Concordia LEISURE CENTRE and BLYTH SPORTS CENTRE
Cramlington Leisure Centre was the working title before the council decided to name the centre Concordia.
Cramlington was the growth point of South Northumberland. It was a New Town being developed entirely by private developers. The contribution by the district council (Blyth Valley) to the town’s development was to be a leisure centre in the geographic centre, around which the new shopping facilities would be developed in phases.
The brief to local architects FaulknerBrowns (www.faulknerbrowns.co.uk/) was not simply to design a centre for indoor sport but to produce a flagship building capable of attracting people to live, work and shop in the new town. The centre succeeded in all respects.
Having designed the free-form, leisure pool in Bletchley Leisure Centre, FaulknerBrowns opted to include a leisure pool in Concordia. This decision was made easier by the presence of a traditional pool at the East end of the borough in Blyth. The free-form shape incorporated four 25m lanes within the shape to cater for school and instructional swimming. The pool hall featured tropical planting and two large palm trees that had been imported from Portugal. As much of a talking point as the palm trees was the provision of a mixed changing village for swimmers using cubicles and lockers – some said it would never work!
Another feature of the centre was exceptionally high levels of finish. The capital estimates included a provisional sum (about 4% of the total) for interior design which ensured that carpets, curtains and furniture all contributed to a high standard of décor. After the centre opened a sinking fund with annual contributions was established to ensure that the standard of furnishings and equipment could be maintained.
Social facilities were extensive. At first floor level, café, bars, and function room were arranged around a central service core which made for operational efficiency. These areas looked out onto the major activity areas – pool hall, 2 court sports hall, indoor bowling green as well as out through the high level windows, above the reception hall, towards the green space that would eventually become the town’s shopping centre.
Other facilities included squash courts, practice hall, indoor climbing wall, mat room, small fitness room, purpose built nursery and an outdoor court. All of these were arranged within a compact building footprint and connected by free-flowing circulation space.
Concordia was Blyth Valley District Council’s biggest single investment. Although the council operated a swimming pool in Blyth it had no sport and leisure management resource. Consequently the Concordia manager’s post was created a year before the centre was due to be finished in order to commission the centre and set up its operation. Uniquely, second interviews of candidates for the manager’s post took place in their centres where they worked!
The manager reported directly to the council’s Chief Executive in order to ensure, in his words, ‘that nothing got in the way of a successful opening’. (Much later, in the 1980’s, all the council’s parks and recreation services were brought together in one department).
Concordia had a membership system right from the start. Such a system was something the community were familiar with for their other social activities. Its acceptance was proved when people queued around the block to purchase membership even before they had seen the inside of the centre. A Polaroid/laminator was used for the production of membership cards. Great efforts by the staff meant that the normal operating limits of this equipment were exceeded!
Electronic itemising tills were capable of capturing a seemingly infinite amount of usage data, far more than was ever really needed to measure and monitor performance. However these tills were too slow for admitting queues of swimmers, so the Automaticket equipment was still needed. Bookings were still entered manually onto timetabled sheets.
Squash participation was booming at this time. The number of courts was soon doubled to six with the cost being met out of income.
Nationally there was a school of thought that better social facilities in sports centres would attract more users into sports participation. In many centres such facilities were unsuccessful. Not so at Concordia . Visitors would come into the centre from the town centre just to use the social facilities. The day to day bars and catering operation was supported by lucrative functions ranging from themed beach parties in the pool hall, concerts in the sports hall and wedding receptions in the function room. (Brides even wanted to be photographed on the centre’s entrance staircase.)
Looking back it was a privilege to have the opportunity to manage such a centre. Everything seemed to go just right – optimum size, in the right place, well designed, with great staff and an appreciative community. Being responsible for Concordia for the first twenty years of its life has given me some unique insights into centre management.
Northumberland is now a Unitary Authority. Concordia and all the authority’s other leisure functions are operated by Active Northumberland – www.activenorthumberland.org.uk/leisure-facilities/concordia-leisure-centre . Concordia has undergone a number of changes and now has less squash and an extensive fitness gym. Cramlington continues to grow in size and the town centre is almost fully developed.
Footnote 2016: I was pleased to attend an event to mark the completion of over £3 million pounds worth of work at Concordia in September 2016. The work was undertaken whilst maintaining the public use of the building and is intended to move the centre towards a ‘Family Entertainment Role’. The work is very impressive and has achieved a step change in bringing the centre up to date. From a sports perspective indoor bowls has given way to tenpin, half a sports hall has given way to a click and climb facility and the fitness room has been further extended.
I was pleased to attend an event to mark the completion of over £3 million pounds worth of work at Concordia in September 2016. The work was undertaken whilst maintaining the public use of the building and is intended to move the centre towards a ‘Family Entertainment Role’. The work is very impressive and has achieved a step change in bringing the centre up to date. From a sports perspective indoor bowls has given way to tenpin, half a sports hall has given way to a click and climb facility and the fitness room has been further extended.
A gathering of former and current staff came together in July 2017 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of Concordia by the Queen.
Concordia has recently benefitted from a large-scale refurbishment which was completed while the centre remained open. The work cost more than the original build cost! It included:- the replacement of the indoor bowling facility with a full scale ten pin bowling installation; expansion of the small sauna facility to accommodate spa services and facilities; the use of half the two court sports hall for click and climb; replacement of the open plan café with another studio (all refreshments are now done from the bar area); following the closure of the town’s library the service has been moved into Concordia’s former nursery area with book shelves and a computing centre situated around the centre’s public spaces; general redecoration and upgrading. The pool’s original features – two real palm trees- have now been replaced with water play apparatus. The centre has had another busy summer. The click and climb arrangement is proving particularly popular and generating strenuous physical activity from youngsters who would not have been attracted to traditional sports hall activity however the sports hall could be re-instated quite easily should it be necessary.”
Blyth Sports Centre
Blyth Sports Centre started life as Blyth Swimming Pool. Completed in the late 1960s the pool was a coal fired establishment. It had a traditional 33 and a third yard main pool with diving facilities into its deep end. There was a large spectator gallery, separate learner pool and a small café. Changing facilities were based on a basket room system with completely separate male and female accommodation and were probably amongst the last of such arrangements to be in operation during the 1970s. A building of this design had built- in costs which made it relatively expensive to run.
With the success of Concordia in the west end of the borough, indoor sports facilities were added to form the Blyth Sports Centre. As is often the case the additions did not fit easily around the original pool building. For example swimmers had to use a new entrance to the centre and then travel up and across the spectator gallery before going down into the changing rooms.
The additional facilities provided were a 2 court sports hall with balcony, a practice hall, squash courts, a large health suite, a weight training room and a licensed bar. The corridors were particularly wide! The health suite had two huge Aeratone baths which accommodated one person at a time and had to be supervised.
At a time when ‘value for money studies ‘ by external auditors were prevalent it was extremely difficult to account to others for the relatively high running costs especially when comparisons were being drawn with Concordia, which had relatively low unit costs. The difficulties involved in managing a centre that may be considered ‘oversized’ cannot be overemphasised, especially when there are severe financial constraints.
Northumberland is now a Unitary Authority. Blyth Sports Centre and all the authority’s other leisure functions are operated by Active Northumberland – www.activenorthumberland.org.uk/leisure-facilities/blyth-sports-centre . Blyth Sports Centre has been further developed both inside and out with a larger fitness gym, improved entrance arrangements, an outdoor pitch and a skatepark facility.