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Volair “doing a good job”, independent review confirms

by Emily Maguire

Council has tonight received an update on Volair and a review that was carried out by Strategic Leisure Limited into the current operation of the company.

Volair, which is 100% owned by the Council, was established in 2016 and the company manages the five centres across the Borough – Knowsley Leisure and Culture Park, Prescot Soccer Centre, Volair Kirkby, Volair Halewood and Volair Stockbridge Village.

Like every local government leisure operation, Volair was badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of Government support, the Council stepped in to ensure that leisure facilities in the Borough remained available for residents and members. More recently, the sector has been challenged by rising energy prices and the cost of living crisis.

In November 2021, the Council commissioned Strategic Leisure Limited to review the current operation of Volair and identify areas for improvement and future opportunities to be explored. Overall, the Strategic Leisure report dated July 2022 concludes that:-

“Volair is doing a good job primarily in delivering a leisure operation and services which have a positive impact on borough communities. Both Knowsley Council and Volair should be very proud of what Volair has achieved to date, and celebrate its success in investing in facilities, increasing participation in physical activity and particularly growing fitness membership since Volair was established, and the introduction of health and wellbeing programmes which are beginning to impact on those who will most benefit.”

The review did identify areas for improvement and work to progress these recommendations is already well underway. This includes:-

  • Communication – clear understanding on the remit of Volair and the expectations of the Council around core business and outcome.

In response, a revised Management Agreement for 2024 to 2027 is being developed, clearly setting out requirements, responsibilities, outcomes, social value priorities. Regular meetings and updates are shared between Volair and the Council as well as better engagement with community networks. In addition, Volair’s online presence is being reviewed and strengthened.

  • Governance – a review of governance is required including the strategic role of the Board.

In response, a revised Management Agreement is being developed as outlined above, training for Board members is underway and two Non-Executive Director positions are included in the Board’s structure.

  • Capacity and capability – review the structure and capacity at Volair to ensure it can deliver health and wellbeing outcomes.

In response, a new Managing Director, Darren Simpkin, has been in post since March 2023 and a commercial lead role has been developed to support existing health programme management.

  • Financial – due to the effects of COVID and the pay award, the original Business Plan needs to be reviewed and refreshed looking at the next five year period.

In response the development of the Management Agreement will include a re-base of the Business Plan and expected financial position over the medium-term taking into account energy price increases and the impact of the cost of living crisis on service users. The Management Agreement and revised Business Plan are due to be considered at Council in February 2024.

The Council is also working with Volair on the impact of implementing the Living Wage Foundation’s Living Wage will be addressed. Since the established of Volair, the Council has underwritten the financial impact of this pay policy.

In addition, the ‘Passport to Leisure’ Scheme, which offers discounted memberships to a range of people including foster carers, over 60s and those in receipt of certain benefits, will also be reviewed. The Council had been funding the deficit from this scheme until Volair achieved an operating profit, with Volair expecting to manage the full impact of these concessions from 2027/28 onwards.

Whilst many organisations have increased membership fees in order to manage rising energy costs, Volair hasn’t and in these exceptional circumstances, it has been supported by the Council to ensure that centres did not close and residents can still access health and wellbeing facilities in the Borough. The Management Agreement will clearly define what ‘exceptional circumstances’ are and where additional funding would be provided.

Property maintenance costs have been equally picked up by the Council and Volair. Moving forward, it is expected that Volair would pick up the costs for minor maintenance works, with the Council picking up major or planned maintenance works. The Council will commission full condition surveys of each building over a five year rolling cycle.

  • Operation – a review of how outcomes can be delivered is recommended, with a focus on who takes part in activities and how this can positively impact on their health.

In response integration of health and wellbeing outcomes will be embedded in programmes.

  • Social value – maximising the community assets to achieve health and wellbeing objectives, such as encouraging residents to join activities to address social isolation and improve their mental health.

In response Volair is involved in developing a sports development and a physical activity strategy and are represented on the Knowsley Health and Wellbeing Board as well as a range of community groups in order to identify needs and ensure future activities s are aligned to needs.

The review concluded that Volair was a sound business that was operating well within the leisure sector, but it was now an opportunity to redefine the business, governance, vision and operation to address the recommendations.