LGA – securing the future of public sport and leisure facilities and services integral to health of the nation

Investment in public sport and leisure facilities and services is key to levelling up the health of the nation, tackling health inequalities and supporting climate change targets, a new report supported by the Local Government Association sets out today.

The new report, Securing the Future of Public Sport and Leisure Services published in partnership with the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) and Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association (CLOA) evaluates the current state of public sport and leisure services and sets out recommendations to ensure the survival and development of the sector. 

Councils are currently the biggest investor in sport, leisure, parks and green spaces, spending £1.1 billion per year in England. They are unique in what they offer for communities, providing lifelong opportunities for all to be active while supporting national objectives and stepping in where the private sector cannot afford to operate.

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of serious illness and disease. With obesity rates forecast to cost £9.7 billion per year by 2050, the delivery of low cost and free facilities and social prescribing opportunities from councils is key in responding to this crisis, addressing health inequalities, and reducing the burden on the NHS and public health services.

However, the pandemic has hit sports and leisure provision hard, compounding existing challenges facing the sector, including an ageing leisure estate and lack of strategic coordination between health and leisure at a national level. The report recommends that the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities take on a key role in ensuring the contribution of public leisure services to the nation’s wellbeing is communicated to health partners and included in strategies to promote good health, reduce obesity, promote physical activity and prevent illness.

Public sport and leisure facilities also play an essential role in giving children the best start in life. 72 per cent of schools rely on public swimming pools to teach children vital life skills; however, many need costly refurbishment. With councils under pressure to fund statutory services such as adult social care, sport and leisure services are at risk of further cuts.

The LGA is calling for next month’s Spending Review to include £1 billion in capital investment into the leisure estate to bring it up to modern design and environmental standards. Nearly two thirds of the leisure estate is ageing and past its replacement date. With public sport and leisure facilities currently accounting for up to 40 per cent of a council’s carbon emission output, ageing facilities are hampering both national and local efforts to meet net zero targets and must be addressed as part of efforts to tackle the climate emergency. 

Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said:

“Councils have demonstrated, more than ever, that they are best placed to deliver services at pace for their local communities, if empowered and resourced to do so.

“Public sport and leisure facilities and services are a part of the social infrastructure of the nation. With the right investment and Government support, councils can do far more to maximise the benefits of sport and leisure services and build on their existing work to level up their communities, from improving health, to reducing emissions and driving regeneration.”

Paul O’Brien, Chief Executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence said “Whilst COVID has hit sports and leisure services hard there are longer-term systemic issues. We need to recognise public sport and leisure as a public service in its own right – they are not in competition with or the same as private provision. Public sport and leisure services aim to reach everyone in our communities, young and old, disabled residents, and those seeking support in elite sports. They are and remain a vital component in the health of the nation but we must invest in the future of public sport and leisure services.”

Debbie Kaye, Chair of CLOA said, “More than ever, communities need access to a thriving public sport and leisure offer to live healthy, active lives. But it’s under threat. CLOA joins the LGA and APSE to call for national leadership to address the ‘perfect storm’ of financial challenge, ageing stock, climate change targets and declining physical literacy.”

Cllr Dan Humphreys, District Councils’ Network’s Lead Member for Enhancing Quality of Life

“The District Councils’ Network welcomes this timely and well-evidenced report, and we were pleased to be able to contribute to it. We certainly join the LGA, CLOA and APSE in calling for immediate further support to prevent centre failures; instead the opportunities to harness the unique reach sport, leisure and wellbeing facilities and services can have within communities should be seized. This should build on the extensive experience that can be drawn from district councils and their private sector partners in delivering preventative wellbeing services. Our members are ready to address the preventative health agenda through these services, and increase their social value. 

“Sport and leisure facilities and wider wellbeing services drive physical activity, create better health outcomes, address health inequalities and build community cohesion. They can be integral to the pandemic recovery, and beyond in ensuring the health and wellbeing of all our communities. We are happy to see that this report’s recommendations point a way forward to help achieve this.”

Case studies

East Riding of Yorkshire Council - has developed an innovative partnership between local GPs and its leisure centres to make the most of social prescribing opportunities and to deliver savings to the NHS. The council has designed an IT system that allows GPs to book patients directly on to the exercise on-referral scheme and onto its award-winning Live Well programme which helps to combat obesity. This has drastically reduced the number of bariatric surgery operations from 100 to 20 pa in the area in 8 years (the most expensive type of operation for the NHS), this was double the national average but is now half of the national average and has saved the NHS £2.5m in the process.

Exeter City Council - is due to open one of the world’s most energy efficient leisure centres in 2021. St Sidwell’s Place is the first leisure centre in the UK to be built to the super energy efficient Passivhaus standard. Replacing the more than 50 year old Pyramids swimming pool, it is expected to save up to 70 per cent on annual energy costs, use 50 per cent less water, significantly reduce running costs and need lower maintenance costs. It has also been designed to withstand predicted changes in climate conditions up to 2080.

Note To Editors

  1. Securing the Future of Public Sport and Leisure Services – summary report
  2. The report’s finding and recommendations were constructed from survey responses from more than 250 councils and providers.
  3. During the pandemic, the Government made significant amounts of funding available including the £100m National Leisure Recovery Fund (NLRF) to help support some providers, however councils still face a £600 million revenue deficit in the sport and leisure sector alone and a significant number of facilities are under immediate risk of operational failure and face critical long-term damage without support.
  4. Councils are responsible for 31 per cent of grass pitches, 33 per cent of all swimming pools – which provide the majority of publicly accessible water space, 20 per cent of all health and fitness facilities, 13 per cent of sports halls and 66 per cent of cancer pre and post rehabilitation services.