The Freedom Leisure story | 2002 to date

Our Managing Director - Ivan Horsfall Turner tells the story of Freedom Leisure, where we've come from and where we're going;

In 1995 as a relatively young leisure professional working for a rural district Council in East Sussex (Wealden) I went on a seminar put on by the first of a new wave of leisure trusts.  The trust had come into being as a solution to prevent leisure centre closures.  The seminar struck a chord with me and I returned to my role convinced that setting up a charitable leisure trust which could better balance social and community needs with a commercial focus was a better option than a direct “in house” operation.

After convincing my direct colleagues of this we then set about trying to convince the management team of the Council - both senior officers and councilors.  It took 7 years and the irony of us naming the new charity “Freedom Leisure” may well have been lost on some!

Freedom Leisure has made up 25 years of my working life. I am immensely proud of what we have achieved since 2002. We have grown from operating 4 leisure centres to our position after 18 years of operating 102 leisure centres plus a theatre and heritage facilities right across England and Wales. We now stand as the 4th largest operator of community leisure facilities in the UK.

Ivan Horsfall Turner

Despite our growth our service delivery we hope is bespoke and local.  We do not expect our service delivery to be the same across the country.  We operate on behalf of over 20 local authorities and their expectations and indeed the local challenges and demographics are all different and unique. 

Whilst the specific programmes and facilities will differ one thing that we aim to achieve everywhere is a real sense of community within our facilities and our fabulous staff team are absolutely crucial to this. 

As a charitable leisure trust all surpluses we generate are re-invested into our services and facilities and we believe that this is important to our staff, to our local authority partners and indeed to you our customers. 

...and then there was covid 19!

During early March the emergence of the Covid 19 pandemic in the UK began to have an impact on participation numbers and income as the governments’ messages in respect of “social distancing” became clearer. 

These dwindling attendances carried on until Friday 20th March when we were told that leisure centres must shut that day.  Our staff teams worked incredibly hard to close down our facilities during the evening and leave them in a “mothballed” state ready to be brought back into use when allowed.

Overnight financially we went from a business that across our 102 sites generated a monthly income of £8m to a business that generated no income whatsoever.  Whilst our cost base is currently reduced with most of our staff team on furlough, and other costs are reduced, whilst we are shut there is no doubt that we are running up substantial losses.  These losses are mitigated in part through support from our local authority partners for their services and facilities but despite this we are clearly having to rely heavily on our reserves that have built up through 18 years of solid financial management.

the future

It is difficult for us to plan with any certainty at what point we will be allowed to open and indeed to know what operational restrictions will be necessary when we do to maintain adequate levels of social distancing. 

We are all keen to be able to open our facilities as soon as we are able but I am sure you can appreciate that given the financial challenges we are currently facing the provision of services will have to be in line with demand and indeed local authority support in order to add to viability and not place further pressure upon us.

Obviously as demand increases we will be able to progressively return to our previous programmes and levels of employment.

Stay safe and stay active!

Ivan Horsfall Turner - Managing Director - Freedom Leisure