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Public leisure's only partially recovered from the pandemic - so what happens next?

Tim Hollingsworth blogs about how data from the Moving Communities tool is helping Sport England, government and the sector to develop a new vision for local facilities and services.

Public leisure facilities and services have a vital, if not unique, role to play in our 10-year vision for sport and activity because of their value to the people who use them most.

For decades they have fed the next generation’s love of sport and being active, supported those with health conditions through good days and bad, and connected us all to our communities in a safe, friendly, and local space.

Many of us learned to swim or had our first game of five-a-side in facilities owned and run by local authorities.

Like all parts of society, the pandemic has hit public leisure hard. In the past year, government investment delivered by us through the £100m National Leisure Recovery Fund has helped many of these vital spaces to reopen.

This, in combination with additional local authority funding and operator reserves, has reduced the funding gap for local leisure services significantly.

Moving Communities – our new data platform tracking the sector’s performance, sustainability and social value – has monitored participation at public leisure facilities throughout this period and is giving us, the sector and government the clearest picture we’ve ever had of how leisure services are performing, improving and making an impact in their communities.

The Challenge -

Months after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, public leisure’s recovery is still only partial. In August 2021 the number of individuals using these facilities was 62% of the total who visited in August 2019. Many of these are younger users, meaning many older people have yet to return.

The Opportunity -

Even small improvements can make a huge difference to participation and the social value our sector delivers.

The more recent a facility’s refurbishment, the higher its rate of recovery. Across England, Moving Communities is showing us that facilities last refurbished under 10 years ago averaged a higher rate of return than those in the previous decade, who are in turn ahead of those last refurbished 20-30 years ago.

Together, these findings from Moving Communities demonstrate why we must reflect on both the challenge and the opportunity.

We cannot just reopen facilities and expect a full recovery, we must change how we and others invest in them to deliver services that are relevant and accessible.

That is why we were privileged to convene several discussions with our sector in recent weeks to review Moving Communities’ findings and expand on the thinking demonstrated by new reports like the ‘Securing the future of public sport and leisure services’ report produced by the Association of Public Service Excellence, the Local Government Association and Chief Leisure Officers Association, as well as ukactive’s ‘Decade of Change for Public Sector Leisure’and Swim England’s ‘A Decade of Decline’.

Our sector shares a vision of facilities for sport and activity that drive health and wellbeing within each neighbourhood and is developing ambitious new plans to tackle inequality, support climate targets and level up in our communities.

To safeguard the future of public leisure with a renewed sense of purpose at its heart, we’ve found a strong appetite for collaboration among local authorities, leisure operators, community sport organisations and others to develop new thinking and products, leadership skills and advocacy we’re committed to supporting.

In response, my colleagues and I have been proactive, outlining this vision to the government to help inform decisions in their upcoming spending review.

Early in the new year we also hope to publish detailed findings from our work during the pandemic, alongside a unified vision for the future of public leisure that delivers sport and activity’s potential to transform the lives of people and communities.

It will be a key part of how we make Uniting the Movement a reality.

In the future, these services won’t always look the same as they have in the past, and nor should they.

But going forward, I know the Moving Communities platform will help local leaders and champions of sport and activity to not just recover public leisure but to remake it for their communities.


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