Many healthy and happy returns from investing in leisure
Health and wellbeing has gained increasing prominence in planning matters over recent years.
Matthew Blythin, Director at DHA, examines the implications of the latest report from the Local Government Association.
Investment in leisure facilities is rightly seen as a fundamental part of the health and wellbeing agenda and primarily the responsibility of local authorities in helping to secure sustainable development and communities.
Our experience in achieving successful planning outcomes, and subsequent new leisure facilities in the likes of Dover, Hornchurch, Morden, Slough and Wokingham, shows there is an aspiration among councils to improve their leisure offering.
However, with councils’ spending under very tight scrutiny, a place’s leisure infrastructure often gets overlooked and is found wanting in need of investment.
A recent report by the Local Government Association revealed that nearly a quarter of all sports halls and swimming pools have not been refurbished in more than 20 years, with central government funding for leisure infrastructure reduced by more than a third in the last decade.
In this familiar financial context, and given the clear imperative to ensure leisure infrastructure is up to the required standards, local authorities must tackle the issue head on and approach investment and funding in increasingly creative and pragmatic ways.
Often the funding of leisure infrastructure falls beyond the scope of Section 106 agreements linked to residential or commercial development, and misses an opportunity to help deliver sustainable development and communities.
Whilst the roll-out of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) across the country continues to be sporadic, it should provide councils with potential additional sources of funding for leisure investment, albeit competing with other sectors which are equally squeezed.
What has been proven is that investment in the right leisure facilities in the right location makes business sense, whilst also delivering significant social and health benefits. The challenge for councils is having a plan in place, based on a strong business case, that ensures investment makes a healthy return for the community in terms of its wellbeing, and makes financial sense for the local authority.
A case in point is the recently completed Dover Leisure Centre in Kent. DHA worked closely with the Council and its project team, led by Hadron Consulting, GT3 Architects and Faithful & Gould, to secure consent for a new facility, replacing the existing and outdated centre.
The new leisure centre, constructed by BAM has exceeded all expectations since opening in February 2019. There has been a 333% uplift in visitor numbers between October and December 2019 when compared to the previous year at the old centre, furthermore employment has doubled. The building has a BREEAM very good rating and is the most energy efficient leisure centre in Kent.
The success has not been unsurprising, as the council undertook considerable due diligence and business planning, employing sector experts at The Sports Consultancy.
The work included a detailed feasibility study looking at numerous options with varying amounts of investment, differing leisure mixes for both the existing centre (refurbishment or redevelopment) and identified a potential alternative site outside of the town centre.
This process was informed by extensive consultation locally, with user groups, Sport England and other sports bodies, to identify the risks and benefits of each, including financial forecasting of cost and income.
The result is a new facility with a mix that meets local needs, residents’ expectations and demands and all to a quality which will in turn promote health and wellbeing and increase participation.
It is clear that if councils are able to invest time and resource at an early stage, new and improved community facilities can be deliverable and economically sustainable. This in turn strengthens the planning case for other development and makes a significant contribution to the sustainability and wellbeing of communities.