Cllr Steven Watkins represents Biggleswade North on Central Bedfordshire Council.
It is obvious that a person’s love or otherwise of sports and physical activity can be shaped very early in childhood.
My own experience from school was particularly negative. Forced participation into competitive rugby games in PE with the brutal treatment that entailed from superior physical specimens – to the dreaded communal shower. We have François Merry Delabost, a French doctor and inventor to thank for the latter; it was he who suggested they be installed in the barracks of the French army in the 1870s as an economic hygiene measure. A thorough scrubbing insisted upon by an overzealous master who would also insist on gym participation in one’s briefs, should the appropriate clothing be left at home. Sporting solace was found in the informal football and cricket played with chums in local parks, with the obligatory jumpers for goalposts.
I’m privileged that, now, in my cabinet role as a councillor I have some input in shaping our Sport and Leisure Strategy – and also our libraries.
Shared services is at the heart of making our services viable for the longer-term. Our new Dunstable Leisure Centre which opens in early 2019 will house the library, Citizens Advice Bureau, as well as our customer service team.
The benefits of co-location at Dunstable are three-fold. We save on building maintenance; empty buildings can be released for redevelopment to support town centre regeneration; and it means extended opening hours for the new library.
We also consider the way leisure facilities work with other services such as customer services, registrar service, and citizen’s advice. Redeveloping the library and leisure centre in Dunstable presented an opportunity to think more broadly about how customers could be supported. We know that many people using citizen’s advice are directed to the library to access information and to use the public network computers. Putting these two services together under one roof made a lot of sense – and why not pop to the gym afterwards?
Charges are carefully considered so that our facilities are paying their way and we charge a fair market rate without pricing out the very people we want to attract and allow the option of purchasing additional classes. We have also renegotiated our café contracts because too often these were a black hole requiring much subsidy. Finally, as we consolidate our smaller locations into larger community facilities (like Dunstable) we are very careful about spending on our current locations and ensure we only spend what is necessary to keep a site open, a crucial choice between operationally critical and vanity spending.
We work very closely with our colleagues at Sport England who not only contribute funding (£2 million towards Flitwick Leisure Centre which opened in 2016) but they also play a crucial part helping us to map our need for future facilities. Their Sports Facilities Calculator (SFC) was created to help local authorities quantify how much additional demand for the key community sports facilities (swimming pools, sports halls, and indoor bowls) is generated by populations of new growth, development and regeneration areas. This is increasingly important to us as we plan future growth in our Local Plan, currently with the planning inspector.
It is important to remember that the provision of sport is not a statutory obligation for our council and, as such, we have to be clever about how we position ourselves, as valued services which are well-used to but also, if managed properly, a driver of economic growth.
Think of the potential savings on Adult Social Care from schemes to get older people active; from dancing classes for dementia patients, to utilising open space for park runs/walks and other activity – we need to focus on accessibility as well as just facilities.
We run Walk 4 Health programmes; regular, led walks which are free and open to all – although aimed particularly at people who are presently doing little or no exercise. Many of our walks end at cafes where people can have a coffee and a chat before they leave; Xplorer challenges for our young people which is a navigation challenge for young people to explore our parks and find ‘markers’.
We fund 60 minute workout classes in parks across Central Bedfordshire free of charge for the community. We take part in the Activity 4 Health scheme which is a 12 week subsidised exercise referral programme for people who suffer from obesity, higher than normal blood pressure, hypertension, anxiety and depression. We offer Buggy Fitness classes for mums and dads. We offer badminton, table tennis, and walking football, all for low cost to our residents, as well as classes for disabled residents.
As Conservatives we should rightly ensure that our services provide value for money, generate cash where possible, but also allow the most vulnerable in our society to participate.