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Central Bedfordshire Council’s spatial modelling of sports facilities to satisfy population growth

Central Bedfordshire council undertook a spatial modelling exercise to better understand the challenges of a increasing local population and plan how it could meet the increasing demand.

Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) recognised that the local population is forecast to grow by 40,000 by 2035, a fifteen present increase, and that this would create pressure on the existing sport and recreation infrastructure. The council undertook a spatial modelling exercise to better understand these challenges and plan how it could meet the increasing demand.

A key part of the process was a tool licensed to Sport England, the Facilities Planning Model (FPM) for community sports facilities. It offers spatial modelling methodology to review current demand and supply with an assessment of the changing demand from the forecast population growth.

The FPM modelling and the supporting consultation and engagement resulted in the council adopting its Leisure Facilities Strategy originally in 2014, reviewed in 2021. This provided the evidence for the council to move forward with a programme of replacement and modernisation, starting with the construction of the new Flitwick Leisure Centre, which opened in May 2016; and the redevelopment of Dunstable Leisure Centre, which reopened in June 2019. This phase cost circa £36 million and was funded through c.£2.5 million developer contributions, £3 million grant from Sport England plus CBC capital investment and borrowing.

The updated strategy has supported the current plans for a £25 million sport and leisure facility at Houghton Regis, following £20 million investment from the Levelling Up Fund, scheduled to open to the public in 2024 and an extension to a smaller dry side facility in Sandy and imminent consideration of proposals for a new centre in Leighton Buzzard.

The challenge

CBC is a unitary authority which is forecasting significant population growth from 2017 to 2035. The growth is to be largely created by an additional 20,000 homes. In addition, the council was faced with some  ageing facilities  across its leisure estate, needing replacement.

Additionally, CBC needed to incorporate any changes in provision from schools and adjacent councils to assess their impact on the demand and supply of their sport and recreation provision.

From the outset, the value of sport and physical activity to public health was central to CBC’s thinking, recognising it needed a robust evidence based approach, working across planning and leisure to make the case for investment.

The challenge was to understand the impact on the current sports and recreation provision and how to satisfy the additional demand. A combination of understanding the additional capacity required and where best to locate any additional provision.

The solution

An evidence-based process using a spatial modelling tool called the FPM was applied to identify the preferred approach to addressing the changing facility needs.

The FPM has been developed by Edinburgh University, licensed to Sport England, to support their work in strategically planning for sports facility needs. Sport England work with local authorities and other sports facility providers to assess and plan for changing demand, such as from population growth.

The FPM provides a mechanism for:

  • supporting the development of facility plans and policies
  • reviewing the demand for community sports facilities on a local, regional and national basis
  • scenario testing.

For CBC it enabled the planning and creation of a Leisure Facilities Strategy to address the needs of a growing population.

An intended outcome was to inform CBC’s plans for housing development; understanding what and where changes in facility provision were required to ensure the supply can meet changing demand; and crucially to help secure developer contributions to support the provision of new, or improvement of existing leisure centre facilities.

A key question to be answered was whether the increased population would be best served by new facilities or enhancements to current provision.

The process had four key stages:

  1. Review of current provision in Central Bedfordshire of sports halls and swimming pools. It provided a baseline of current supply and unmet demand. It enabled the testing stage of assessing impact of population growth and how best it could be addressed by a revised allocation of facilities
  2. Assessment of future needs in Central Bedfordshire derived from the forecast population growth. The FPM models a 10-year picture and the CBC assessment modelled the expected population in 2028 with the timing of developments part of the assessment. The FPM outlined the changing demand within Central Bedfordshire during the period.
  3. Options appraisals by testing various approaches for the provision required in 2028. Six different scenarios for swimming pool and sports hall provision were applied to demonstrate the impact on how the supply could meet the future demand. The results provided the council with clear evidence on the optimum location and composition of its leisure facilities, to meet forecast demand growth. 
  4. Decision making. The facilities assessment findings were applied on a macro basis for overall provision and also to support individual facility feasibility studies. A key Issues and Options paper was presented to council members to illustrate the key issues from the evidence base findings, and present options to address them. Public consultation was conducted at key stages throughout the development of strategy, and on the final draft which was subsequently adopted by the council to inform decisions regarding its leisure estate, and indoor sport provision across Central Bedfordshire.

The impact

Sport and leisure provision

  • The development of a new Flitwick Leisure Centre at a cost of circa £16 million, funding included a £2 million grant from Sport England together with Section 106 contributions. The centre includes a gym, swimming pool, learner pool and confidence water, four court multi-use sports hall, fitness suites, artificial grass five a side pitches, squash courts, creche and café.
  • The redevelopment of Dunstable Leisure Centre, at a cost of circa £21 million, including £2.35 million in Section 106 developer contribution and a £1 million grant from Sport England (SE).  The new sports hall, large gym, fitness studios, squash courts and café contribute to a range of facilities and services incorporated within The Dunstable Centre; which also hosts the new Dunstable Library, flexible community spaces including adult social care provision and a base for the CAB.

Securing Funding

The strategic planning and FPM modelling was central not only to unlocking contributions from developers and funders, but crucially setting out the case to CBC’s own members. CBC has a strong ethos of investing in facilities across its whole estate and leisure facilities are key to supporting its residents live active, healthy lives.


CBC also has two successful leisure management contracts and receives a fee from the operators , therefore protecting its income while providing the best customer experience was a central driver for the investment.

Planning for future provision

The  Leisure Facilities Strategy and the supporting local facilities plan and sustain current leisure provision  while identifying future needs, and provide key infrastructure planning to support the Local Plan. Adopted as a Supplementary Planning Document, the strategy enables the council to seek on-site facilities and/or contributions from new housing development, to support the provision of new indoor sports facilities or the enhancement of existing facilities where appropriate.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Investing in modern, high quality leisure facilities ensures CBC, through its third-party operator, has a viable business model that can grow usage and income across the estate.

Flitwick Leisure Centre exceeded its usage and income targets within six months of opening (pre COVID-19) and is back within five per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Dunstable opened, six months prior to COVID-19, therefore the impact and results are too early to evaluate, but many areas, particularly water-based activities are exceeding pre-covid levels.

In early 2021, CBC updated the FPM modelling which reinforces the evidence in the Leisure Facilities Strategy, and endorses the next phase of delivery based on the strategy priorities . This includes investment into a new, high-quality community and leisure facility on the Kingsland Campus in Houghton Regis following a successful bid for nearly £20 million of government Levelling Up funding announced at the end of October 2021, and a partnership project in Sandy to combined existing outdoor sports provision with new gym and exercise studio facilities which will combine to create a sports hub for the town. 

In October 2022, the council will formally consider proposals for another new leisure centre, this time in Leighton-Buzzard.

Lessons learned

An evidence-based methodology will not only support Local Plan policies and help secure vital developer contributions, but it also makes the case to other funders. Critically a robust process that has strong member engagement and input is vital to ensure the final strategy fully reflects the ambitions and aspirations of the council.

The leisure facility modelling has helped identify the demand generated from the location and the population growth resulting from housing development. It was achieved by reviewing the existing supply against the growth, rather than just assessing the demand creating from the development alone.

The quality assessment of existing facilities together with the scenario modelling, combined with a sequential approach, informed where improving current facilities to address the changing needs was a better option than an automatic assumption of the need for new facility provision. The evidence also directed the location of new centre to ensure leisure facilities are in the right locations to serve our residents.


Lisa White, Head of Leisure, Central Bedfordshire Council

Email: [email protected]


Central Bedfordshire Council’s Leisure Strategy

Sport England Facility Planning Model