Reading's Low Carbon Leisure Programme

Reading Borough Council is investing in modern, regionally-significant leisure facilities to improve health and wellbeing whilst ensuring alignment with its ambitious climate commitments.


The climate crisis is also a public health crisis, making it essential that investment in the latter also addresses the former. Reading is investing in modern, regionally-significant leisure facilities to improve health and wellbeing whilst ensuring alignment with its ambitious climate commitments. Having secured planning permission to construct the facilities to exacting BREEAM ‘Excellent’ standards, the council and its leisure partner, Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), went the extra mile by designing additional heat pumps and solar systems to reduce emissions from its two flagship leisure facilities by 57 per cent and 80 per cent respectively through a low carbon energy package worth over £2.5 million.

The challenge

After years of limited investment in its leisure assets, Reading Council is now meeting its aspiration to provide the modern facilities that the town's size and status deserves. The key aims of its leisure redevelopment programme are to:

  • deliver modern, financially and environmentally sustainable leisure facilities
  • increase physical activity and reduce health inequalities
  • contribute to the ambition of a net-zero carbon Reading by 2030.

The council is working with its strategic leisure partner GLL, a not-for-profit social enterprise, to deliver two new leisure centres as part of the improvements.

Construction started in August 2021 on the new Palmer Park Leisure Centre and Stadium which opened in December 2022. Work started on the flagship Rivermead facility in August 2021 and is due to complete in 2023.

The original investment programme incorporated a wide range of carbon saving features to meet exacting BREEAM ‘Excellent’ standards, including advanced climate controls, improved wall and roof U-values to reduce heat loss, triple glazing, pool covers and energy-efficient lighting. Whilst this design would result in a significant improvement on the existing facilities in energy terms, the Council and GLL were mindful that the new facilities would still not fully align with their respective 'net zero' aspirations, as the new facilities were still overly dependent on gas-fired heating systems.

The solution

After planning permission had been secured the council and its partners continued to collaborate, identifying scope to reduce carbon emissions further through the addition of air source heat pumps and additional solar PV arrays.

GLL partnered with globally renowned Pellikaan Construction Ltd to design and build the new facilities at Palmer Park and Rivermead under a 25-year Design, Build, Operate, Maintain (DBOM) contract agreed with the Council. The £40 million project was funded from the council’s capital programme including a £1.5m Sport England grant. The overall cost included £1.6 million for sustainable energy features to ensure that carbon emissions were minimised and to attain the BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating.

Having identified scope for installation of innovative air source heat pumps and additional solar PV capacity, the council then provided a further £976,000 of its own low carbon capital funding to enable these measures, in addition to the £1.6m already earmarked for sustainable energy features.

The impact

The additional heat pumps being installed at Rivermead will reduce the use of gas by c.1,400,000 kWh/year, an 80 per cent reduction in the carbon emission rate of the new centre, with much of the additional electrical load offset by new solar panels. The additional heat pump at Palmer Park will reduce the new centre's use of gas by c.400,000kWh/year, a 57 per cent reduction in the carbon emission rate. Solar panels were already being installed at Palmer Park and will, again, help offset the additional electrical load generated by the heat pump.

'Active travel' to Reading's leisure centres is strongly encouraged, leveraging the co-benefits of physical activity for health and the climate. In addition to promoting access to leisure facilities via 'active travel', to further reduce transport impacts the new leisure facilities provide electric vehicle charging points and are well-connected by public transport, in particular by the Council’s award-winning municipal bus service, whose success was recently recognised by Reading Borough Council in the ‘Net Zero 50 List’ of the country’s leading climate innovators.

The council is committed to a fair transition to a low carbon future and the leisure programme represents a step change in the quality of the offer available to reduce health inequalities and increase physical activity. The council's contract with GLL therefore includes requirements to deliver against social value outcomes including:

  • increased participation in physical activity, including disadvantaged and inactive groups
  • an outreach and engagement service to improve health and wellbeing via physical activity
  • improved opportunities to promote local employment including new apprenticeships.

How is the approach being sustained?

The council's contract with GLL is for 25 years. Robust contract monitoring is in place with Key Performance Indicators which commit GLL to annual reductions of 2.5 per cent in energy consumption, an annual reduction in water consumption of 1 per cent and implementation of an Environmental Management System. The contract also includes £1.9 million for lifecycle maintenance capital works to maintain energy improvements in future e.g. heat pump renewal to take advantage of new technology.

Lessons learned

The key lessons learnt were:

  • Major capital projects need to integrate low carbon technology as early as possible in the design process, and/or be future-proofed to ensure that they can accommodate new, low carbon technologies as they emerge - this will make them more adaptable and ultimately reduce the costs of retrofit should it be required.
  • Capital funds from different sources (leisure and low carbon) were blended to enable a better solution to be delivered, requiring a flexible approach to the deployment of the Council's capital funds.
  • It would have been possible for the council and GLL to not look for additional carbon reduction measures once planning permission had been secured but a shared commitment to continuous improvement meant that they kept exploring opportunities to improve carbon performance despite this milestone being reached.
  • High electricity costs which rose rapidly during construction threatened to undermine the business case for heat pumps but the combination of the investment already made in energy efficient building fabric, and the additional solar PV capacity to enable 'self-supply' of electricity at lower cost, meaning that a business case could still be made.
  • Strong political commitment to climate action being followed through in strategic investments, with appropriate financial commitments to enable this, was a critical success factor in the project

In 2021 Reading was added to the ‘A’ list of cities taking ‘bold climate action’ by the international NGO, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). The Council was proud to retain Reading's ‘A’ list status in 2022 – one of only 19 UK local authority areas to receive this accolade. Reading's low carbon leisure programme was cited in the council's 2022 submission to CDP to illustrate its efforts to lead by example – representing as it does a major investment in public health, wellbeing, the local economy, and the climate.

Additional Links

Media release on agreement of additional funding for low carbon measures in leisure centres (March 2022)

Media release on opening of Palmer Park leisure centre (December 2022)