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Council Sport Provision

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Swayne.)

I want to raise the issue of councils inflicting an enforced monopoly, run by a private sector provider, on the community, often crushing successful and voluntary provision. The specific case that I will discuss relates to sport—specifically swimming—which is relevant to my constituency and others, including that of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). I would be interested to hear of any other such cases. The Minister responded to yesterday’s Adjournment debate, so I am particularly grateful to him for his presence for the second day running. I reassure him that this debate is not about sport as such—although the subject has a powerful impact on sport—but is far more about procurement and tendering practice.

I declare an informal interest in this subject, which centres on the crushing of swimming club provision, in that I used to be a swimmer, but sadly I am not as fit any more. As a youngster I ploughed up and down swimming pools at silly o’clock in the morning for four hours a day—and sometimes 10 times a week— in my unfortunately thwarted hope of becoming an Olympian. My skin would smell of chlorine when it rained and I had perpetual goggle marks. For many years I swam under the excellent supervision of one of Bristol’s finest coaches, Eric Henderson.

Being part of a club was part of my identity when I was growing up. It was a proper community and I am still proud of and treasure my first swimming club tracksuit from Thornbury swimming club. It was very much part of what has made me who I am, and it all started when my mum took me to a club to learn to swim.

Learning to swim and making progress with clubs is not for everyone, but it is a vital part of a choice of provision. It is particularly vital for producing our next generation of competitive swimmers, and it is also important—as illustrated by the Portway swimming club in my constituency, which will feature heavily in my speech—for non-competitive swimmers who want to swim slightly more than is possible under council or private provider provision.

The good news is that clubs are generally thriving and many have waiting lists for their Learn to Swim programmes, particularly those for beginners. That is why the phenomenon of some councils acting to stifle successful club provision is so perverse, as the situation in Bristol illustrates.

In 2007, Bristol city council secured a contract with Sports and Leisure Management to run eight leisure centres in the city for 10 years. So far, so good. That was supposed to be done in partnership with the city council, which, despite the fact that it had outsourced provision to a private provider, still took it upon itself to prescribe in some detail how the provision was to be made.

Swimming in Bristol has not had a particularly happy history, as a Google search or a trawl through newspapers from the mid-’90s will reveal. A recent attempt to reshape the city’s swimming came in the form of the now slightly notorious—in Bristol swimming circles—Rick Bailey report. One recommendation was that the council provider’s chief responsibility should be to provide levels 1 to 7 of the Amateur Swimming Association’s Learn to Swim pathway. Again, so far so good.

However, Bristol city council interpreted that recommendation—I believe perversely—as meaning that only the private provider should provide levels 1 to 7 of Learn to Swim. That recommendation did not have the support of the local swimming clubs, but they were pushed into accepting it largely because they did not have any choice or voice to change the decision, despite rather cosy talk in all the documents of “partnership working”.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to the House. In my constituency, Ards borough council has a very good relationship with the local swimming club. They work together to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to swim. The council owns the premises and Ards amateur swimming club does the renting. Does she agree that that is a prime example of what can happen if a council and a club work together for the benefit of all, so that some young people can become champions, whether provincial, Commonwealth or Olympic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. What is so sad about this case is that, as he said, when clubs, councils and private providers work together, they can become more than the sum of their parts and there can be huge success stories. All parties should have the interests of children and swimming, or whatever sport it is, at their centre. What is so tragic about this case is that for some reason that I am yet to fathom, Bristol city council has been stubbornly determined to stifle good provision and not to work in partnership with clubs. When any objection is raised, it says that the clubs should know better and that it does work in partnership. However, as we know, partnership is not just a word in a report, but involves communication, liaising and understanding from both sides. This situation does not need to exist and we should all be thinking about the good of the swimmers.

The council and SLM set about ensuring that even clubs that had been providing a successful and valued Learn to Swim programme, with high demand and waiting lists, no longer did so in council-run pools. That has led to an extraordinary situation at swimming clubs such as Portway in my constituency that hire an agreed amount of pool time from SLM in which intermediate and Learn to Swim swimmers both train. Following the ruling that came into force on 1 April, the club is forced to vacate the area of the pool that is used for Learn to Swim. The children, many of whom have older siblings in the more advanced swimming lessons, are forced to sit on the side and not enter the water because they cannot be taught to swim, even though the qualified volunteer teachers are present and the pool space is not being used by anyone else. If the young children were doing another activity, such as attending a children’s party, and were not being taught to swim, it would be okay for them to use the pool. That does not seem very sensible.

The club has been forced to take its Learn to Swim programme to a pool in a neighbouring local authority, South Gloucestershire, which has a slightly less perverse and draconian attitude towards Learn to Swim. That means an extra journey for parents to a pool that is much further away, which is very difficult for single parents. That may also clash with the commitments of other siblings, swimming or otherwise, and many parents are forced to choose which of their children’s commitments to honour.

The key thing to note is that the small number of children who are being taught to swim in a club environment, which cannot be replicated by a private provider in terms of the continuity and focus that are provided by the teachers, does not impact on SLM’s market share of Learn to Swim children. The number of children in Bristol is increasing and there are certainly more than enough children who need to be taught to swim to go around.

Nobody is suggesting that clubs should have a monopoly on provision or even preferential treatment, only that they should be allowed to meet the significant demand for their services, which they have hitherto met very successfully. The result is that children are denied the choice of the benefits that club swimming at an early level provides, such as community and continuity of teaching. One club coach put it well in saying that the two lessons a week at the club not only give children the ability to swim, but inspire them to become a swimmer.

Of course, the impact on competitive swimming will be significant, too. To put it in perspective, in a recent Bristol schools competition, it was estimated that despite there being about 3,000 children who were taught by SLM compared with only 200 who were taught in clubs, club swimmers made up about 50% of the finalists. In other words, if my maths is correct, club swimmers were about seven times more likely to be finalists than non-club swimmers, which is significant.

There are other impacts. Many coaches come through a club system and then go on to coach either in their parent club or in other clubs, or with private providers such as SLM. Clubs are also vital social and community hubs, raising money for charity and, as I have said, providing youngsters with a sense of special identity and pride, as Thornbury, Southwold and City of Bristol swimming clubs did for me.

However, the Minister will be pleased to hear that this debate is not specifically about sport. It serves to demonstrate to him the possible perversity of a council monopoly that is imposed with such odd determination. Indeed, the clubs, the provider, a representative of Gloucester ASA and the councillor with the relevant cabinet brief had a meeting about the matter, at which the councillor, Simon Cook, was extremely good. He brokered a proper, common-sense solution to allow one of the clubs to keep offering Learn to Swim in a council pool until some kind of common-sense compromise had been reached. I was alarmed that his decision was completely ignored, which shows us something about the accountability there. It was ridden roughshod over, particularly by one council officer, Colleen Bevan, who I understand has now gone off to work for a private leisure provider. The private providers told the club that contrary to what had been agreed in the meeting, it could not continue with its pool time. I should mention that we have set up a petition at www.keepclubswimming., in case anyone wants to sign it.

I finish by saying to the Minister that we all believe in localism, but this case demonstrates some of the perverse behaviour of councils that, instead of facilitating the big society, are crushing it. I am pleased that our new elected mayor, George Ferguson, who inherited the difficult situation, is sympathetic to the clubs’ plight and fully understands the perversity of such a council-enforced monopoly, whether in sport or any other service. I look forward to working with him on this extraordinary situation.

I ask that the Department examines such instances in which smaller providers of any sort, not necessarily in sport, are literally bullied out of existence by local councils that act in every way contrary to any conception of the big society.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing the debate, and I congratulate her on putting her case so clearly and succinctly. She not only outlined the specific issue of the club in Bristol but gave us a chance to highlight a wider potential problem with how local authorities deal with procurement, which is important for us to note. I will try to touch on both issues.

My hon. Friend set out the case involving the Portway swimming club, which feels that it has been frozen out of opportunities to teach beginners’ swimming lessons at Bristol’s public pools due to the contract that she mentioned. I know that she is an accomplished swimmer herself and feels passionate about sports provision, and I know that her community will appreciate all that she is doing to support the local swimming clubs.

I understand that guidance on who should teach Learn to Swim lessons has been issued by the ASA, and that it is recommended that clubs seek support from their county and regional ASA boards on how the scheme operates locally. The boards will be keen to support the sustainability of their clubs and offer support for the relationships between clubs and operators. In time, that can serve to protect their future membership income.

I understand that my hon. Friend also has more general concerns about how local authorities use their procurement practices to create monopolies of service provision with private providers. My Department holds policy responsibility for local government, including promoting best practice on commissioning and procurement processes and strategies. I would expect any procurement exercise to engage effectively with and examine the impact on community groups and the voluntary sector. Indeed, the best value guidance published in September 2011 set out clearly how councils should work with the voluntary sector when facing difficult funding decisions.

Statutory guidance states that local authorities should actively engage with organisations in the community on the future of a service and any knock-on effect on assets, and allow them to put forward options on how to reshape the service. Good local authorities will therefore work with their local voluntary sector at all stages of service design and delivery, to make best use of their local knowledge and influence.

Overall, local authorities are having to reduce costs and we encourage them to follow the example of leading councils that are taking the opportunity to think creatively, re-design their services, and commission intelligently and co-operatively with all sectors of their local community, not just large private providers. Local areas need the freedom and flexibility to innovate and commission services that best fit the needs of their communities. We cannot, and will not, prescribe from Whitehall how individual local authorities should conduct each procurement exercise, because it is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Neither will we intervene in local issues or specific contracts, which, as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, is simply not appropriate.

We believe that local authorities can and should use their procurement processes to improve efficiency while also achieving better outcomes for service users. We know that poor practices and long-held myths can slow down the procurement process and lead to bad decisions, costing taxpayers money and affecting the standard of service. Councils such as Bristol must be sure that they are doing everything they can to remove those barriers, in consultation with local providers. I am pleased to hear that the new mayor is going down the road of working with the community, as my hon. Friend outlined. In my meetings with him he has been keen to do that, which is a good sign for Bristol in the future, and probably a real endorsement of how the local accountability of a directly elected mayor can work for a city.

Opening up procurement practices to all local providers can make a massive difference, and councils have a duty to their residents to act now. Councils should publish their tenders and contracts online, which would allow everyone to see clearly the procurement opportunities available and helps councils to get better deals with taxpayers’ money. Contracts Finder is one way of doing that, and as a secure, central and well-recognised website it is already accessed by hundreds of thousands of businesses and organisations. Bristol city council uses an e-procurement portal, Twitter, and a blog to advertise contracts and engagement opportunities. That is a positive step and I encourage more councils to be as open and transparent as possible with all data and procurement decisions.

Myths often surround European Union procurement rules, but those rules apply only once a contracting authority has made a decision to procure goods or services. Such rules are often used or misunderstood to prevent any form of communication, but they do not and should not. Council officers can still work with all sectors and providers prior to the bidding process, and support diversity in the supply chain by skilling-up and improving potential tenders. The Government would always encourage local authorities to procure wherever they can and wherever is appropriate locally. That can create new jobs and sustain existing ones, support the creation of new businesses and clubs, help to tackle worklessness and low skills by supporting apprenticeships, and boost spending locally, as well as help develop and build a community through its clubs and organisations.

Contrary to popular myth, councils can support local growth at the same time as delivering efficiency savings and improving services—those things are not mutually exclusive. Council officers should embrace transparency on spending, tenders, contracts and property assets. That can help clubs and businesses better understand the services being tendered, thereby allowing them an opportunity to submit better proposals.

I would always encourage local authorities to hire the best—not necessarily the biggest—firms, and they should assess organisations on their ability to get the job done for the benefit of the community, rather than on their turnover. Markets can be narrowed, as my hon. Friend outlined, by contracting only with big organisations, because that puts those organisations in control, rather than the council. A diverse supply side promotes competition between suppliers and gives the council and—importantly—its residents, more choice. Breaking up contracts into smaller bite-sized chunks, or sub-contracting, can open up procurement by introducing more competition on price and attracting smaller firms. That can lead to even more local job creation, specialisation and innovation in service delivery.

I appreciate my hon. Friend giving me the chance to outline general aspects of procurement and what councils can do to involve local community organisations and small businesses. However, I want to be clear that localism means doing everything at the most direct possible level, with residents fully involved in making decisions about their areas. Central Government should be involved only when absolutely necessary. The Government’s approach to localism is to pass power down to citizens—greater power to hold local authorities to account and to help them to make a difference in and for their communities. As we have seen recently, local communities hold their councils to account ultimately through their voting power in local elections. In voting for a directly elected mayor, the community in Bristol has hopefully made a decision that will mean Bristol has a better future, with direct, clear local accountability.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced the community right to challenge, which enables communities and the voluntary sector to question how services are provided, to have the ambition to challenge that, and to make plans to take services over. As my hon. Friend will realise, I am unable to comment on the specifics of a contract—as she has said, I have not seen the specific details. Hopefully, I have taken this chance to set out the Government’s approach. I hope I have outlined how local authorities can act to ensure that such situations do not happen. I support her concern. Local authorities should embrace local community groups and the voluntary sector during any procurement process, and in their policy on sports provision and access. I congratulate her on raising the issue in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.