Solving the UK's social care problem is the key to overcoming the financial challenges facing public sector leisure, argues industry veteran and social change agent, Martyn Allison.
Writing in his annual New Year industry analysis, Allison says there could be a positive future ahead for public sector leisure if change is embraced. However, a radical new approach requires a mindset shift and further leadership development.
The financial squeeze which has burdened public sector leisure since the introduction of austerity and which has been exacerbated by inflation, high energy costs and the cost of living crisis has led to widening health inequalities, making access more difficult for the demographics which need these services the most.
With the threat that one in five of the UK's local authorities could essentially be bankrupt this year, Allison says financial pressures could result in the biggest reduction in public sector sport and leisure infrastructure in 50 years.
“Management alone cannot deal with the level of complexity and uncertainty we now face," he says. "We must stop relying on our outdated models of management and skill development and embrace system leadership as the only way to secure a future for this part of the sector in this complex world,” says Allison.
“Only by investing heavily in a coordinated and integrated system leadership development programme will we create a workforce that can operate effectively in light of the complexity we now face.”
Allison argues sector leaders need to hone their skills to influence, along with the ability to collaborate across wider systems: “We have to stop asking the health system to fund what we currently do and start asking what we can do together to address common problems.
"By working collaboratively across places and focusing on addressing the shared priorities we can change how the system works together,” he says.
With scarce resources, redistribution alone will not be enough to sustain the scale of change needed and there will need to be some new investment at some point. Allison says the well-used argument around investment in fitness leading to savings in health costs has not landed and calls for a radical change of direction.
“Repeating the same message does not seem like a good idea to me. I think we should join forces with others to make a composite demand for all political parties to solve the social care problem once and for all,” he says.
“The social care crisis has been directly, and indirectly, responsible for the financial constraints on the sector for many years. It drove many councils to see leisure contracts as a cash cow to subsidise its rising costs and now the burden of social care is partly the cause of the local government funding crisis, which is leading to facility rationalisation. If this burden were to be removed from councils, in time they would gladly start to reinvest in services which support health and wellbeing and are popular with their voters.”
Allison says that while Integrated Care Systems are starting to lean into the need to invest more in prevention and health inequality, they are also prevented from doing so because of the pressure on acute services and social care burden: “There is a constant need to bail out social care to release some of the pressure in the acute sector. However, if the social care funding pressure was removed we would see many more ICSs looking to invest in prevention, including addressing inactivity.”
Allison says that although it is a challenging context, he is hopeful of a positive future if some of the changes already taking place in the sector are built on and more radical change is embraced.
“In adopting system change models we can open up routes to better collaboration with other system partners at a place level and, in doing so, properly adopt Proportionate Universalism as a way to address the deep-seated inequalities in activity levels,” he says.
“True collaboration will call for some brave decisions which could in turn be the lever to more fundamental change. Are we bold enough to join fellow professionals to challenge all political parties to solve the social care crisis once and for all? Doing so would free councils and ICSs from this burden and open up new investment streams for improving activity.”