When you’re a passionate user of a facility, feelings inevitably run high when it comes under threat of closure. Divorcing emotion from the facts can be difficult but not doing so can be counterproductive.
Thus, when Slough Borough Council (SBC) mooted the closure of its rundown ice rink, currently operated by Absolutely Leisure, until its new swanky rebuild opens in the summer of 2017 with as yet no suggestion of a temporary rink to accommodate users, reaction was swift and angry.
But for all parties – the users, SBC and the providers Absolutely Leisure, to take up battle positions is unlikely to yield a satisfactory conclusion. It is doubtful that all out war will see SBC emerge with their image intact, Absolutely Leisure, which has the contract to operate the rink until June 2017, will lose business and regular, dedicated users (not general, infrequent skaters) won’t have a rink.
Whereas all three parties have the opportunity to achieve something truly remarkable and arguably unique: local government, private business and end users working together to achieve a profitable return from a high level of service provision whilst maintaining an in demand leisure facility until the new build opens.
Outsourcing public services to the private sector is nothing new although since the raft of government cuts local authorities and town councils have been forced to come up with increasingly innovative ways to deliver their services.
These relationships pretty much bubble along, strange bedfellows thrown together where sometimes the needs or demands of the users can find itself at odds with the fundamental ethos of business.
When that uneasy love-hate triangle of business, local government and users comes under pressure, it can be the real test of whether this now established model of delivering certain services has the potential to be truly successful.
Slough Ice Arena has been operated by Absolutely Leisure for some years now and the relationship with us as regular users is well established. From a personal perspective it’s me and my two daughters who over these past ten years or so have utilised ‘patch’ ice reserved for experienced skaters and their private coaches, undertaken courses, are members of various clubs including the synchronised ice skating team and as a volunteer for Slough’s hugely successful charity SPICE or Special People on Ice.
Since the rink has been under the management of Matt Schofield the relationship between its regular users and clubs, of which I sit on two committees, has enjoyed an era of cooperation, collaboration and open communication. In our eyes, Matt has achieved the seemingly impossible and has delivered for his bosses whilst at the same time over delivering for the end users. Pretty impressive, don’t you think, he is exactly the kind of person SBC would want delivering its services to its end users.
Close the rink for the best part of nine months and then some and Matt and his team will soon be snapped up elsewhere.
Reading Grant Thornton’s ‘local governance review 2015’, and it is apparent councils up and down the land are stepping up to the plate and looking at innovative ways of delivering services in the wake of extensive cuts from sharing a chief executive (which apparently can save around £80k) to not duplicating service delivery.
However, the report also outlined the weaknesses of utilising what is referred to as ‘alternative delivery models’ with the disconnect between councils and their end users being of particular concern.
As SBC, as far as I am aware, has yet to widely consult its users, the council is currently teetering on the brink of upholding the perception of the report when it has the opportunity to be a shining light in the new model of service delivery. The onus is also on us users to take on our share of responsibility with the support of the service providers.
I am not privy to the Absolutely Leisure accounts, although they are, of course, in the public domain, but I would not be at all surprised if the rink’s specialist users (for want of a different description, effectively hockey, figure skaters and clubs including SPICE or everything apart from the general public skate sessions) deliver the highest revenue returns despite being the minority in terms of numbers.
Perhaps this is but one example of the disconnect between the council and its end users. In one of its early reports into the redevelopment of the rink, SBC appears to have made its assessment of whether users will be adversely affected by a nine-month closure on numbers alone, it ascertained that the 86k ‘general users’, in which it included ‘patch’ skaters despite the fact it lumps dedicated, regular and competitive skaters in with those who pop down every now and then for a bit of fun on a Saturday afternoon, would be able to make use of Slough’s other wide-ranging leisure provision to help stave off the obesity crisis facing the borough.
The main point has been categorically overlooked: a huge swathe, possibly the majority, of specialist users come from outside the borough and will simply move elsewhere.
Now SBC could justifiably claim ‘so what’, after all its services are for its own residents and it has no duty of care to those of us who do not live in the borough. But such an approach would be short-sighted and, arguably, detrimental to the borough’s economy. Whilst we may hail from a number of outlaying boroughs and districts, we are lining the purses of Slough businesses which goes beyond the rink. Whilst the kids have their lessons, practice hockey or synchronised ice skating, us parents can be found in Slough’s supermarkets doing the weekly shop, indulging in some retail therapy or putting the world to rights over coffee whilst our kids regularly meet up in Slough for other off ice activities such as bowling, eating and cinema-going.
Where will these specialist skaters go for nine months?
- The future of Slough Jets ice hockey team would be in jeopardy with nowhere to practice or host matches and their players are likely to join other teams
- Junior hockey players will find other clubs and teams
- Five adult ice hockey teams made up of more than 100 players who use the rink every week for training and games are likely to move elsewhere
- Learn to skate course users will find somewhere else or simply give up
- Figure and dance skaters will have no choice but to relocate to another rink
- The Skate Club, which hosted this year’s inter-rink figure skate challenge claiming a close second place against eight other rinks and at the same time was responsible for one of the rink’s most profitable days, is likely to come to an end
- Skaters from the rink’s 50-plus strong four medal-winning synchronised ice skating teams will simply give up or find a new team, or its coaches could feasibly relocate them to a nearby rink such as Guildford, which doesn’t have a synchro team, for us out-of-towners, the travel to Guildford rather than Slough is neither here nor there and a return when Slough reopens would be unlikely
- Perhaps the biggest travesty is the special needs group, the likes of which does not exist anywhere else; runners up in last year’s Pride of Britain awards, its synchro team is the current British Synchronised Ice Skating best exhibition trophy holders after their appearance at the British Championships in January, and its hockey players are the only GB team to compete in north America’s special needs annual ice hockey tournament, SPICE faces an uncertain future with nowhere for its 120 members and volunteers to practice
What of the coaches? Will they sit around for nine months waiting for their revenue stream to reappear? Of course not, like their skaters, they will simply disperse to other rinks, in fact, they will probably just take their clients with them, after all, many of us have been with the same coach for years. What of the Christmas show? Well, there won’t be one in 2016 and without high level committed, good performance skaters and coaches to choreograph the numbers, not to mention the audience largely made up of the friends and family of the out-of-town skaters, I can’t see it happening in 2017.
Finally, Slough’s Friday night disco skate, Sunday all-day disco skate and even its Saturday afternoon family session provides somewhere for teenagers to hang out. In particular, the Friday night skate attracts teenagers from the local area who enjoy a few hours downtime in a safe, highly secure environment whilst being active. Not providing these youngsters with somewhere to go on a Friday night could well be storing up a host of social problems.
It is not just a simple case of Slough ice rink closing its doors for a few months and then we all eagerly return to brand spanking new premises; our loyal business will be taken elsewhere and it will take months, if not a few years to rebuild that business. Meanwhile, the lovely new, shiny £7.7 million ice arena may benefit from the novelty of local people coming to try out the facility in its first few weeks, but that is not a sustainable business model. If the new ice rink is to start to repay the council’s investment sooner rather than later, SBC needs to work with its service provider and the specialist, regular, loyal end users even though they are not Slough residents to identify and implement a temporary solution.
SBC, Absolutely Leisure and end users have the perfect opportunity to redefine the alternative delivery model as one which is truly fit for the 21st century, it’s a challenge which together I am confident we can meet. I look forward to reading about SBC’s successful private sector and end user collaboration in the 2016 Grant Thornton report.