Northumberland provides an example of how publicly provided leisure centres came to be developed in an area with a two tier structure of local government.
Northumberland is the northern most county in England. It is primarily rural with a long coastline on its eastern edge. The county has a relatively weak economy compared with other local authority areas and relatively low land and property prices. Over the years the area has had access to a wide of external funding sources including central government investment in infrastructure (such as tourism and economic development schemes), European funding, Sports Council/England, coal industry (including the CISWO scheme set up after the demise of British Coal) and latterly the National Lottery.
The county has the lowest population density in England. Approximately a quarter of the county is within the Northumberland National Park.
In the 1970s Northumberland had a typical shire county structure of two tiers. Northumberland County Council (NCC) as the top tier had responsibilities that included Education and the Library Service. The second tier consisted of Rural/Urban district councils whose responsibilities included parks and open spaces, playing fields and swimming pools.
Education facilities were not widely available for public use. School playing fields had ‘keep out’ signs on them and other facilities could only be accessed through adult education classes (and that was quite limited).
Some Miners’ Welfare facilities, which had been provided by the mining companies, were still very active especially in the south east of the county where there was some well-established voluntary support in the community. A number of outdoor sports clubs were sufficiently well established to own their own facilities.
Private sector provision was limited to some small fitness gyms and some hotel leisure facilities.
In 1974 the second tier of local government was restructured in the form of six District Councils. They were Alnwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Blyth Valley, Castle Morpeth, Tynedale (including Hexham) and Wansbeck (including Ashington). Each of the districts had an indoor pool of some sort at that time and Castle Morpeth had two. It was these pools or their replacements that accounted for most of the leisure centre development.
Two of the districts (Tynedale and Wansbeck) formed comprehensive leisure departments headed by a post with chief officer status. Blyth Valley followed suit in the 1980s. The first chief leisure/recreation officers were: Tynedale-Richard Mercer, Wansbeck-Gerry White and Head of Sport – Bob Brind, Blyth Valley-Mike Fulford.
After 1974 there was increased activity in terms of facility provision and upgrading but it did not happen all at once!
Alnwick District Council
The old pool in Alnwick was badly in need of replacement. Not only was capital and revenue funding of a replacement an issue but there was no suitable site within the historic market town with a strict green belt, conservation areas, and much of the land in the area owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It took the expansion of the town to the south to provide the opportunity for a modern, wet and dry leisure centre on a new retail and industrial park – Willowburn Leisure Centre. This centre includes two pools (25m, six lane; 10m teaching pool with moving floors), sports hall, bouldering wall, soft play, fitness gym and café.
A small pool with fitness gym operates in Rothbury.
A new wet and dry leisure centre – The Swan Centre- was developed as part of a commercial/retail development towards the southern fringe of the town and on the opposite side of the river.to the old town. This centre includes a pool with flume, sports hall, soft play, fitness gym, spa, artificial pitch and café .
The management of the centre was contracted out from the very beginning. (In 2016 the library is being moved into this centre) 2019 A new centre is proposed on a different site. A joint development with a new community hospital was considered but rejected after public opposition
The centre of population had been in the town of Blyth at the eastern end of the borough, which was served by a 1960s, coal fired swimming pool. The facility consisted of a 33 and a third metre main pool with galleried seating, a separate teaching pool and a café.
However private developers had begun developing a new town at the western end of the borough – Cramlington. In a reversal of modern day practices, the District Council’s contribution to the development of the new town was to fund a prestigious wet and dry leisure centre on a site planned to be the centre of the new town, adjacent to its shopping malls-Concordia Leisure Centre. The original facilities included free form pool with 25m length, sports hall, fitness gym, squash courts, indoor bowls, mat room, climbing wall, café, bars and social suite.
Following the successful opening of Concordia in 1977, the swimming pool in Blyth was updated and had dry-sports facilities added –Blyth Sports Centre. The additional facilities consisted of a sports hall, squash courts, spa, fitness gym, café and bar.
The council was criticised by the District Auditor for over investing in facilities despite the centres being the best performing centres, in financial terms, in the county.
Both Concordia and Blyth Centres have benefitted from further substantial investment and updating. In 2017 Concordia completed a multi-million pound upgrading during which the centre had remained open to the public. Changes included replacing indoor bowls with ten pin bowling and committing half the sports hall to a permanent climbing facility. Further investment is being planned for Blyth Sports Centre post 2019.
There are two significant population centres in this district, Morpeth and Ponteland, both with leisure centres.
A wet and dry centre in Ponteland – Ponteland Leisure Centre- had been established adjacent to the main playing field provision but near to the village centre. The facilities included a 25m pool, teaching pool, sports hall, fitness gym, squash courts and outdoor pitches. The centre did not always get the investment needed and in 2016 is subject to controversial proposals from NCC to replace the centre on another site paid for by housing development on the current site. There is considerable local opposition. 2019 construction of a new centre is underway.
A 1960s pool in Morpeth was extended by the addition of dry sports facilities in the 1970s becoming –Riverside Leisure Centre. The facilities consist of a 25m pool, fitness gym, studio, café and sports hall. The centre is centrally situated, close to Carlisle Park’s amenities and was substantially re-fitted following severe flooding in 2008. In 2016 the centre is part of early stage proposals by NCC to re-locate it and re-develop its existing site. 2019 NCC is advancing design proposals for a new centre. The existing centre will remain open until the new one is complete.
The main population centre is the town of Hexham. Its wet and dry leisure centre-Wentworth Leisure Centre-is situated between the old town and the railway station and was built as part of a new supermarket development. Its facilities include ten pin bowling and a high standard athletics track as well as a 25m pool, teaching and fun pools, sports hall and fitness.
Subsequently a pool (with beach and aquaslide), fitness and soft play has been developed –Prudhoe Waterworld.
The main population centre is the town of Ashington. Its old pool was adjacent to one of the several miners’ institutes in the area. Dry sports facilities had been added to form- Ashington Leisure Centre. The facilities consisted of a 25 yard main pool with a gallery, teaching pool, sports hall, fitness gym, studios and indoor bowls hall.
Its replacement took place in 2015 following a development in which the town’s football club moved away from its ground in the centre of town. A supermarket was developed on that site and the leisure centre developed on the former supermarket site. The new wet and dry centre incorporates the local library facility but the indoor and outdoor bowls provision has been lost. The facilities consist of a 25 metre, 6 lane swimming pool with moveable floor, boom and accessible changing area, a smaller studio pool, a luxurious spa with treatment rooms, sauna, steam etc., a multi-functional, 6 court sports hall, Cricket nets, Gym, 2 state-of-the-art air-conditioned studios for fitness classes, a dedicated studio cycling room, GO WILD! Soft play area for under 8’s, Library, and Café.
A dry centre operates at Newbiggin -Newbiggin Leisure Centre- where it was situated adjacent to playing fields. Its facilities include sports hall, squash, a bar and social spaces.
Coming up to date
Following the introduction of legislation on compulsory competitive tendering only Blyth Valley and Wansbeck did not contract out their leisure operations.
Subsequently Blyth Valley established an Arts and Leisure Trust through which to operate leisure facilities. This trust went on to also manage the leisure facilities in Wansbeck.
In 2009 there was a further re-structuring of local government and Northumberland became a Unitary Authority incorporating all the responsibilities of the six former districts.
In 2013 the Arts and Leisure Trust gave way to Active Northumberland, a new charitable leisure and cultural trust. Its role was expanded to the management of Arts, Events, Tourism services, Libraries and sport and leisure services in Northumberland.
In 2015 all the leisure centres that had previously had their management contracted out were brought into the Active Northumberland operation (www.activenorthumberland.org.uk) .
The community use of school sports facilities is also manged through Active Northumberland, including the sports halls, fitness gyms and artificial pitches of two recently established academy schools – Sporting Club Blyth at Blyth Academy School and Sporting Club Cramlington at Cramlington Learning Village (an academy school)..
Active Northumberland works alongside the County Sports Partnership. www.northumberlandsport.co.uk .
Active Northumberland is a charitable leisure and cultural trust that manages leisure facilities and services, libraries, supports culture, helps to develop tourism, and promotes healthy lifestyles. We have a board of trustees that is made up of local representatives from across the county. We are here to help people in Northumberland make the most of the opportunities for culture and leisure in our fantastic county.
Our mission is to create opportunities in Northumberland that enrich lives, promote wellbeing, inspire creativity and encourage participation.
Despite its rural nature the 320,000 population of Northumberland is well supplied with publicly provided leisure centres and other sports facilities. In the near future meeting the revenue costs of this level of provision will continue to be a challenge. Nearly all the large savings in revenue costs have been made. Three indoor bowls facilities and some sports hall space have been lost in the pursuit of cost savings. ‘Soft play’ and ‘fitness gyms’ have been expanded.
Although there has been a significant investment in indoor sports facilities, indoor sport in Northumberland has not yet reached the same levels of performance as the local outdoor sports clubs such as football, rugby and cricket. Regional sports facilities are not far away from the south of the county in the Tyne and Wear area.
Mike Fulford 2019