A Scottish perspective of leisure Down Under

Two staff from Edinburgh Leisure visited Australia and New Zealand in August this year to discover what is happening in sport and leisure in the southern hemisphere. They spoke to The Leisure Review about what they found

Aquarec, Melbourne
Standing tall down under: (from left to right) Keith Jackson; James Merlino, minister for sport and recreation, Victoria state government; Fiona Wernham; and Andrew Whittaker, chief executive of Aquatics and Recreation Victoria

Keith Jackson, Edinburgh Leisure’s chief executive, and Fiona Wernham, head of sports and service development, spent two weeks with Australian and New Zealand leisure professionals, undertaking a series of visits to sports and leisure facilities. Keith spent his first week in New Zealand and although most of his time was spent making presentations on trusts in both the north and south islands he did get the opportunity to visit several venues along with meeting leisure colleagues at the National Recreation Conference in Wellington.

“What struck me the most was the remarkable number of similarities in the issues they are facing,” Keith said. “Their participation numbers per head of population are better than in the UK but the trend is moving closer to ours and other western cultures. Obesity is becoming an issue as is the increasing interest in non-physically active pastimes in young people, reflected in a decrease in team sports participation.

“Investment in ageing facilities is insufficiently funded and new ways of becoming more efficient are being explored, including out-sourcing to trusts or their New Zealand equivalents. New Zealand does punch above its weight with regards to international sporting success and it was interesting to note that this may in part be due to a significant focus on a very small number of sports. I believe the number receiving financial support is as low as eight and beyond these any financial input has to come from within the sports themselves. Like the UK, they are having difficulty recruiting and retaining coaches and there is a national scheme being established to help address this, which Edinburgh Leisure is reviewing to see if it can be applied in Edinburgh.”

Keith believes the major difference is cultural and is in no doubt that there is a more positive attitude towards sport and physical activity in general. Even facilities which by UK standards would be considered below par were very well used. There is, however, much less competition from the private sector to public sector provision.

Fiona spent the full two weeks in Melbourne, visiting many community facilities and large sporting venues as well as spending time with officials from city councils, universities and the state government. With Keith, Fiona made several presentations on trusts and the free swimming movement in Edinburgh and nationally.

Fiona noticed that while the roles and responsibilities for developing and delivering sport were different, the issues and challenges remained the same: obesity, inactivity, funding and partnership challenges. The club structures were particularly strong and well resourced in many parts of Victoria which led to many strong, vibrant, community clubs delivering in great facilities.

With her background in sports development, Fiona was also interested in the role of facilities in leading sports development.

“The model is different,” Fiona said. “In Scotland city councils and leisure trusts play a significant role in driving and in some cases leading the sports development agenda, delivering programmes from grass-roots to club levels across a vast number of sports. What interested me was the role of clubs in this process as well as the access to facilities designed and equipped for specific sports, such as the basketball hall I visited in Hume City Council [Melbourne] and the sports-specific halls allocated to state sporting organisations at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatics Centre. It did make me think about the role our clubs in the development pathways and their access to facilities, which over here are nearly all multi-purpose.’’

Also of interest was the focus of organisations like VicHealth to drive the health agenda through physical activity, an area Edinburgh Leisure is looking to strengthen.

“What was refreshing was that there is an organisation established specifically to develop health and physical activity programmes through funding local programmes, similar goals to that of the state government and very effective.  We were provided with really good information on both state-led and VicHealth initiatives, which we will certainly use as good practice back home.”

Among her other responsibilities, Fiona manages and develops the learn-to-swim programme in Edinburgh, an area that was particularly impressive in all the public pools in Melbourne. “Being able to visit so many pools with such extensive learn-to-swim programmes was great.  In-the-water teaching was of particular interest, as well as the development programme linked to clubs. What was also evident was that learning to swim was a given; people want and need to do it as a life skill. Back home that is not the case so we have to work really hard to get people into the pools and to stay in them.”

Both Keith and Fiona are of the view that there are three strategic issues that they wish to explore further following their visits: the approach to physical activity and the health agenda; volunteer coaching and the increasing challenge of finding and developing good coaches; and finally the accessing of private funding to invest into public facilities. The culture and attitude to funding may be different in Australia but a serious consideration of their approach is required.


Edinburgh Leisure is a charitable trust managing sports and leisure facilities and services in Edinburgh. For further details visit www.edinburghleisure.co.uk

An account of a reciprocal trip to the UK was featured in issue one of The Leisure Review. Visit the 'features' section to find this and other articles from previous issues ofTLR.



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