became the basis of the first regional sport and recreation strategies for the nine regional sports councils.

These were seed corn, of course, bringing together CCPR staff (who serviced the regional councils) and new partners in local authorities. In time, recreation planning would become fundamental to our working lives and to resource allocation and priorities. But, just like Sports Centres, these were heady days for new ways of working and delivering.

In sports legacy terms, perhaps these regional inventories are as important as sports centres themselves! 2021.

Martyn Allison – The beginning of the end or end of the beginning

Just at the time we celebrate the history of leisure centres we are facing our biggest challenge ever as we confront the impact of the pandemic. Over the next six months we could see fifty years of development destroyed or it could be the wakeup call we need to finally address some of our fundamental weaknesses.

I joined the sector in the early 1980s inspired to address inequality under the banner of “Sport for All” which helped give birth to sports development to address the under representation in many of our facilities and clubs. On my sixty fifth birthday I wrote an article asking if the sector had an empathy gap given that the new Active Lives survey showed that the same inequalities still existed after forty years. Whilst we may have built wonderful facilities access to them is just as restrictive as ever. Our original passion to make lives better for those in most need has been replaced by a world of marketing, customer service, profit generation and returns on investment. We have created a business model that is not sustainable and whilst efficiency has got better our effectiveness in terms of access has got worse. We are obsessed with competing in the fitness market to get the active more active rather than the inactive active and we now assess our performance in terms of the number of direct debits we have sold this month. Covid19 has come along and exposed these fundamental weaknesses. A few weeks of closure and operators and trusts were on the verge of collapse without council funding. Even when centres finally got open they only survive by converting sports halls from badminton, judo and basketball to spinning and fitness classes to get the income. Many swimming pools remain closed and unused. We have lost our way, but where did it go wrong?

PM Thatcher introduced CCT to promote the use of the private sector as more efficient. In order to compete we had to improve our management and adopt good business techniques. This made us better and stronger, but also forced us to squeeze out the more socially orientated programmes. To avoid competition, we created trusts, but they were still required to operate to commercial principles. Gradually fewer councils retained in house operations so distancing communities and councillors from the provision of the service.  Was the loss of direct political ownership when the problems first started?

In 1997 Blair replaced CCT with Best Value, a more rounded approach where quality could be properly taken into account alongside price. Again, the sector quickly adapted to justifying and measuring its contribution to local longer-term outcomes. We tried to demonstrate our value in terms of economic development, youth development, crime reduction but mainly to health improvement. New national performance indicators emerged that measured participation at levels of activity required to deliver health benefits. The relationship between sport, physical activity and health was being built but soon the indicators started to show that we were not narrowing the gaps in participation that were required to improve health inequality. We were happier measuring increases in use than changes in participation.

The incoming coalition government in 2010 followed by a conservative government brought about the biggest downsizing of public sector expenditure we had ever seen with some councils facing a 50% reduction in their grant funding. Sport and leisure faced a major challenge as councils were forced to use the market to replaced subsidy with financial returns. Whilst we celebrated our improving commercial performance, margins were being squeezed tighter and tighter and the social value of facilities was being questioned as new national policy was refocused on the inequalities in activity levels.

So, what of the future. I fear we will see a huge restructuring of the sector as councils continue to face massive financial challenges. The sector will now need to decide where its future lies. Is it a commercially focused fitness business or is it a health and wellbeing service focused on addressing health inequality? 2021.

Graeme Freebody – Diamond Reflections on Concordia

When I began working at Concordia Leisure Centre 20 years ago, in 1996, as a part time attendant the centre had almost twenty years of history. I remember my first manager Richard Calvert telling me I was joining the organisation in an exciting time of change. Change became the norm!

We were accredited with the Investors in People award in 1999 and then the initiation of appraisals began. At the time there were back payment issues resolved about weekend payments. The staff structure also changed from Duty Officers and Charge hands to Supervisors and the creation of a Supervisor in charge of maintenance and Assistant manager posts were created. These groups were still the main radio carriers and not so much in the attendant roles. The age for employment with the authority also decreased from 18 years to 16 years. Also in the attendant ranks males were still predominant. The staff room by now had a smoking ban but accessibility via parking was great with no restrictions like today. The different departments eventually wore different coloured uniforms to distinguish themselves including the use of caps on poolside and the meal voucher process continued until it was replaced with a general 50% reduction scheme.

The centre had youth entertainment with “Watermania” sessions in the pool, arcade games and pool tables but with this led to some friction and bad behaviour. The social hub status of the centre began decreasing with the annual New Year’s Eve party becoming lesser popular and the expansion of the neighbouring shopping malls. In the period from 2000 to 2016 we saw the effect of local government restraints and cuts ,including Compulsory Competitive Tendering and Best Value, followed by an era of looking to provide a higher quality service as well as more financial savings for the local authority. The local authority gained a Beacon council status in 2003 and worked through efficiencies and better ways of delivering services. The decision was taken to create a charitable trust and so Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure Trust Ltd was created in 2004. The new organisation flourished with new funding opportunities, tax incentives and broadening its activities into schools. However, more changes were afoot in the centre. These included changes of management staff, pay changes with certain departments going onto all-inclusive rates, which saw the end of previous enhancements, pension changes for female staff, and retirement age. There were other practical changes including the introduction of an automated defibrillator, which has saved many lives since. This was essential for general use and the newly adopted G.P referral scheme which included high risk cardiac patients undertaking first time exercise after heart problems. A new digital time monitoring ‘clocking in device’ was introduced for staff use. There was more investment in the gym facilities which were quickly surpassing the pool as the best income generator for the centre.  The catering which had always been contracted out came in-house under the new trust umbrella as a trading subsidiary.

The next major development affecting Concordia was in 2009 when a unitary authority was introduced for Northumberland. Once again uncertainty about the future was prevalent.  In 2012 a leisure review was undertaken as part of a review of all services run by the new Northumberland County Council in order to formulate required savings from reduced Government funding. This saw the authority ask potential leisure providers to make a presentation on taking over and running all of the various Northumberland leisure contracts in the hope of bringing them altogether. The County Council decided to stay with the newly formulated Active Northumberland and agreed to creating one company to provide all leisure services in Northumberland.

In 2016 Active Northumberland has seen a significant amount of change yet again. In reality this has meant large numbers of unfortunate redundancies, better ways of working, more work being redistributed, efficiency drives and cost cutting and more interest in taking up union membership. Staff however are still resilient, loyal and flexible trying to evolve with the changes. Marketing and technology are very important now with online resources for members, payment kiosks, debit card payment facilities and emphasis on being environmentally friendly. The county council made the decision to make large investment to save programmes throughout the county wide leisure centres and to upgrade them. Concordia itself benefited by a £3.5 million pound investment. 2016.

ED: Graham is still working there in 2022.

David Gill – a CCT experience and comparison

My sports centre journey started in 1973 at the former Guildford Sports Centre, a superb ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ facility to launch my career with, then on to Portsmouth City Council where I ran Europe’s largest outdoor roller-skating rink in Southsea, then onwards to the award-winning Walnuts Sports Centre [London Borough of Bromley]. Then to my favourite ever job role, Recreation Manager at the massive Picketts Lock Leisure Centre [part of the Lea Valley Regional Park]. After that [we’re now in 1984] I worked at another award-winning centre, The Sands Centre in Carlisle, a new type of hybrid facility [for sport and entertainment] and my leisure centre journey concluded as an area manager with special focus as General Manager at the

wet and dry facilities at Farnham Sports Centre in Surrey. Whatever era of sports/leisure centre management we worked in, haven’t we been fortunate to work in an environment dealing in sport and with customers who were relishing their leisure time? The earlier period reflected local authorities committing comparatively significant resources, both human and monetary, to their [non-statutory] leisure centre provision. We often worked alongside the English Sports Council’s [later Sport England] initiatives – fondly remembering programmes such as ‘sport for the disabled’, ‘sport for 50+’, and more. Though I worked hard and enjoyed the creative, exciting and expanding world of community sports and leisure centres, I have a lot of respect for many of the leisure centre managers of today, they often have to be more multi-skilled than their predecessors and there is a more sophisticated level of business pressure. One thing became clear – widely accessible and well managed sports and leisure centres are vital to the well-being of local communities.

There were many [political, lifestyle, technological and other] changes over those years, but just one stand-out ‘big deal’. It was, in the late 1980’s, the Government’s legislation on Compulsory Competitive Tendering [CCT] affecting local authority leisure centres. It changed the whole dynamic and the way of thinking for many leisure centre managers [and their local authorities] and I just have one story to tell…

Surrey Heath Borough Council planned to build a new community leisure centre and they were attracted by the Farnham Sports Centre’s design and cost. They consequently purchased the centre’s plans from the owner, Waverley Borough Council. However, Surrey Heath was enterprisingly keen to pioneer and engage a private company to manage the new centre on its behalf. Crossland Leisure [ later to become DC Leisure] took on the reins at the new Camberley Arena. When CCT arose, what better comparison for anyone

concerned with the legislation than to view and assess two identical leisure centres [only a 20-minute drive-time apart], one managed by the private sector, one managed by public sector employees. Over several years, both Farnham and Camberley Arena received many shared visits from individuals, groups and local authorities from all over the south of England. Given that DC Leisure managers [at least at Camberley Arena] were largely from local authority leisure centre backgrounds, we got on well, and much of the ‘suspicion’ for private companies, for me, soon evaporated. Visitors to both centres were often surprised at how well the ‘public’ facility compared. Over the course of many visits, I learnt a lot about the energy and the way that DC Leisure ran their facilities and I also felt that they – the managers and staff – were wholly committed and having a good time ”without the shackles” pioneering a potential new option for leisure management. The incentive

might, of course, have been that it was a new business and [with the world of leisure management also watching on] it had to succeed. Ultimately, the time came when we had to submit our bid for CCT, and Farnham had just one competitor – DC Leisure! It was to our credit that the ‘in-house’ bid at Farnham won, at least on that occasion, though I later discovered that our bid price was £40,000 lower than DC Leisure – the same amount that they built into their bid as Profit. In the end – OK, politics and business aside – I reckon that customers aren’t too concerned about who runs their community leisure centre so long as it’s run well. 2020.

Bryan Hughes – A Personal Perspective

I am proud to have played a small part in the historical development of sports and leisure centres in the UK. Now living happily in retirement, I have so many memories of my involvement with centres in the East Midlands, London and the South East. I really do consider it to have been a privilege to be associated with the emergence of these particular features of the social landscape. I was fortunate to work in the management teams of 2 of the pioneering joint-provision centres at the Grove Sports Centre, Newark, and at the City Sports Centre in Lincoln, but it was to be appointed as the first manager of Rushcliffe Leisure Centre in Nottingham where I have my fondest memories, and which was the first joint-provision centre in the country to be built with a free-shaped leisure pool, and from which I probably acquired the most grey hairs.

In London I worked in two very deprived London boroughs. In Hackney, as well as opening the Britannia Leisure Centre, I found myself looking after four swimming pools, whose retinue of staff included fitters, trimmers and stokers who had looked after these community pools since Victorian times! Quite a difference from my early management experiences, as was the outstanding and genuine support of my Chair of the Leisure Services Committee, Cllr Kate Hoey, later a Minister of Sport, and now Baroness Hoey. My final roles came when I sat on the boards of two of the recently formed leisure trusts in Sevenoaks and in Southend, where my earlier hands-on experience was particularly useful in helping the trusts manage their facilities in entirely new situations.

I have two further reflections, not necessarily within the direct parameters of the centres. Firstly, as seen in Chapter 10, many of the early centres in the 1960s, 70s and 80s are reaching the end of their working lives and many local authorities are finding it financially difficult to keep up with the necessary and vital refurbishments, as so many other demands are made upon their finances. Secondly, it was precisely the dynamic increase in the number of centres that helped to precipitate the establishment of local authority leisure departments that in turn became an important feature in helping people to lead richer, healthier and more fulfilled lives. In some metropolitan areas, especially in London, some of those departments have been subsumed within other departments, in part again in order to reduce costs, with a potential loss of influence and benefit to those people for whom the centres were intended. 2021.

John Knowles – The early days: breaking ice and moving on

I have been fortunate enough to spend most of my working life involved in leisure management. I say that because so much of it was about providing pleasure and enjoyment for people, and I consider that to have been a great privilege.

Following three years at Loughborough College and a short period teaching Physical Education in the 1960s I started to notice sports centres springing up in various parts of the country. It didn’t take me long to decide that this would be the future for me. I soon found a job as assistant manager at a new dry centre in Suffolk. The centre was nearing completion when I arrived. The manager had already been appointed and he had been busy starting preparation for the opening. By this time local authorities Councils throughout the country were embarking on ambitious plans to build new sports centres. Notice the term ‘sports centre’ as at this time the focus was on sporting activities. The term ‘leisure centre’ came later when it was realised that a whole range of activities could be accommodated.

At this stage experienced managers were few and far between. Backgrounds in the main were from school PE teachers, and ex service personnel. Under these circumstances those with ambition were able to move on and up very rapidly, simply on the basis of experience in a sports centre sometimes regardless of ability. The centre manager I reported to had previously worked in the Royal Navy as a PTI for 25 years. It soon became obvious to me that he was looking to run the sports centre along similar lines. He would refer to the plant room as the engine room and appointed several staff with naval backgrounds. On my first day I was given orders as to what I would be responsible for. As an example this included the bar for which I had no experience whatsoever. So it was a rapid learning curve for me not just for the bar but for all the other services I was expected to manage. I found the most effective way to learn the tricks of the trade was to visit existing centres and spend time with staff. The problem with that as I learnt later that their tricks were not always the best.

Fortunately, my manager was a member of a recently formed organisation known as the Association of Recreation Managers. I joined immediately and went along to regional meetings which were usually held in recently opened sports centres. I found that to be enormously helpful and in doing so met up with colleagues who were to become lifelong friends.  My days in Suffolk lasted less than a year as there were so many opportunities arising for those with some experience. I was appointed manager of a large dry centre in Manchester. The centre was in the early stages of construction, a situation I became familiar with at later stages in my career and one which I always found very exciting. Meanwhile it was essential to become familiar with the facility I was going to manage and meet the clerk of works and others involved in construction and fitting out. I then put together a business plan and timeline up to the opening. A good team of staff was assembled for the opening. At this stage there were still very few centres open, hence the huge demand for ours.

It was about this time (1972) that news came through of Local Government Reorganisation. The idea was to gather together all leisure facilities and services in one department. This included indoor sports centres, swimming pools, parks, playing fields, playgrounds, museums, theatres and community centres. Most authorities decided to follow these lines and establish new departments along these lines under the control of a chief officer. Advertisements soon started to appear proving attractive to a variety of potential candidates. The big change came about in 1974.

I was fortunate to secure the position of Chief Officer for an authority in Lancashire. Probably one of the main reasons was because by that time I had gained considerable experience in setting up new centres, and the authority had embarked on a venture to build the largest leisure centre in the north west. This was a challenging position to take on and again I was on a steep learning curve. The newly formed authority was made up of seven constituent councils and each had spent up on a variety of new projects. The existing facilities comprised eleven parks, eight playing fields, a country park, three cemeteries, two swimming pools, four community centres, a museum and an art gallery.

Fortunately, most of the staff were enthusiastic and reasonably competent. I met up with Chairman of Recreation and Amenities Committee on the day of my appointment. He introduced himself by saying ‘I am Councillor Smith, but I want you to call me Bill.’ Needless to say we got on extremely well.   February 2022.

Jim Lynch – Career Reflections

It all began with a chance conversation with Bill Rowlands at university in 1974.  He’d been offered a job at a new sports centre. Did I know that there were lots of these planned to open in the coming years and that they needed enthusiastic, sport minded staff?  No I didn’t but the hint was enough to find me that autumn as Assistant Manager at Norton Recreation Centre in Runcorn – sadly now demolished.  A combination of the Wolfenden report and local government reorganisation with many authorities spending their reserves on legacy facilities meant a surge in facility opening and with it a surge in jobs.   I was an oddity in being a graduate and in not having worked as a lifeguard.

This was in the days before leisure management qualifications and training so we were, literally, making it up as we went along. ARM’s regional network and annual events were invaluable in this regard creating a forum where we could share ideas, expertise and experiences. In the north-west we had major figures in the emerging profession such as Bill Breeze, Dennis Woodman and my old boss Richard Tibbott.  The emphasis was on sport in all its forms from initial coaching courses to elite clubs whilst trying not to fill the sports hall totally with five-a-side and badminton.  Gyms, such as they were, were usually a multigym tucked away in a small room.  Sport development was at the centre of all we did with the objective of introducing new people to new activities.

Telling people in those days that I was a recreation manager was bound to bring quizzical looks.   Leisure centres were a new idea as was the idea of specialist training in running them.   Fast forward almost 50 years and my time as centre manager, town hall administrator and consultant there’s a lot to be proud of both personally and professionally. My personal best for a lottery bid is £6.2 million and Ploszajski Lynch Consulting wrote the sports development chapters of the successful 2012 Olympic bid. Sally-Anne and I held our wedding reception on poolside.

Nowadays, there is an expectation that every town has a leisure centre and/or swimming pool and there will be trained and qualified staff to run them.   Standards of facilities and service are much higher than when we started, management information and market intelligence is far more advanced than we could have imagined and the competitive marketplace keeps everyone on their toes – a consequence of CCT in the 1990s.    There’s now a formal body of knowledge developed by people like George Torkildsen and Tony Veal.  There are any number of examples of high quality, imaginatively managed facilities across the country.  Leisure architecture and leisure management have improved immeasurably since 1974.   The National Lottery and 2012 Olympics gave major boosts to both.  I’d love to be manager of K2 or the Harlow LeisureZone.

However, there are a number of things that this old git doesn’t think we have right at present.  First of all, sports development is almost dead and participation rates remain stubbornly low.  The 1974 version of leisure management was centred in sports development and driving up attendances to courses and facilities – the modern version’s priority seems to be selling membership packages and not being too fussed if the direct debit turns into attendances.   Local authority funding pressures reinforce this.   If your goal is purely revenue the ethos of Sport for All goes out the window.   Sport in general and the local leisure centre is still after all these years too ABC1 (Look at the England cricket team), too white, young and male.

Secondly, leadership is totally lacking. Very few local authorities have leisure departments anymore.  The Sports Council used to be a promoter of sport for its own sake and for its contribution to health and social cohesion.   Household names like Sebastian Coe were often in the media making the case for sport.  The regional network supported the work of the public, private and voluntary.  Local officers such as my best mate Tony Ploszajski were valuable links between clubs, facilities and the national network. Today’s Sport England has been starved of resources and is a shadow of its former self.  Can anyone name the chairman or chief executive?  The current strategy “Uniting the Movement.” is a triumph of style over substance.   In my opinion it’s only their Royal Charter keeping them in existence.

These complaints however can’t mask the achievements of the last 50 years.  There are thousands of publicly funded leisure centres in the country. The market and the profession are now mature and making a huge contribution to the quality of life in their community.  Where once they were a novelty they are taken for granted as are the skills of those who work in them.  If you want to learn to swim as an adult or to lose some weight or go to your first gym you don’t go to David Lloyd you go to your local leisure centre – they are invaluable as the gateway to participation. Long may this be so.  February 2022.

Stuart Peacock – Reflections on Leisure Centre Catering

I am Chairman of the Caterleisure Group, five Catering Companies operating a variety and style of catering services throughout the UK, mostly now in railway stations, airports and some outdoor venues and we are now in our 45th year of trading.

I have fond memories of Leisure Centres since they helped me to get into business in the 1970’s and 1980’s and, at one time, we were the nation’s leading Leisure Centre caterers with around 25 contracts. I started the business with little money, and mostly the Centres were fully equipped by the Local Authority. They seemed to lack expertise in running catering, which I could bring to them having worked for another Company in the same field. A fabulous opportunity for me to get into business.

We had sites in Scotland and in the North and South of England and the Midlands and other areas. I recall the long opening hours over 7 days a week, which we had to staff and meant we made little money. Still, they got me into business, and we tried very hard to do a good job which was sometimes difficult, especially in the smaller centres, where we had to pay particular attention to satisfying Centre staff and management and local Authority Councillors, before we got round to looking after customers. Sadly, after having built and equipped the Centres around the time of local government re-organisation, little money was spent afterwards with the result that many seemed to go downhill to the point where we didn’t re-tender for many because of the deteriorating conditions.

Still, happy memories of very busy times trying hard to do a good job in sports and leisure centres. 2021

Denis Secher – Thirsty Work!

It was my second day at my first, proper, full-time job. I was 22 years old and had the grand title of Assistant Manager (there were in fact several assistant managers and I suspect that the job title was a ploy to keep the salary low). We each had our own primary area of responsibility as well as duty management and some schools coaching duties. It had been decided that my primary area would be Bar Manager. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. At 11am the Centre Manager, Roger Barnes, called me into his office and explained that we were going to go out and meet some key contacts in the area.

We got into Roger’s less than immaculate Volvo and off we went. Roger explained that our first stop would be the Bald-Faced Stag – a substantial public house a mile or so up the road. “If you ever run out of beer and need to borrow a barrel – Bob will help you out” he advised. As we entered the main bar area, we were greeted with a warm “Hello Barnesy, what’ll you have?” from Bob the landlord, whose substance matched that of his premises.

“I’ll have a pint” responded Roger in an instant. I started to feel anxious, caught between wanting to fit in and feeling the need to remain sober and professional. “I’ll have a bitter shandy” I offered when my turn came round and immediately realised that I was failing on both counts. The situation was further complicated by the fact that, despite four years at PE College, I still hadn’t developed into a drinker!

Pints downed and pleasantries exchanged, back into the car and off to the Crown & Crooked Billet where we were to meet Alec Caliendo, another key contact for when our stock levels ran low. The routine was much the same. A pint of bitter and a shandy later, and we were off again. This continued for several hours at a series of venues. Roger enjoyed a pint in each and I’d had to drop down to halves. Although some of the venues served food, and I desperately needed some, this was of little interest to Roger. Around 3.30pm we returned to the Centre’s car park. I was struggling and remember nothing about the rest of that day. For a while I was confused about the concept of induction training, until I eventually realised that it wasn’t always accompanied by alcohol.

As it turned out, I enjoyed managing the bar and went on to manage the Centre. I learnt a great deal about management but it was all on a “hands on” basis. Leisure Management as a theoretical concept was still in its infancy and managers trained specifically for the role were only just beginning to emerge. The first generation of managers came predominantly from the Armed Forces. My generation, mainly from the PE Teaching profession.

With a touch of irony, my career in management has been followed by a career in training. My first training session from Roger still makes me smile! 2022.

Bill Stonor (FaulknerBrowns Architects) – A Tribute to Managers

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW!   63 years ago, my first task as assistant-architect to Harry Faulkner-Brown, was to make a model of his design for the Lightfoot Dome on Tyneside, one of UK’s first four pioneering, indoor sports centres – and still there today .  Very soon after its opening in late 1962, there was the stunning awareness of the importance of the manager – who, responding to what was actually – and unexpectedly – happening in the centre, had had to develop and drive a truly flexible programme of activities to suit the public’s unfurling recreational demands.   The Lightfoot Dome demonstrated clearly that it had shortcomings but – more importantly and unwittingly – that it had the tremendous potential to benefit not just budding athletes, but also the health and leisure of the whole community. From that experience we decided that the input of managers was essential to inform the design of future sports centres.

The many influential and aspirational managers I have personally known, include: Dick Farrelly who ploughed the first furrows at Lightfoot Dome to mix sport with leisure and social uses ;  Jack Black and Gerry Montgomery who inspired sus in conceiving the 1974, Bletchley Leisure Pool, alongside the doyen, George Torkildsen (our adviser on so many centres) always promoting the case for flexibility in design to allow for effective and imaginative management.   The list goes on : Mike Fulford, bringing his experience of managing Concordia Leisure Centre, to oversee the appointment, in 1985, of Andy Mayers to be the first general manager of 10 community sports centres on Shetland ; and David Warden, first manager of Sheffield’s Ponds Forge International Sports Centre, in1989, and the Manchester Commonwealth Pool in 2000.

Good managers can – and do – introduce new, exciting and beneficial life experiences. March 2022

Professor Peter Thomas MBE – A County experience

Amongst the key challenges of working over a period of some 30 years for the same County authority, and during that time, working your way up the system, is that you have to ensure that your relationship with an ever-changing line manager, and when you reach a senior level, your Chairman, is that you act with integrity, be at all time very positive and pro-active and remain very professional. During the last years of my career, prior to taking early retirement, my Chairman was a long service member of a District Council, but a comparatively new member of the County Council. He had had a distinguished military career reaching the rank of a Royal Marines Captain with a MC. From the outset he made it very clear that he wanted to visit all ‘his’ centres both Arts & Sport, and to be seen in the community.

My senior team suggested that his very first visit was to the Shenley Leisure Centre, based on the campus of the Denbigh School, in Milton Keynes. I must admit I was somewhat apprehensive, because they wanted him to attend one of our ‘sold out’ musical tribute acts. It just so happened it was a Tina Turner act, and I had no idea whatsoever what his musical interests were. My concern was totally unfounded. Not only was it an extremely professional performance, which had the audience, including my Chairman off their feet, but at the conclusion of the event, he requested that he be invited to all future events. For me what a fantastic start to our relationship.

He suggested that we should celebrate with a drink in the nearest local. So I walked him for as long as three minutes to the Centre bar. He was further impressed! But then he discovered that not only was this bar an integral part of the centre, and indeed had been funded by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to serve also as the local neighbourhood public house, but that the Centre Manager who was a member of the Education department staff was also the licensee; and was on a secondary school campus. He was overcome and couldn’t wait to tell his colleagues on the Education Committee that he was now the Chairman of a Sub- committee that owned a pub!! He always believed he was unique but now he was very firmly of the opinion that he really was!!

In just a few hours my new relationship was very firmly established. 2021.

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