With Sport England’s Strategic Outcomes Planning Guidance now established as a key tool for the sport and leisure sector, Andrew Fawkes looks at how it is shaping new thinking and driving new projects.
Sport England’s Strategic Outcomes Planning Guidance (SOPG) was published in May 2019 and by the start of 2020 it was beginning to shape strategic thinking in local authorities across the country.
Covid-19 saw local authorities, their staff and departments throwing themselves into the unknown and dealing daily with what had, until the day before, been unimaginable challenges. Amid the firefighting of a public health emergency, sport and leisure professionals were managing the practicalities of shutting down facilities and services while speculating on the potentially devastating financial implications of an immediate loss of revenue.
However, during this time of crisis, many local authorities have found that SOPG principles and approaches provide a sound basis for re-evaluation of their services and assessment of the new opportunities and responsibilities being presented to the sector. For leisure operators and local authorities, lockdown, public health emergencies and the ensuing impact on funding has made SOPG an even more relevant tool to better position sport and physical activity.
in the midst of the Covid-19 response, a new understanding of, and approach to, public health had begun to emerge, underpinned by a primary focus on health and wellbeing. There was enhanced understanding of the importance of physical activity and mental health and added recognition of the link between the two. The strong community response to the pandemic created, reinvigorated or repurposed local support networks, often with sport and cultural clubs and societies at their centre. There was a renewed appreciation of sport and leisure facilities; both the indoor halls, gyms and pitches that were temporarily closed, and the parks and open spaces that were, for a while, the only available venues for activity and recreation.
In 2022, with lockdowns endured and restrictions easing, there are numerous examples of local authorities using SOPG to shape their strategic thinking in the context of new expectations, emerging opportunities and different pressures. Sport England’s funding of consultancy support for this process has helped many of them to move along this strategic pathway, particularly in light of the limited resources available.
At KKP, our Covid-19 support projects allowed us to view first-hand the immense workload and huge pressures that local authorities and leisure operators faced at the height of the pandemic. More recently we have supported delivery of SOPG processes and assisted clients to develop strategies for facilities and services that will best meet future demands.
Rossendale offers an interesting example. Rossendale Connected was the comprehensive community response to Covid – led by the local leisure trust. It encompassed local GPs and primary care networks plus a wide range of other clubs and groups. It now offers a new and engaged series of contacts for the facilities strategy that the Council, in partnership with Rossendale Leisure Trust, has commissioned following application of SOPG. As part of the facilities strategy, KKP is working with Rossendale Connected, GPs, ‘social prescribers’, youth workers and many others to consider how the local sport and leisure facility landscape should look.
Central to the process are the basic questions of such an approach (What have been your experiences? What are your current experiences? What needs to change to get and keep people active? What role should built facilities play?) but within the context of a local area that is arguably defined by its outdoor environment. Rossendale offers extensive walking and cycling, moorland and greenspace, along with a reputation for outdoor adventure, so what do built facilities need to offer and provide; and how should they fit into a precious and protected natural landscape?
Wyre, a near Lancashire neighbour of Rossendale, has also built on its SOPG review, creating a partnership board to develop a physical activity strategy and consider the long-term future of its facilities. In the post-Covid crisis context, the aim is to understand the locally specific role of physical activity within health, bring together partners and understand their collective aims, and consider how this all relates to sport and leisure facilities.
Wyre has recognised that health inequalities and physical activity advocacy must be central to the future of its services. In developing its ‘Wyre Moving More’ strategy and its subsequent facilities plans, KKP has led the community engagement process. This has involved its town partnership boards, schools, public health, Fleetwood Town Community Trust and a wide range of community clubs, groups and organisations. Collectively they are building a picture that will inform the Borough’s leisure facilities masterplan in the longer term.
Sport England’s SOPG has provided a sound framework for strategic thinking; its encouragement of links with health partnerships and the wellness agenda is particularly relevant to the current context. While it has often been difficult for physical activity to cut through the health agenda to demonstrate its impact and efficacy, the combination of the Covid-19 crisis and SOPG principles have helped many authorities and organisations to adopt different attitudes and explore different approaches. A strategic approach to physical activity, and the services and facilities that influence its uptake, is not only timely but also offers the potential for a major impact on public health.
SOPG is serving as the front end of a process that encourages authorities and operators to think about the role, function and potential of their facilities. Facilities strategies and leisure masterplans are allowing local authorities to explore realistic futures for their existing amenities, consider the potential impact on revenue and social engagement of new venues, and look at how best to enable and encourage access to physical activity for all parts of the community.
Andrew Fawkes is principal consultant with KKP.