Rising in the east

As one of the most culturally vibrant places in Britain, Hackney has much to look forward to, particularly now that one particular story has been left behind. Jonathan Ives took the Number 38 to talk to Kim Wright about what culture means for an Olympic borough.

Kim Wright
Kim Wright, Hackney’s corporate director for community services

Built in the mid-1930s, Hackney Town Hall is, largely by virtue of its interior, a remarkable example of art deco architecture. Its survival is something of a happy accident, the unintended consequence of Hackney’s parlous finances during the 1970s and 80s when art deco interiors were being ‘refurbished’ out of existence. With no money to change it, the building stayed as it was, retaining all its original light fittings, panelling, flooring and doors, and becoming an architectural site worthy of English Heritage attention along the way.

If it is inconvenient for anyone with an office in the town hall, it does at last offer an alternative cultural conversational topic to the state of the borough’s new leisure centre. Clissold is open and the story is closed. Having dominated any mention of Hackney’s leisure services for the last five years, the borough’s recently reopened centre is welcoming visitors and everyone can find something else to talk about. However, having first met Kim Wright, Hackney’s corporate director for community services, when the centre opened last December, my first question has to be about progress to date. Does the long-running Clissold story have a happy ending? Kim’s enthusiastic smile suggests that it has.

“The reaction has been amazing in terms of footfall,” she says. “In the first six week we had just over 9,500 swims, 7,500 attendances for fitness and sports hall activities, 3,000 members, school swims running at 94% capacity, the toddlers’ pool running at capacity at weekends and holiday periods, and queues at reception!”

Queues have been tackled by additional receptionists and a concierge to answer questions and direct people to the appropriate desk. Swipe access for members has further eased the situation. A recruitment fair in January resulted in eighty applications for lifeguard and recreation assistant posts.

“These are nice problems to have,” Kim says. “We were predicting an annual throughput of 500,000 but those might have to be revised based just on the first few weeks. The problems we are getting now are around queues, lockers, changing rooms looking dirty because there are so many people using them; the kind of problems you get with a typical busy leisure centre. That notwithstanding, the overwhelming feedback has been fantastic. It is better than we ever remember it and I’ve not picked up any other dissatisfaction along the lines of ‘how much did this cost’. It’s as if there has been a line drawn under the past to look to the future, which looks amazing from what we’ve seen so far.”

Positive news provides a welcome contrast to the years of press coverage, both local and national, of the borough’s problems with Clissold and its other leisure facilities. Has the profile and status of leisure and culture in Hackney been affected?

“I think it has, yes,” Kim says. “If you look at the last MORI survey in 2006, we were at 35% satisfaction for sport and leisure, virtually at the bottom of the London league table. There are a number of reasons for that. One was Clissold: it has cast a long shadow for the last four years. The other was the fact that at the time of the survey we were doing major planned refurbishments at another one of our leisure centres. Another one of our facilities had been the subject of an arson attack, so for a period of time we had no swimming pool and that was before we reopened London Fields lido – which has also been hugely successful. So I have no doubt that Clissold has cast a shadow and we’ve got to now bridge that perception-reality gap. If you look at the figures now usage is up, satisfaction is up, subsidy is down. And in 2007 we got three leisure centres Quest accredited, with a further two going thorugh the process this year; back in 2005 we had none. The trend is definitely in the right direction so we are hopeful that when MORI come back in another year and half for the triennial satisfaction survey you’ll see a trajectory that reflect what is now happening on the ground.”

With the problems so visible and so widely reported, was there any feeling that leisure was being put under additional scrutiny or that the status of culture was under threat?

“No. It’s never been anything other than supportive but quite rightly there’s been scrutiny. There was a special scrutiny [process] just on Clissold about four years ago about what went wrong, the lessons learned, etc, and there is always attention paid some of those obvious indicators, such as satisfaction and usage at facilities. I think the lido is testament to just how much political support there has been to improving the leisure offer.

“Ten years ago we couldn’t have dreamed of reopening the lido; it was the basics that were being focused upon. But, as the council has moved to a position of financial – and political  – stability, we have now been able to do those aspirational projects that so-called ‘normal councils’ do as part of the day job. Another example is the improvements in parks: new lighting, new paths, upgrading the tennis courts. We wouldn’t have been able to countenance it a number years ago but there has been a whole programme of capital investment, not just in leisure centres but in parks and open spaces as well. And, of course, the lido.”

The London Fields lido is a good example the occasional benefits of unintended consequences. When Clissold remained steadfastly closed, the borough’s swimmers were left with few options. The Hackney cultural services team were exploring the possibilities of putting a temporary pool somewhere in the borough and the lido, long-closed to the public, was one suggestion. A feasibility study showed that a refurbishment of the open-air pool would cost not much more than a temporary facility so the commitment was made by the council to bring another of the borough’s examples of art deco architecture back into use. The result has been the rebirth of one of Hackney’s most popular leisure facilities and a number of awards.

Kim’s career journey to Hackney has provided plenty of experience of how leisure and culture is delivered within local government. After a degree in PE and sports science at Loughborough University, her first job was managing a private sector wet facility. A regional development post with the Badminton Association of England followed before moving to Spelthorne Council in Surrey as head of leisure services. From there she moved to Barnet as chief recreation officer and head of leisure and youth services, arriving at Hackney as director of community and leisure four years ago. Such a pathway allows Kim an informed perspective on the workings of local government funding and how leisure operates within it.

“Our medium-term financial plan, particularly on the capital side, which is often the area that gets hit first, still shows a sustained investment, albeit in the context of overall reduced resources. However, we’re still investing in multi-use games areas, artificial turf pitches, improvements at Hackney Marshes on the back of the Games; so that is certainly not showing any sign of reductions and the budget round that we are just about to sign off for 08/09 hasn’t resulted in any cuts to front-line services. This is partly because the council has a very strong financial base and partly because of the efficiencies that all councils have to find. Those efficiencies are being ploughed back into front-line services.”

Given that we are sitting in Hackney town hall, London 2012 looms large; if the Olympic elephant is not actually in the room, it only has a short walk down Mare Street to get here.

“The Olympics and Paralympics is going to have an enormous impact, not just on sport and leisure but across the whole landscape. In some respects it will accelerate the pace of things that were going to happen anyway – transport and economic regeneration initiatives – and in others it will have a new impact. The media centre is the obvious one: the size of canary wharf on its side and it’s going to be there at the top end of the borough. It is crucial to us to be involved now and we are involved to ensure that the legacy use means that there are going to be employment opportunities for Hackney residents before, during and after the Games. There’s a whole new community that is going to be created in that Hackney Wick area so that brings a whole host of opportunities for infrastructure improvements. Volunteering is another area where we are already involved with the pre-volunteering programme with the GLA [Greater London Authority]. I think we have the highest number of graduates from that of all of the boroughs.

“Then we’ve got the Marshes, the spiritual home of grass-roots football. A small area of it will be out of use for two seasons as a coach park but we are already developing a scheme with the Football Foundation and the FA to put a new community facility and enhanced changing rooms on there. That will be open and ready before the Games so that will have a big impact. What we want to do as part of that is change the usage pattern at the Marshes. Primarily on Saturday and Sunday it’s fully booked with white, middle-class men playing weekend football. We want to make sure that there is seven-day-a-week use from all walks of life, all sections of the community, with not just football but hockey, rugby and particularly sports for people with a disability on offer there. The hub that we’re developing with the Football Foundation will help provide the anchor.

The mayor has been very clear that from the Games he wants jobs, transport, reputation and image improved, and a legacy left behind for Hackney residents that is better bigger and brighter than would have been the case if the Games hadn’t been here. We’ve always been very clear about putting those interests first.”

In modern local government the interests of leisure and culture are much harder to define. Is the cross-over between culture, health and education becoming more apparent?

“It’s more apparent now than at any time I can remember,” Kim says, “and, from what I can see, the edges are only going to get more blurred around health, culture and leisure. We’ve just appointed a joint director of public health who reports into me and a joint head of healthy communities who has joint reporting line to the director of public health and our assistant director for culture, so that post is very much about completely blurring those health and culture boundaries. They are going to be charged with ensuring that the communities most at risk and suffering from health inequalities are going to have targeted interventions and work to lift the whole well-being.”

Does that represent a success for the arguments in favour of leisure and culture at the heart of local government services or is there a risk that leisure and culture might be blurred out of existence?

“I think good and effective culture and leisure will always maintain its own identity, not least because it’s easily understood by people – they understand what a park does, what a leisure centre does – but I think there is a case to be made for embedding it even more within the agendas of social care, children’s services, health. I don’t think it’s any accident that Sport England’s physical activity agenda has now been passed to the Department of Health. The analogy I draw with my role here is that when adult social services and leisure were conjoined within the community services directorate it wasn’t a takeover of leisure by social services, nor was it a merger of social services and leisure. It was a whole new being that was created. I think if you look at it in that way you have the opportunity to say, ‘If it’s a new, blank sheet of paper, what can we do best to ensure that we are delivering our shared objectives?’”

Given this corporate co-operation, does leisure and culture still have to make a case for its own existence?

“Yes, I think we do and I think it’s right that we should. I would never want to get to a position of complacency where we think we don’t need to try any more. I would always want to ensure that we started with the end in mind and knew what the outcomes were and knew how we were going to measure them and knew the value of the intervention that we had made. It’s just good practice.”

Hackney has moved on from Clissold but the best is yet to come. Never mind the impact of the Olympic Games, Hackney is now on the Tube map.

“Now that is a real achievement!” says Kim, laughing. “For years the corporate Christmas card has been ‘All I want for Christmas is the Tube in Hackney’ and this year we were able to say ‘Thank you for our present’!


Jonathan Ives is the editor of The Leisure Review

The Leisure Review, April 2008


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