Neil Roberts – Presenter: My name is Neil Roberts, and this is The Community Business Fix: the podcast that sheds light on communities taking matters into their own hands, supported by Power to Change, the independent Trust that supports community businesses in England.  We hope you will take inspiration from these stories and maybe get involved yourself.

In this show, we are in Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire, to meet a group of people who banded together to save their leisure centre from the bulldozers.  Fay was one of them. She moved there from Sheffield, 16 miles away, in 1967, leaving her friends behind.

Fay Howard (FH): When I had my first child, I felt very isolated and very lonely.  I needed something. And somebody happened to mention that they did a ladies’ session on Wednesday mornings.  So, I came along to one of the sessions and realised that there were lots of other women who were in the same position.  And we made friends, and I felt, for the first time in about five years, part of a community.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The community Fay found herself joining was forged in the furnaces of the town established in the Industrial Revolution.  This is local resident, Ros.

Ros: Well, basically, talk stems from the works, the steel works.  People worked together, grew together, have had children at the same time.  You just know everybody.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: With steal at its heart, Stocksbridge has a long and proud history of self-help.  Oxley Park, the land the leisure centre was built on, was bequeathed to the town by a local philanthropist, Thomas Oxley.  He had made his fortune from his English fruit preserving company, making jams, and was fondly known as ‘Jammy Oxley’. The leisure centre was built on the parkland in 1970.  Graham Sillwood was one of the local youngsters waiting excitedly for the doors to open.

Graham Silwood (GS):I remember the very first day that the swimming pool opened.  I think I was probably somewhere between 10 and early teens, and queued to get in for the first swim, a queue that went down off the leisure centre grounds onto the road below and round the corner, and we waited longer to get in than the length of time that we were swimming, much longer.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: So Jammy Oxley had gifted the land on which the leisure centre was built, but the funding for it came from local people by way of public subscription.  Andy Clarke has lived in Stocksbridge for 45 years. He worked in further education before taking early retirement, but it didn’t suit him. So, he became involved with a local community development Trust.  And he is now chief executive of the Trust which manages the leisure centre. With that sense of ownership of the leisure centre, the news, in April 2013, that the centre was to be closed, came as a bombshell.  Local authority cuts were biting and the council had decreed it unprofitable. Here is Andy Clarke again.

Andy Clarke (AC): I was at home when I heard the news on the local radio that an announcement had been made, which came as a surprise because there had been no discussions, there had been no public consultation around any of that.  So, it really came a bit out of the blue. I think it was like that for a lot of people in the area.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Diane Hind was working at the leisure centre when the news broke of the closure, and saw, first hand, the effect it had on those who used it.

Diane Hind (DH): They were very, very disappointed.  They were a little bit worried about what would be here: whether it would be houses, whether it would just be a pile of rubble, if there would be anywhere for the kids to go, all the community as well.

AC: What an awful shame that you have a good-sized local facility there that is now, again, another potential closure, because that came on the back of a raft of other closures: the advice centre in Stocksbridge was closed, the youth club in Stocksbridge was shut, and it just seemed to be an endless train of local authority withdrawal of services due to financial constraints.  This was the final straw.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The building and the swimming pool itself were in need of repair, and the number of people using it were dwindling.  With tough budgetary choices to make and the leisure centre reportedly losing £400,000 a year, Sheffield City Council made the decision to shut it.  But the community was angry. They felt there had been no proper public consultation. A public meeting was held with council representatives to try and reverse the decision.  Andy Clarke was there as was Jill Martin, one of the leisure centre’s volunteers.

Jill Martin (JM): The public’s feeling was intense, and the meetings about keeping it open/closing it down were very fraught and highly charged with emotion.

AC: I did feel that there was a challenge there, and, if there is one thing that I am, it is up for a challenge.  So, I felt really passionate about trying to get involved to do something positive and to try and get something positive out of what seemed to be a pretty dire situation.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Campaigning began in earnest, which included a series of protests and publicity stunts to raise awareness.  One of them was a winter swim down the River Don, and then the campaigners upped the stakes.

AC: We actually took Sheffield City Council to court and sort a judicial review.  I think there were hearings at Manchester and Leeds, and we were actually granted a judicial review.  I think it was at that point when the local authority thought, ‘Blimey, they really mean business.’ That was useful because it actually made them take us seriously.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: But the council wouldn’t budge, so Andy and his team, Fay and Julie among them, had to come up with a compromise.

AC: If they couldn’t do it, were they prepared to let the community have a go at it, and that was the compromise.  So, we were given a challenge of could we come up with a viable business plan in three months to actually take over managing the facility on a community-run basis.

FH: We have got quite an active volunteer community as well, in Stocksbridge, which is rare, I have found.  I thought it was normal, but it is very, very rare, from what I can gather, that you get such a community that is involved and passionate about what they are doing.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: With Andy Clarke’s experience in community development, he knew there was a local pool of talent that could be tapped to run and develop the leisure centre.

AC: The first meeting that we had, we tried to identify what people’s interests were.  We asked people to write down what their skills were, what their area of interest was. What we tried to do was pull all that together and create discrete groups.  So, there were people that had got IT skills and marketing skills and sales, so they formed one working group. There were people who had got legal expertise and political ambitions, so they formed the legal team.  There were people who had got business experience, so they formed the business team. There were people with communication skills or fundraising skills, so they formed another team. What we did was, we got all the teams working together and the lead from each one came together and formed part of the management group.

Julie Grocutt: I wouldn’t normally have gotten involved with anything like that.  I think it is just because it was very much affecting my family, in a sense: my children weren’t going to be able to learn to swim and my husband wouldn’t have been able to come up here to help with the rehabilitation.  So, it was that that spurred me on to start with the fundraising group and helping just to generate whatever funds we could to get the place open.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The activities of the community group impressed the council to the extent that it held off the bulldozers and earned them a stay of execution.

AR: The leisure centre actually closed in April 2013, and what the council did was they agreed to mothball the facility rather than shut everything off.  So, they mothballed it, kept certain things ticking over, such that it could come back on stream to buy us three months’ time to try and get a viable business plan together.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: While the council kept the leisure centre closed and maintained to stop the building deteriorating, Andy and his team set about writing their business plan. In business terms, the priority was to dig down into why the leisure centre was losing so much money.

AR: The building was operating at £1,000,000 and it was generating £600,000, and the staffing bill at that time was actually in excess of what the income was.  What we identified was that there were quite a lot of economies that could be made.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: During the summer of 2013, the council accepted their business plan and, symbolically, handed over the keys to the Trust.  Now it was down to them to make it work. Trevor Fowler was the project manager. While some see problems, Trevor’s a practical man who sees only challenges.

Trevor Fowler (TF): It was an interesting day when myself and Andy turned up at the front door when we had got the keys.  I looked at Andy and I could see his face drop, him thinking, ‘What have we let ourselves in for?’ and me thinking, ‘This is a challenge.  Let’s do it.’

AC: We put a call out for volunteers, and we had about 300 people turn up, prepared to clean, paint, do whatever was needed to fettle the place over a three-month period.  From that, we managed to establish a core nucleus of people who were prepared to continue volunteering on a longer-term basis. So, we utilised volunteers; we didn’t employ any staff at that time.  And we organised ourselves so that we could, basically, operate the bare bones of a service, bearing in mind that, at this time, none of us had ever run a leisure centre in our lives.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Trevor Fowler plays down his role, describing it simply as keeping the place running.  As you can imagine, it keeps him busy. We wanted to talk to him, but, first, we had to track him down in the labyrinth of halls and corridors.  We couldn’t find him, so we enlisted some help.

VP: [Over tannoy] This is a staff announcement: can Trevor please come to reception, please?

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Trevor responded to the call and led us to the plant room, the nerve centre of the whole operation.  The community, he told us, found the money, but, when they spent it, the watchword was ‘sustainability’. The biggest cost in any business venture is normally the people.  At a leisure centre, that is closely followed by the amount of energy needed to heat two big halls and 587,500 litres of water – enough to fill over 7,000 domestic baths. To make the leisure centre work, they needed to adopt cutting edge technology in the form of what is known as biomass boilers.

TF: We are in the wet side plant room now.  In front of you, you can see the two gas boilers.  Round the corner, there are the two biomass boilers.  Round the other corner, there is the filters for…

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The plant room is the concrete realisation of those three months writing business plans: understanding where the leaks were in the council’s operation and how they could plug those leaks by innovation.  Trevor Fowler’s background is in energy conservation and managing energy budgets, so he was the perfect candidate for the job.

TF: Two biomass boilers in what was the old coal store when this building was run with coal fire boilers, which predate the two gas boilers.  And the two biomass boilers can tell me, from the screen here, what they are doing. The buffer is telling me that it is above 70 degrees, which means the gas boiler won’t kick in.

Simon James (SJ): It is just saving money.

TF: It is all saving money.

AC: They are more efficient than the old gas boilers.  The cost of the energy is similar to the gas, but the government give us an incentive for using them.  From an environmental point of view, biomass boilers, OK, they do generate CO2, but they are not fossil fuel; they woodchips can be regenerated in a much shorter time than gas or oil.

TF: We have 300 solar cells on the roof, each producing about a quarter of a kilowatt, which would give us 75 kilowatts when the sun is belting down.  75 kilowatts is the equivalent of 25 electric kettles on full time.

AC: From an energy bill of £168,000, we are down to an energy bill of £88,000.  In terms of energy that the solar panels are being used, it has halved our electricity consumption.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The leisure centre reopened its doors to the public in January 2014, and the main pool came into operation again in April 2016.  Power to Change granted just over £300,000 to help make this happen, through their Community Business Fund, which reopens in September. The money was spent on the solar panels and air-handling unit, to recoup and recycle heat lost from the building; double-glazing; and refurbishment of the pool filters.  It also provided working capital during the first 18 months of the pool operation.

The solar panels and the huge biomass boilers are the most visible signs of technological innovation.  But the smaller, less obvious innovations, are no less important to saving money, as well as the environment, such as LED lightbulbs, lighting sensors and timers.

Leaving Trevor in the plant room, we head up to the main hall.  All the things you would expect to see happening at a leisure centre are happening here: squash, gymnastics, keep fit, trampolining, jiujitsu, and some you might not expect like indoor car boot sales and summer fairs.  Anita Grafton is part of the Young at Heart group.

Anita Grafton (AG): We are actually in the main hall and this is the over 40s group, and the range from the age of 50 to the great old age of 84, and they are absolutely amazing.  But, also, we have got young right through to the elderly, including grandparents who come to watch their children swim, etc., and parents.

Gill Wolff (GW): I come to the gym on a regular basis, and I bring my grandchildren to swimming lessons, and I do swim sometimes.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Sue worked at the centre when it was run by the council.  She is now responsible for the pool and everything that goes on it. It is an impressive size with an impressive range of activities: Aquafit, Aquadeep, Wrigglers and Tiddlers, pool parties – something for all ages and abilities.

Sue Wood (SW): It is 25 metres by 12-and-a-half.  It starts at, the shallow end is one metre, and it goes down to 1.7, and there is a slope and it goes to, I think it is about three metres deep.  It is one of the deepest in Sheffield.

AC: A pool of this size, which is technically classed as a district pool, it is a big bonus for us.  All the parents that come to watch their kids having swimming lessons all sit up here on the balcony; they can watch their kids swimming.  Every so often there are league events that take place here. This balcony, which takes up to 250 people, will be packed to the rafters.

Parent: What did you get to wear today?

Child: My badge.

Parent: You got a badge, didn’t you, for doing a super good job?

Child: Yes.

Simon Gibbins (SG): Well, it brings people together, I think.  I mean, I only live across the road, so it is perfect for me, coming here.  The lad does swimming, the daughter has dancing lessons here, both do cricket on a Friday here.  Honestly, I don’t know what we would do without it. We wouldn’t be doing the activities that we do, anyway, if they didn’t have this here, definitely.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: At the poolside, we catch up with volunteer, Jill, and Fay again, who we met at the start of the show.  You will remember how important the community she found at the leisure centre was to her when she moved to Stocksbridge from Sheffield.  It is still important, now for different reasons, but the community element is as strong as it always was.

GW: I am in my 70s now.  My husband has had a stroke.  Our needs have changed. We need it now for health and wellbeing rather than recreation.  Keith is severely disabled. We have now started working with the local brain injuries unit.  We start in aqua care for disabled people with qualified physiotherapists.

FH: From the wellbeing point of view, for people who come to, say, for example, Chairobics or some of the things that are for older people, loneliness can be quite a problem with older people.  So, coming and doing some active and then having a nice cup of tea and a biscuit can lighten the week. Then, for young children, they are learning to get along with people, and they come to the junior classes or the little swimming classes.  Then there is a bonus there. And then, for people in the middle and at the top end, like myself, we like coming and meeting a variety of people, and it is always interesting. Well, I think you could say life-enhancing, if that is not too elaborate.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Today, Anita’s life-enhancing Young at Heart group are playing badminton.

Anita Grafton: There is one lady in particular, Amy, she is 84 and she is fantastic.  She cycles and everything. The first thing, when she comes, is wanting a hug. So, it is about people caring for each other as well.  And they are an amazing group. They are all very sociable. All come from different backgrounds. Quite educated, a lot of them as well, but they don’t have to be.  They come and have a free session and, if they like it, they stay. Generally speaking, they have stayed, so that is good.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The range of activities offered at Stocksbridge Community Leisure Centre plus the new technology that keeps it running have achieved what the council failed to do: make it economically viable, which, of course, takes us back to Andy Clarke’s motto.

AC: We are sustainable.  All the money comes from fee paying: people who become members of the gym or become swim members or leisure members or gym and swim members.  We have a team membership. So, we are generating something like £140,000 just in membership income, which is regular monthly income coming in every month.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: That sustainability was achieved within a year, two years ahead of schedule in their original business plan.  It is now the largest community-run leisure centre in the region, and that has impressed the council, who have offered them an extension to the original 25-year lease.

AC: It is certainly a big vote of confidence, and I think they were more than happy to do it.  I think, after six years of operating and seeing how we have operated and how successful we have been, they were more than happy to endorse that.  We were on a 25-year lease, of which four or five years of that had expired. So, in terms of looking at developing for capital funding, we thought that a longer-term lease would put us in a stronger position.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: So, what is the next challenge for Andy and the team?

AC: We are currently trying to seek funding.  We are looking at a million-pound development to address an awful lot of the inadequacies of the building.  One of the things that we would like to do is improve the accessibility, both around the building, once you get into it, but actually access into the building.  That, in itself, will help us develop the business, because there is a lot of business opportunities that we can tap into once we get the access right. A lot of the health deliverers that we are talking to have said, ‘We’d love to come, and there is a need to deliver here and there is a will to deliver here, but you need to get your access sorted out, because we can’t use you while access is so poor.’

Neil Roberts – Presenter: The accessibility issue is one that many councils with ageing building stock are now facing for members of the community with disabilities.  Quite a challenge, given that it was certainly not a priority 30 or 40 years ago. But the community Trust are more than capable of meeting that challenge, just as they have succeeded in doing what many thought impossible: bringing their leisure centre back to life and back into the hands of the community, young or old.  We will finish, as we usually do, with some tips for those of you involved with or thinking of embarking on a community business project, this time from Sue Stones, chief exec of community-run Bramley Baths in Leeds. But, first, Mark Gordon, director of communication and partnerships at Power to Change, has a funding tip for you.

Mark Gordon: If you are inspired by the story of Stocksbridge Leisure Centre and you are about to run or have your eyes on a local authority-run facility like a leisure centre, you will want to look towards Power to Change’s Community Business Fund.  That is for major, often capital projects of this nature. Take a look on our website, powertochange.org.uk, and make sure you subscribe to our newsletter so that you can see when the next window is opening for applications.

Sue Stones: One of the groups that we found particularly useful is Locality.  They are a network who support community organisations to be strong and successful.  I have been to some workshops with them and they have been on the end of the phone with practical advice and tips when we need it.  So, I would really recommend them.

We are also members of Community Leisure UK, and that group enables me to meet up with other likeminded chief executives from other small swimming pools and community baths around the north of England.  

Also, I have recently discovered the FSI, which is the Foundation for Social Improvement, and they are a great service for offering training course, which are subsidised, advice and mentoring to help to secure funding for things like energy projects or disabled pool hoists, which are the things that you need, particularly capital investment, for a small community business.  So, I would really recommend them.

We make lots of mistakes day-to-day, but, hopefully, we only make the mistake once and we learn from them.  What we try to do is be open-minded about taking a little bit of a risk, not, obviously, with people’s safety but in terms of the events we put on.  Once we put an orchestra floating in the middle of the pool whilst people were swimming around, which was a fantastic event and got us lots of press, but, obviously, was a big learning curve in terms of actually making that happen.

Neil Roberts – Presenter: Thanks for those tips from Sue Stones, chief exec at Bramley Baths in Leeds.  If you want to find out more, including the links Sue mentioned, check out our show notes.

If this story has inspired you to set up a community business, delve into the rest of our shows and check out powertochange.org.uk, where you can find the latest news on events, other grants and support.

We will be adding links and other useful information on the show notes for this episode, and you can connect with us by following on Twitter @thecbfix.  We would love to hear your thoughts and your experiences that connect with the show.

We would like to get these stories to as many people as possible, so we would love it if you could share the show with at least one person you know that might benefit from hearing these stories.  Please don’t forget to subscribe to The Community Business Fix in your favourite podcast app.

Thanks for listening to this Fieldwork production, commissioned by Power to Change.  It was presented by me, Neil Roberts; with research and production by Curtis James; coproduction, sound and music by Simon James; writing and executive production by Chris Paling.