Edition number 33; dateline 1 November 2011
Trusting to the future and the past
You will all be pleased to know that the tub (and not just this column) is back, full of lovely warm water and ready for me to lie back among the bubbles and reflect on the world of sport, leisure and culture. My reflections have drifted towards trusts, charitable and otherwise, recently as they appear to becoming, as our beloved prime minister promised, more and more prominent in the murky view of the future.
As a trustee of a charitable trust which has health, sport and education at its heart, I am familiar with the concept and perhaps a little biased in my views. However, I am not invariably pro trusts.
What are they? Any company can call itself a trust. The Middle of Nowhere Trust could well be an organisation wanting to sell you insurance for its own profit or it could be an organisation established by the good people of the Middle of Nowhere to deliver community activities. So the first lesson in the world of trusts: do not judge the organisation purely by the name on its cover.
Those from the heritage sector have a long association with trusts. Many of the artefacts and properties which make up our national heritage are owned by family trusts or indeed the National Trust. These trusts were, and still are, often set up for tax purposes and to ensure that our valuable history is not sold off to private collectors in far flung parts of the planet. If you look up the meaning of trusts, this is the model that you will find described in most detail.
In leisure they have a very different experience of trusts as the ones they are familiar with were – and excuse the simplicity of this next statement as I know there was more to it than I am saying – set up in order for local authorities to take full advantage of tax breaks, rate relief and their exemption from value added tax (VAT). It appeared to the general population (and most of the staff) that these trusts were merely the old leisure departments reincarnated with a slightly different legal structure and more money in the head man’s pay packet.
These leisure trusts have now morphed into much bigger businesses than their original concept or they have collapsed and are now costing their original authorities lots more money. The concept of trusts was sold to councillors on the basis that they would have more flexibility, be closer to the community than the public services and save them money. However, I am not sure that this has been the case. The senior management in local authorities saw trusts as a way of distancing their service from the vagaries of local authority budget cuts – “If we aren’t one of their departments they can’t get rid of us” – and a way of reducing the red tape often imposed by being part of a council. Neither of these have proved to be entirely true, as the council can still cut its leisure budget, on which the majority of these trusts depend, and the contracts drawn up to guide the new trust on how to run the facilities are just as, if not more, onerous than the original local authority rules. I expect that the good members of Sporta will leap to defend leisure trusts and I am sure there are many successes. But even Sporta can not dispel the scepticism which suggests that using a trust is little more than a smoke-and-mirrors way of making the running of local authority leisure facilities look like a stand-alone business whether this is true or otherwise.
It would seem then that leisure folk who deal with facilities have already gone through a considerable learning curve and perhaps the rest of leisure should now be looking to these experiences before they take too many steps forward. In a climate of ongoing spending cuts I begin to sense the desire for development teams (in county sport partnerships, in former schools sport partnerships, and across sports, arts, heritage and health units) and education establishments to create at very least a trading company to run alongside their work or going the whole hog and creating a trust in order to keep their service running.
I am also seeing private individuals establishing social enterprises to deliver coaching programmes because this model looks better than an outright, profit-making business. I have absolutely no doubt that for some of these organisations this will be the correct decision but I worry a little about the potential for knee-jerk reactions and the development world then being overrun by competing trusts all vying for the same business. No longer will people sit down together to develop the best for the area; instead they will be looking for high-profit contracts in order to keep a roof over their heads. At best we will see a reduction in partnership working and at worst the most difficult projects will be rejected as they will cost too much money to service.
In addition, this might also damage the private sector, as many of these trusts will be established with support from their parent organisation and therefore have both the moral high ground – “We are a social enterprise and not in for the money, don’t you know” – and, at least initially, larger resources to get the business off the ground.
You may struggle, dear reader, to feel sad at the demise of the private sector but surely a positive environment in which the public and third sectors work alongside the private sector where all have something to bring to the party is best for the user and the community.
I may have tinged the trust argument with doom and gloom. Genuine trusts, social enterprises and charities can bring a huge amount to the future delivery of leisure activities in all of their manifestations. If the organisation has community development at its heart they can be a very flexible body through which to drive work forward. They inflate and deflate depending on what projects they are delivering, they don’t have the same red tape (mostly), they don’t run on fresh air but they are usually competitive.
So what am I leading up to? Only this. Let’s use trusts effectively and usefully as part of the overall package but remember that all the work and models that have been used in the past are not all bad. We are always being driven towards being more innovative. Instead of dreaming up weird new projects to serve the desires of our political masters, perhaps the innovation needs to be in how we all work together, using all of the different business and organisational models creatively. Trusts and the third sector are a really important part of our future but please think carefully before creating another organisation. Is there already one out there that can do the job that we need? I bet there is.
Kay Adkins is an executive board member of a county sport partnership, chair of a CSN and a member of the interim board of the National Skills Academy for Sport and Active Leisure. Kay is also managing director of KAM Ltd, which offers a range of support services in the sport and leisure industry working in volunteer/workforce development and facility development.
To find Tales from a Tub in previous issues please visit the Comment page.
Tales from a tub
the last word in contemplative comment on the leisure industry
Kay Adkins, hot tub correspondent