Moving up: sport, culture and the improvement agenda

With details of the recently published local area agreements (LAA) widely interpreted as good news for sport and culture in local government, The Leisure Review talks to Martyn Allison about the leisure sector’s progress in pursuit of continuous improvement

Martyn Allison

Towards the end of 2007 The Leisure Review spoke to Martyn Allison about the extent to which the local government sport and culture sector had been able to respond to the challenges of the improvement agenda [see TLR December 2007]. Martyn had spoken enthusiastically of the development of the Towards an Excellent Service (TAES) improvement tool and the way in which leisure professionals had adopted it but he had also offered stark warnings about the fate of leisure services within local government if the improvement message did not get through. Eight months on, and only a few weeks after the publication of the details of local area agreements (LAA), we met again to see what has happened to sport and culture in the interim.

The LAA process has been the dominant theme of Martyn’s work at the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) since we last met. With 150 new LAA agreements now signed off between local government and central government, local authorities had for the first time been able to select up 35 improvement targets that reflect local priorities to include within their own LAA. The question for the leisure sector was how many would be relevant to sport and culture. From this perspective the results were positive, with 61% of LAAs including the sport and physical activity indicator, which put sport and physical activity in the top twenty improvement targets across all LAAs. The arts were included in 25% of LAAs and positive activities for children and young people, where leisure services make a leading contribution, were included in 56%. Volunteering, another area of strong leisure input, was in 37%. However, the numbers for libraries (12%) and museums (3%) represented a disappointment.

Martyn acknowledged this may be a set back for museums and libraries but he stressed that the overall figures provide an exciting story of how sport and cultural services have been able to position themselves as contributing to local priorities within the new arrangements. December will see the publication for the first time of national data on participation rates in the arts, museums and the use of libraries for all local areas, mirroring the information provided for sport and physical activity in Active People. Martyn noted that there may be some interesting challenges for the sector when the national picture is revealed.

“Not every LAA has included one of the culture and sport indicators but I suspect we will find the sector contributing to other improvement targets, for example community cohesion, independent living for older people and positive outcomes for children,” he said. “It may well be something of an iceberg with a visible contribution  sticking above the waterline that we can see and measure but another huge contribution from the sector that we are not currently seeing. It’s a really positive story now but I suspect that there is an even better story sitting underneath.

“That’s the big success of the last six months. The frustrations have been all the reviews that have been going on in the sector – we’ve had the review of Sport England, Arts Council England, the MLA [Museums, Libraries and Archives Council] and we’ve had the Hodge Review – but all those are now being completed or becoming clear. We’re clear now where Sport England is going: there’s a new focus around national governing bodies but there is still that commitment to support local government around the LAAs, and of course the county sports partnerships will play a key role in bridging the relationship between sports clubs and the national bodies, local councils and the LAA. The Arts Council are really investing now to support the delivery of LAAs, and, while there’s concern regarding the reduction of the regional footprint of the MLA, it’s quite clear that they are very focused on the support they can give to local government, which they see as their key stakeholder.”

Although some within the culture sector have expressed disappointment that the Hodge Review, announced in July, has recommended the removal of the regional cultural consortia, others are looking to the benefits of having cultural agencies working more collaboratively across the regions to support local government.

The introduction of the comprehensive area assessment (CAA), currently out for final consultation, will replace the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) next year and will place a new emphasis on how local communities are being served.

Martyn argued that while the CAA will present culture and sport with the opportunity to demonstrate its contribution it will also place a bigger emphasis on self-assessment, self-evaluation and continuous improvement. “The devolution of improvement resources to the regional improvement and efficiency partnerships – the RIEPs –  will mean that the national drive has given way to the local and the regional,” he explained. “The culture and sport improvement networks now forming in most regions will enable the sector to work in these new arrangements and address our improvement priorities.”

After the launch of the cultural improvement national strategy document, A Passion for Excellence, in March, a series of regional events promoting the strategy and the improvement agenda have taken place. Over 350 people involved in the delivery of sport and cultural services have attended, representing 44% of all local authorities.

“People are now beginning to realise that what we have been preparing for is becoming a reality,” Martyn said. “The messages about self-assessment and our new self-improvement tool, about becoming peers and working in improvement networks, about sharing good practice and all the things we’ve been talking about for the last few years: I hope people can now see that they are very much part of a new regime and that the sector is now ready and has a real opportunity to show what it can achieve”

Offering the analogy of a team promoted to the Premier League from the Championship, he explained that the sport and culture sector now has to face the harsh realities of being invited to play at the top level. Too many teams have gone up to discover that they have neither the capacity nor the capability to stay there.

“Can we as a sector deliver in the next three years what we said we could deliver? Can we increase participation? Can we provide evidence that we’ve made a difference to health, children, adults and older people’s lives, and that we’ve changed people’s satisfaction with where they live? We’ve moved from a scenario where we’ve told people what we can do to a scenario where we now have to prove that we can actually do it. In three years time we’ll go into a new spending round at a local and a national level either being able to say, ‘Yes, we have done it and we’ve made a difference’, or ‘Sorry. You gave us a chance and we’ve failed.’ I think it’s a very telling moment in terms of all the work we’ve done over the last three years. Building the infrastructure, building the tools, creating the cohesion around the sector, getting the collaboration: it has all been for this moment. Can we deliver?”

“The message is that there is nowhere to hide,” Martyn said. “We’re now dealing with independently measured data so we can’t just say, ‘We think we have.’ People are going to have to be comfortable and confident about measuring and tracking their own performance and providing the evidence of the difference we have made. The sector has had a weakness about performance measurement for many years – which is the reason we developed TAES and the new single improvement tool – but now we will be put to the test for the first time to see whether those improvements have actually happened. If we don’t manage and improve performance we certainly won’t deliver against those targets.

“If we haven’t learned from self-assessment about how good we are as an organisation, how good we are at people management, how good we are at community engagement, how good our leadership is; if we haven’t done a self-assessment yet and we don’t know where we are against best practice; if we don’t know how we’re going to improve this organisation, my advice is we had better be finding out the answers pretty damn quick.”


Details of the work of the IDeA can be found online at

The document A Passion for Excellence: An Improvement Strategy for Culture and Sport is available to download at the Local Government Association website. A review of the document was featured in the April issue of TLR.

The original TLR interview with Martyn Allison can be found in the December issue of The Leisure Review via the ‘features’ page.

 Details of the Hodge Review were announced in July and can be found on the DCMS website.


The Leisure Review, September 2008

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“People are now beginning to realise that what we have been preparing for is becoming a reality”

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