During lockdown KKP has been working with local authorities across England to help them and their operators prepare for the reopening of facilities and the remobilisation of sport and leisure services. David McHendry considers some of the operational and financial challenges of a new leisure environment.
The announcement that leisure facilities will be able to reopen in July marks a significant point in the sport and leisure sector’s reawakening from the Covid-19 lockdown. It is another small indication that life for many people is slowly beginning to return to normal, even if it is going to be a new normal.
Through lockdown KKP has been working with a significant number of local authorities (25-plus at the last count) to prepare for reopening and the working environment beyond. Exploring the process of remobilisation has revealed some real challenges for the sector, not least the implications for the contractual arrangements between councils and operators, but it has highlighted plenty of opportunities too. While a return to where we were in February 2020 seems likely to be some way off, a new normal is possible and, depending on the decisions we make and the support that is available, new systems and modes of operation would appear likely to emerge to build on the lessons of lockdown.
Whatever the long-term future might hold, the immediate challenges for local authorities are going to be operational. Social distancing and bio-hygiene will be part of everyone’s everyday experience for the foreseeable future and this has significant ongoing implications for leisure providers. All buildings will have to be risk assessed. Equipment will have to be cleaned and appropriately spaced, particularly in gyms. Entry and exit routes to all parts of any building will have to be assessed and redesigned. Circulation areas within buildings, including reception and corridors, will need to be carefully managed.
Operators will be looking to protect – and councils will be expecting operators to protect – their main income sources: health and fitness, and swimming lessons. Activity space will be at a premium and will have to be allocated and reallocated in line with demand and the financial realities of income generation. However well planned and managed these spaces are, reduced capacity is likely to have a significant impact on income and each facility’s ability to serve its membership.
Ultimately in the short to medium term facilities will cost more to run and generate less income. This in turn will have significant implications for the viability of the operating contracts under which they are managed. While the Government’s job retention scheme has provided some help over the period of lockdown, the requirements of social distancing will mean that an income will be well below pre-February 2020 contract operating levels. With public procurement notices from Government suggesting that these contracts be temporarily set aside owing to the exceptional circumstances, new arrangements have to be agreed. Solutions will need to be collaborative, amicable and mutually acceptable. With no two buildings the same and each requiring its own Covid risk assessment, local authorities and operators will need to explore and agree the financial implications of opening each individual venue.
KKP’s experience of working with councils and operators over the past few months suggests that, in the most part, these agreements are being approached in a positive and collaborative way. However, moving from lockdown to remobilisation will be an even more challenging – and costly – process and the move from remobilisation to new operational conventions will be accompanied by its own challenges.
Looming over all the remobilisation discussions is the very real threat of rationalisation of services and facilities. The combination of the parlous state of local authority funding, the demands of responding to Covid operating procedures and the (thus far) absence of central government support for the sector means that the closure of facilities and the loss of services remains a real possibility.
Charting a course towards the new normal will be about meeting the expectations of everyone who wishes to get back to their old sport and exercise routines, along with everything that is part of that experience: the activity, the environments, the communities and friendships. The New World will, for a while at least, have to encase this with bookings, restricted (planned) access and more regimented usage timetables. The next period of time will be about being adaptable and creative with each change to the regulations and each step along the path that leads to being able to operate and use facilities in the manner to which we had, prior to March this year, become accustomed.
But the old normal, if it comes, will need to be different. It cannot simply be about a return to health and fitness, and swimming lessons driving financial returns. The sport and leisure sector needs to be driving social objectives. The Covid crisis has exposed so many shortcomings in our society, not least those involving health, physical activity and access to opportunities for both. These are the real objectives. The challenge for the sector is to look beyond the buildings to make sure that our facilities and our operators are meeting the needs of everyone in our communities, not just those who choose, or are able, to pay to come through the door.
The sport and leisure sector will need a new relationship with the concept and structures of public health. It will need to embrace, explore and exploit its online offer and the opportunities of remote access. Building on the lessons of lockdown, the sector needs to extend its offer into areas such as housing associations, care homes, schools, temples and mosques to develop connections with, and opportunities for, client groups that might otherwise have little interest in what our facilities might have to offer.
The Covid emergency of 2020 has been – and remains – a frightening and sobering period for our communities and nations but those in the sport and leisure sector are optimistic by nature. Some constructive aspects of the lockdown experience may be emerging. A national emphasis on the very clear connection between physical activity and health was arguably one of lockdown’s earliest achievements. The profile of walking and cycling has grown. Huge numbers of people have discovered or rediscovered a connection to their locality and realised the importance of their own open spaces; not every walk or ride needs to begin with a car journey. Among the greatest benefits has been the support, assistance and friendship found within and among communities, with so many people responding to adversity with an offer of help to their neighbours, local groups and charities.
Significant opportunities have emerged but there are still so many significant challenges to be overcome. It’s a big ask, so let’s have a Big Ask. As a sector, we should not allow the struggle to return to normality to obscure the responsibility we have to think about the longer term. Our challenge is not just to cope with the new normal and hope for a return to the former status quo. We need to be building on the opportunities that have emerged from the challenges of the last few months to create a vision of a better way of working and a better way of serving and supporting our communities. A new old normal should be our goal.
David McHendry is managing director at KKP.
Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org