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Good morning everyone and welcome to the ukactive Conference 2021. It is truly wonderful to see everyone in person again, after so long apart. Our virtual engagement over the past 18 months, while crucial, can been no substitute for this. So thank you for committing to join us today. It means a lot to me and the team.

Thank you to our partners for supporting today’s Conference, to our headline partners: Miha Bodytec and the City of London Corporation, and also to: Gladstone and eGym, Active IQ, GymSales, Topodium, Matrix, Alliance, Quikswitch, P81, and Stable Media. You make these events possible and you have supported us in maintaining such strong engagement with the sector over the past 18 months, when we couldn’t meet in person.

I’d like to thank the Lord Mayor and the team at the City of London Corporation for their partnership with us, and the use of this incredibly historic venue, the Guildhall. This is also the site for London’s first Roman amphitheatre – the foundations of which are on display below us. The architects of this amphitheatre could perhaps be considered the pioneers of our modern-day gym and leisure centre.

This amphitheatre would also host “animal fighting and public execution of Criminals”… and people say our sector hasn’t changed!

I’d also like to thank you all for the incredibly kind and generous messages I have received since I announced last month that I will be moving on from the role of ukactive Chair next year. As I said at the time, being the Chair of ukactive makes me smile a lot. I’ve been fortunate to serve more than two terms in this role and it means I’ve had the chance to work with some incredible people and organisations that really want to improve lives.

Sport and physical activity is inspiring, enjoyable, fun, enriching and joyous. It’s the miracle pill that can alleviate many ailments and conditions, reducing the burden on our NHS and social care. It can bridge divisions and bind communities together. How could that not make you smile?

Now, I am hugely proud of my time at ukactive. The organisation has grown so much in this period and represents its members with the highest levels of professionalism and integrity. I have been supported throughout this time by an incredible Board and talented Executive team, who have shown exceptional leadership, most notably during the pandemic and the crisis that it presented.

I will be stepping down in August next year, and that gives me a good stretch of time to continue working with you and the team at ukactive to progress our shared ambition: an ambition that this sector, and our members, will play the fullest role in improving the health of the nation. 

Now, we’re all worldly enough in this room to know this isn’t necessarily an easy journey, and as a sector we don’t always have the option of a straightforward route to our destination. But, I have growing confidence and belief that we will reach that destination, and what I would like to do this morning is set out my vision for how I believe we get there.

Firstly, this begins with where we are as ukactive members and as a sector. I have witnessed first-hand the growth in scale and influence of gyms, pools, and leisure centres across the UK, which have become the engine room of activity in this nation.

Tens of millions of people use our facilities each week, irrespective of age and background and each is an individual personal story of progress. From swimming in local lidos, to cancer rehab in community leisure centres, working out at lunch in the high street gym, to playing games in sports halls and on tennis courts, the fitness and leisure sector is the bedrock of community physical activity engagement and infrastructure.

The acceleration of digital services over recent years, and particularly during the pandemic, is another undeniable factor in our sector’s impact and potential.

The success of these facilities and services is driven by many crucial groups that make up the ukactive family:

  • A talented and committed workforce ably supported by CIMPSA and quality training providers.
  • A globally acclaimed set of suppliers who continue to develop innovative and dynamic equipment and technology for a growing diversity of audiences.
  • And National Governing Bodies of Sports and community sports groups who support both recreational and talent pathways for their chosen sports.

You should be very proud of the role you play in improving the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of communities the length and breadth of this nation.

Furthermore, I look with great affection at the hugely important work our members undertake to support children, young people, and families to be more active.  The wrap-around support you provide to some of the most vulnerable people in our society is so important, as it removes some of the pressure of day-to-day life faced by so many parents and carers.

In this area, I am incredibly proud of the work undertaken by ukactive, Nike, and a range of local partners this summer through our Open Doors programme. This programme has such huge potential to improve the activity levels of children and young people outside of school hours, by unlocking facilities that should be open.

This project is best summed up in one sentence, from a 14-year-old attendee: “If I wasn’t here I’d be at home in bed – parks are too young for me, I can’t sit on a swing all day, and where else is safe to go? Just here, at my school.”

Working with schools and activity providers in the community, this model has now reached disadvantaged children in four of our major cities – providing fun, friendship, resilience and hope at a crucial time in their lives.

Our ambition is that, with the right support, Open Doors can unlock hundreds of schools across the UK over the next two years, which would have an incredible impact on the lives of the next generation.

Now, I would also like to pay tribute to the way our sector, and the people in this room, worked together during the crisis of Covid. Everyone has their own personal story of the past 18 months and the toll – both professional and personal – that it took on us all. But I want to highlight how you – as members of ukactive – instinctively understood the enormous scale of the challenge we faced, and that the only path through this was with collaboration.

Our sector – both public and private – became united in adversity. This empowered my team at ukactive to coordinate both the survival and recovery of the sector. From utilising sector expertise in negotiations with Sage and the Chief Medical Officer, through to sharing safety data with the Government to provide the reassurance they sought – as a sector, we set a benchmark for partnership. And we should be proud of that achievement.

The quality and intensity of that engagement between ukactive and our membership also really helped crystallise our own purpose as an organisation in supporting our members. The changes we have made internally ensure that this organisation is 100% focused on delivering for our members:

  • To help support, guide, and advise on a variety of specialist issues that impact you.
  • To ensure we represent and champion you, to all key decision makers and influencers.
  • And to help you grow – both through your development and also your influence.

Strong collaboration is particularly important now, as the team continues to work with the Government and its agencies on important issues underpinning our nation’s recovery – a recovery that I know remains challenging for many.

From addressing the existing funding gap in public sector leisure, to rising utility costs, and seeking a fair and equitable resolution between tenants and landlords regarding unpaid commercial rent, our sector has to be able to grow again from a solid foundation. We understand these challenges and address these fully with the Government on a daily basis.

But that important focus and investment addressing issues in the now is also matched by our view on the future, and the development of the sector.

Let me be clear on this: we are not a stationary sector, by the very nature of our design, and we cannot afford to be stationary in our mind-set. Society has changed as a result of the pandemic, and we must change with it.

As a result, we should not consider a return to the past and life pre-Covid, but ensure we move forward and strive to be the best we can be. The opportunity generated by the changes in our society is one we must grasp – especially with such a prominent focus now on the importance of people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Throughout my time as ukactive Chair I have seen first-hand the evolution of our members, and their facilities and services. But I also know there is real potential to do more, especially in partnership with agencies like Sport England. This is a path we must continue to travel down, and sustain the same spirit of collaboration we created during the pandemic.

And as a Crossbench Peer in Parliament I have witnessed first-hand how the Covid pandemic has transformed our political discourse. Over the past few weeks I have spoken at the party conferences in my role as President of the Local Government Association. There have been varied headlines from each of these Conferences, but a common thread has been our recovery from Covid – notably:

  • What should the recovery of our society look like?
  • What needs to be prioritised.
  • And how this can be achieved.

Many of the leading political figures in this country referenced issues that are close to our member’s hearts and purpose, with speeches across the main parties talking the language of “prevention” and “wellbeing”. This felt like an awakening to our agenda that, for too long, has been lacking the political visibility it merits. But “how this can be achieved” was arguably harder to identify at this moment in their political thinking.

That might frustrate some, but for me it simply presents us with a major opportunity. It allows us to frame the debate – now – with Government, Westminster, and the wider political leadership across the country.

  • It allows us to set out clearly our contribution to the “levelling up” agenda.
  • It allows us to set out clearly our contribution to “Building Back Better”.
  • It allows us to set our clearly our contribution to “prevention being better than cure”.

At today’s Conference it will be clear that this is work that is very much underway. What ukactive has begun to do is set out what is effectively a “shared ambition for growth” for our members.

  • We will share this ambition with our Government.
  • We will share this ambition with the main political parties across the Union.
  • We will share this ambition with the political leadership at devolved and local level.
  • And we will share this ambition with our partners.

And how do we achieve this?

Last month, we announced the potential contribution that gyms, pools, and leisure centres can make to getting the nation more active across the rest of the decade. Our analysis shows that we can attract more than five million new people to use gyms, pools, and leisure centres on a regular basis by 2030.

Memberships could grow by more than half by 2030, sparking a revolution in the UK’s physical activity levels, and this growth would support the health and fitness needs of well over 20% of the UK population – up from 15% penetration before the pandemic. In membership terms, it would see an increase from 10 million members to more than 15 million.

Let there be no doubt that this will have a transformative impact on activity levels across the nation.

Now, achieving this requires the marriage of two things. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, the wholehearted commitment from our sector to continue this journey of growth and development.

This is something within our control and our determination. And what does this development look like? I believe the personality of the sector will need to be characterised in the following ways:

  • We must fully adopt consumer data and insight to help us engage a diversity of audiences, especially older people.
  • We must be fully committed to delivering the highest professional standards across both health and safety, and wider societal factors.
  • We must drive programmes and services that strive to make facilities as inclusive as possible, and also agile to the growing importance of digital offerings.
  • And we must fully establish and integrate our services into health pathways, to support the NHS as well as wider mental and social wellbeing.

This personality and profile of the sector, while not exhaustive, will drive forward the inclusive offering our sector makes in the communities we serve. I have no doubt in this. There may be obstacles along the way but this is a journey we cannot afford to miss if – if – we want to take the next step, and if we want to be consistently at the top table, influencing Government and its agencies.

The seeds of this are already being seen in our partnership with Sport England – a partnership we can replicate with the Governments and agencies in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Sport England recognises – quite rightly – that this partnership will be integral to it achieving the ambitions set out in its long-term strategy, Uniting the Movement. And this is a really important relationship to ukactive and its members.

And I’m really delighted that my tenure as ukactive Chair has coincided with the forming of a strong partnership with Sport England, which can achieve so much together. I’d personally like to thank Tim Hollingsworth and Charles Johnston for their support.

As we recover from Covid following the easing and removal of restrictions on our sector, we can now progress the breadth of exciting projects that will help support the growth and development of our members.

This work includes:

  • Research into the needs of the new workplace that will support businesses to improve the wellbeing of employees;
  • Partnering on major sector campaigns such as This Girl Can and National Fitness Day;
  • Progressing “Everyone Can” – the project currently examining fitness and leisure provision for disabled people;
  • The shared ambitions for “Digital Futures”, which will help improve the integration of digital strategies by fitness and leisure operators;
  • Progressing our partnership on the project “Play On”, which aims to encourage families to be active in local spaces, and strengthen the appeal and access to local gyms and leisure centres.
  • And progressing shared ambitions on the roll-out of social prescribing programmes across our sector.

These streams of work will be vital for our sector’s development as it matures over the coming months and years.

In addition to this, I am equally delighted by the growing partnership between ukactive, Sport England, and the LGA, on the important issue of the future of public leisure provision. This was evident in ukactive’s Decade of Change report which was published in July. It was also seen in the joint statement between ukactive and the LGA that outlined how the sector is working together.

This collaboration sets out a roadmap of measures required in order to ensure the successful survival, recovery and evolution of this essential service. I welcomed the maturity of the discussions taking place – especially in acknowledging the key role private operators play in improving the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of communities.

This work presents an exciting new opportunity to explore how public and private sector operators can complement one another. This will enable both parts of the sector to develop and grow their own unique propositions to communities. I believe this signals a maturity of leadership that provides a great platform for our sector going forward.

I also believe this style of leadership will inform our future relationship with our Government – the second element that will help deliver that shared ambition for growth. Like many sectors, our relationship with Government raised challenges over the past 18 months, as we all grappled with the enormity of the pandemic and the implications it held for us.

But in the heat of that challenge, some real positives emerged.

This Government now knows and understands more about our sector than at any moment in my tenure as ukactive Chair. This understanding covers not only how we operate, but the levers that impact our ability to operate.

This understanding has removed historic misconceptions of our services and our customers. And this understanding has crucially convinced Government of the size, scale, and influence of our members.

So the door is open for us as a sector with our engagement with Government, and probably more ajar than it was before the start of the pandemic. But to stay at this point, and be happy with where we are with our current relationship, would be a missed opportunity. And that’s where sharing our ambition for growth with the Government is what we must seek and achieve.

This message begins with real clarity and definition of what we’re talking about. It is an unquestionable fact that sport and physical activity enriches our nation, and improves the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of millions.

It has provided a much-needed boost to national morale this summer through the achievements at Euro 2020, the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and especially the incredible success of Emma Raducanu. This inspiration is important, and investment in those pathways and elite teams is equally important – and something I’ve personally benefited from.

My own passion for watching the Games is no secret, but I also recognise that it’s not for everybody, and even for those people it does inspire to be active, the effect can be short-lived. Far too often the debate on elite sport, inspiration, and population changes in activity have been conflated.

This conflation is to the detriment of everyone and means our sector has fallen short of playing its fullest role in society. Because it has created false hopes on matters such as “legacy” from major sporting moments.

It has also deflected important focus away from the parts of our sector that are the lead drivers of activity on a mass scale – with fitness and leisure being one of them, alongside walking, cycling, and running.

So, identifying and backing the major drivers of activity – especially across all Government departments – would have a transformative impact on the major issue of inactivity we face as a nation.

For example, backing the major drivers of activity could lead to a global event such as the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 having a greater legacy for activity than London 2012 ever had. This is something our Government has in its grasp.

Let us not squander this opportunity which would be transformative for our nation.

And as Chair of ukactive, I know that its members and partners, while still recovering from the pandemic, will want to be part of that ambition and play their fullest role. So, I want ukactive and its members to continue to grow this relationship with the Government.

I want to see us create a partnership that sees the Government use all the levers at its disposal to support the sector’s development and enable more people to be active. In practice, this would mean using not only capital investment, but reforms to tax and wider regulations. These changes would help accelerate both facility expansion and renewal. They would also remove financial barriers that restrict people from accessing sport, fitness and leisure.

We want to work with the Government and partners on a number of reforms and interventions. These include:

  • An overhaul of the business rates system that would be a huge catalyst for growth and expansion of sites across communities.
  • A reform of the V.A.T provision on physical activity that restricts access for people from low income backgrounds to be active.
  • Ensuring our sector is fully integrated into future incentive schemes that aim to encourage targeted groups to be active.
  • The reforms would also include implementing the Workout from Work scheme, which would see the extension of the Cycle to Work scheme to include gym memberships and equipment.
  • And Government must aid and facilitate long-term capital investment to future-proof facilities, enabling them to continue to provide essential services to communities, while saving councils money and reducing their carbon footprint. This is a major issue as we approach COP 26 in November, where ukactive will be speaking on behalf of our members.

So this is a shared ambition for growth. An ambition that marries sector development with sector support from Government. An ambition that sees a growing sense of responsibility from us, and a mutual responsibility with the Government and its agencies to stop our drifting decline in activity.

And the prize? As well as over five million new people using our facilities on a regular basis, we would:

  • Help the nation become more resilient to future threats of Covid-19 through improved health and wellbeing;
  • We would take immense pressure off the NHS and social care sector through supporting the prevention of avoidable illness that puts a huge strain on the institution, and in turn, help level-up health inequalities;
  • We would provide hundreds of millions of pounds in additional social value to the UK – through a healthier population, improved life satisfaction and wellbeing, improved educational attainment, reduced crime, and stronger communities;
  • We would play a key role in revitalising the high street and local towns through creating sustained footfall.

I want to be clear with you:

  • This is our contribution to the “levelling up” agenda.
  • This is our contribution to “Building Back Better”.
  • This is our contribution to “prevention being better than cure”.

It is now time for us and the Government to deliver this ambition, together. A partnership with the businesses and organisations which can transform our activity levels. This shared ambition for growth with our Government and its agencies will show, again, ukactive’s leadership role within the sector. It is a role I have witnessed throughout my association with ukactive, including my time as Chair.

It has stimulated the debate on the importance of physical activity with reports from Generation Inactive, to Blueprint for an Active Nation, to the Decade of Change.

It has produced pioneering research on solutions for increasing activity, for the youngest to the oldest in our society, and provided insight on our sector that helped navigate us through the challenges of Covid.

It has lobbied with passion and vigour with politicians of all parties on harnessing the power of the “miracle pill” that our members prescribe to millions on a daily basis.

It represents you with great pride, and with humility. Your support is never taken for granted. And I have no doubt that this sense of pride will be felt by my successor.

Next year a new Chair will take the reins and I will give them my fullest support in that transition, but I will miss the role, the team, and that day-to-day engagement with our partners and members.

That said, I am so excited about what the new Chair will inherit, which is an organisation determined to ensure this sector can play its fullest role in improving the health of our nation.

This engine room of activity in this country supports millions of people to be active each day, but can support millions more.

To that end, I will accelerate to the end of my tenure as I still have much I want to achieve in this final year. I have no doubt that your support, energy, passion, and positivity will help me throughout this final lap.

But needless to say, it’s been a huge honour representing ukactive and its fantastic members.

You will always have a champion in me during the next chapter of this wonderful organisation.

Thank you and enjoy the rest of Conference.