Non-profit leisure is by nature charitable, argues voluntary sector veteran Peter Cardy, whose latest job is chief executive of Aquaterra Leisure
The impetus for creating leisure trusts was often nakedly financial - they offered savings on national non-domestic rates and elements of VAT, and an end to councils' employer responsibilities. These aren't charitable purposes, of course, and when it became apparent that some of the new trusts were largely the old council service with the same staff and even the same councillors in charge, charity status looked dubious. Regulators began to take an interest, critics called them bogus.
So, given my lifetime commitment to charities, why would I choose to work for one of these bodies? Well, when I checked out Aquaterra, I saw real commitment to psychological and physical wellbeing. More than 50 per cent of those using the facilities pay only concessionary rates. The group has strict standards for participation by gender, age, ability and ethnicity. There is a large community programme funded from our own resources and the range of health-focused programmes is expanding.
Not everyone shares my view. The European Services Strategy Unit, which is based in the Republic of Ireland but whose principal author, Dexter Whitfield, is intriguingly located at the University of Adelaide, Australia, published a polemic in 2008: The Case Against Leisure Trusts. Drawing on work by the Audit Commission, Whitfield argues that not all leisure trusts deliver services as well as local authorities do, and that their average performance on value is not as good either. In one case, leisure is described by Whitfield as a service of two halves - poor-quality facilities managed by the trust and innovative sports development provided by the council.
This is a regrettable facet of the transfer of leisure services. Some councils have crudely unloaded risk on to the voluntary sector: decrepit buildings that are expensive to maintain, requirements for investment that can never be generated by uneconomic services and price controls that negate surpluses. It is not only naive and unwary trusts that have taken on such commitments, but larger and smarter trusts that believe critical mass and cashflow will see them through. In the two waves of trust formation to date, some failures and mergers were inevitable, and the current financial crisis is likely to generate more.
So are the trusts really charities or councils in camouflage? This year, the Charity Commission published its public benefit assessment of Wigan Leisure & Culture Trust, which runs various services that would look fine in a council portfolio, from swimming pools to crematoria. Although the commission found aspects of the trust's work that were non-charitable, they were so minor that they did not affect the unequivocal conclusion that "the trustees are administering the aims for the public benefit", independently of the funders.
Independence is an important caveat: the recent close relationship with councils can lead to them treating the trusts as the leisure department they no longer have. This is not only disrespectful but can also lead into choppy water with the regulators. As they mature, the trusts are cutting the apron strings and making decisions in the interests of their users and local communities, and the councillors are being replaced on the boards. The trusts are efficient, entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic. They have to be in order to survive, because it's not only public sector cuts that threaten them, but also competition from the private sector. The leisure sector is a jungle in which new gyms and clubs pop up fast and predators can take a huge bite from a trust's regular users. Some private gyms resent the tax advantages of the trusts, but they're free to choose who to charge and how much in order to make a profit, while the trusts have to figure out how little to charge in order to let everyone take part. We can readily reach the 20 per cent who are motivated and we can reach more of the remaining 80 per cent with some effort. But reaching people living desperate lives of poverty and dependency, who are not part of networks and organisations, is a long-term project.
Non-profit leisure makes a big change in the lives of many. Surely our aim should be to make a change for the better in the lives of most people. Now that's what I call charity ...
Peter Cardy is the chief executive of Aquaterra Leisure and former chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support and other health charities
Read why leisure trusts were granted charitable status
See what the incentives of forming a trust for leisure and cultural services are