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Case Studies

Plymouth City Council

Plymouth Life Centre


A new leisure facility in Central Park has been a strategic and political ambition of Plymouth City Council (PCC) for some time. An Audit Commission inspection highlighted the need for urgent investment stating that the Council's leisure service and leisure facilities were ‘poor’ with ‘uncertain prospects for improvement’.

Therefore, PCC's overarching strategy has been to address the issues around the two existing leisure facilities located in the park, Central Park Pools and the Mayflower Centre. Both facilities are now over 35 years old respectively and in need of significant investment just to maintain a basic level of service.

The Council developed a vision for the new Plymouth Life Centre (PLC) which was ‘to create an outstanding venue of regional significance for sport, recreation and leisure, and to strengthen Central Park’s position as the city’s premier park for all residents and visitors to enjoy.’ This vision for the Plymouth Life Centre was fully supported by all the political parties and PCC partners. To progress this vision, PCC decided in July 2005, in partnership with the University of Plymouth, the College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth Argyle Football Club, Plymouth Sports Forum and the Primary Care Trust appointed external consultants to develop an ‘Outline Business Case’ for the Plymouth Park Life Centre located in the Central Park in Plymouth.

From this business case PCC committed to the project the necessary funds and sought contributions from various Nationals Governing Bodies (e.g. British Swimming, Sport England, England Netball) in order to deliver the facility.

Facility Mix

Capital Investment

The estimated capital funding for this project was circa £46.5m. Of this total Plymouth University contributed £2.5 million and Sport England supported the scheme with a grant of £1.99 million through its Sustainable Facilities Fund. A number of NGB's also contributed; England Netball invested £200,000 and the Amateur Swimming Association awarded £40,000 to support water polo at the centre. Agreements have also been signed with English Squash and Racketball and the English Table Tennis Association to promote and develop these sports in the City. The Council funded the balance from reserves and where appropriate Prudential Borrowing.

The Council realised that in the current and recent economic that the only way to realise their vision was to commit to the development of the facility and not to rely on other diminishing funding sources.

Procurement Options

PCC decided at an early stage to separate the procurement the construction of the facility and the procurement of an operator to manage the Plymouth Life centre. There are a number of factors that went into the ultimate decision e.g.

By appointing the architect, project managers and construction company the Council could have more control of the outcomes.

The Council had a clear strategy and idea of the facility mix therefore the need to use the market to determine these was not necessary i.e. Design, Build, Fund and operate (DBFO) or Design, Build Operate and Maintain (DBOM).

The Council was funding the entire project.

As identified previously, Balfour Beatty were appointed to construct the facility designed by Archial Architects.

Our Approach

The Council had a strategy in terms of the procurement processes to be pursued for both the construction and operator contracts. For the operation of the Plymouth Life Centre the Council decided that as a result of the outline business case, that the new facility should be managed by an external operator primarily to access NNDR and possibly VAT benefits available to certain operators. The contract and procurement process also included all council leisure facilities.

This was important as there was a need to secure a long-term sustainable solution to the revenue aspects of the project.

To achieve this, the Council decided that due to the importance of the new facility that the most appropriate route for the procurement of a new operator would be via the Competitive Dialogue Procedure (CDP). This process would allow for dialogue with the potential operators to fine tune the operation and would ensure that the successful operator would completely understand the Council's vision for the service.

The process was long and resource hungry with the Council appointing specialist consultants (Strategic Leisure) and external legal advisers to assist them with the process. A number of stages were identified and after the selection of a shortlist of operators, dialogue meetings were had with each shortlisted company over a number of months in order to fine tune their solution for service delivery. Each stage was evaluated against set criteria and the shortlist reduced at each stage.

The selection of the preferred bidder was as a result of Final Tenders being received from two bidders SERCO Leisure and SLM. SLM were selected as the preferred bidder for a ten-year contract to manage the Plymouth Life Centre.

The process from the original decision in 2005 to completion of the build and handover to the new external operator will have taken nearly 7 years. Whilst this seems a long time, consideration need to be given to the development of initial feasibility, coordination of all stakeholders, the development of the outline business case and facility strategy, the twin tracked procurement process (Build and Operator), the complexity of the largest leisure centre build outside the Olympic site and that because all facilities (except those that closed as part of the new facility development) will transfer to the new operator.

Because all facilities were to transfer this had its own complexities as it meant the coordination of the transfer of staff from 4 organisations into one new organisation, three leisure trusts and PCC's leisure staff.

The operator procurement process, due to the use of CDP, took longer than anticipated as each stage had to be developed, evaluated and refined. The overall process from advert to award took approximately 24 months i.e. from April 2009 to April 2011.

Lessons Learnt

This was a complex and time-consuming project. The Council was very thorough in their approach and issues such as policy and document development took some time to refine.

The CDP is not one welcomed by the leisure market. It has its place in complex projects where the local authority does not have a clear strategy or vision for what they want. In circumstances where the local authority has a clear strategy and separates out the operator form the build contract, then the use of the CDP is unnecessary and cumbersome if the aspiration is to have an all-encompassing project including the design, build possibly funding and operation of the facility then there are arguments for the CDP to be used as a council may have limited internal resources.

In Plymouth where the procurement of an operator was separate from the build contract, the Council will admit that the CDP was probably not the process they should have used, however it has produced a result which was within the Council's affordability level and with a leading leisure operator.

The Plymouth Life Centre represents Plymouth’s biggest ever investment in leisure facilities. As identified above a key consideration in developing the PLC was to replace the two existing facilities in Central Park. In principle this meant a replacement for the swimming, diving, health and fitness and indoor bowls facilities. These elements were used as a starting base for developing the current facility mix.

The Council also commissioned the Plymouth Sports Facility Strategy in late summer of 2008 and this identified a detailed needs analysis of the Plymouth area taking into account all leisure provision and the local demographics. This strategy included extensive consultation with local groups, clubs, national and regional governing bodies.

The strategy identified confirmed the political and local view that Plymouth has a wide range of facilities that vary on standard, ownership and management, with much of the stock ageing. Within the strategy the development of the Plymouth Leisure Centre was identified as a major priority for capital development. The strategy also enabled the Council to establish their preferred facility mix for the Plymouth Life Centre; the final mix is below:

  • 25.5m x 15.5m x 5.625m deep diving pool with movable floor – designed to FINA standards with spring boards, diving platforms, integral hydraulic disabled access, plus spectator seating
  • 50m x 25m x 2m competition pool, with two independent moveable floors and two submersible booms, integral hydraulic disabled access, plus spectator seating.
  • A leisure water area, with beach entry, bubble pool and two water flumes. The leisure water is also suitable for use as a learner pool
  • 12 court badminton hall (59.85 m x 36.6m x 9m) – suitable for a range of indoor sports – with high level fixed spectator seating
  • An 8 lane indoor bowls centre with ancillary social area 37.72m x 36.5m x 3.8m
  • A climbing zone and aerial assault course
  • Dry diving training room
  • A multi-purpose/ crèche/ studio area
  • Two ASB squash courts
  • 120 plus station fitness suite, including health suite
  • Entrance foyer / reception with café and ancillary facilities
  • Grounds as per red line plan and Car Park for 350 cars including 28 accessible /disability spaces
  • Meeting Room

After a Tendering exercise PCC appointed Balfour Beatty as the build contractor. Work commenced on the Plymouth Life Centre in February 2010 and was completed by September of 2011. However, the estimate is now for a March 2012 opening. Balfour Beatty is one of the world’s largest construction companies. They have been involved in a number of sports and leisure projects including Olympic standard facilities, including the London Aquatic Centre, Sunderland Aquatic and Wellness Centre and the National Swimming Academy in Stirling.

As can be seen from the facility mix above the Centre is a large wet and dry sports and leisure complex and will address many of the city’s recreational needs, by providing a readily accessible range of indoor sports facilities under one roof.

It replaced the Mayflower Leisure Centre and Central Park Pools which are located in Central Park, and the leisure water at Plymouth Pavilions. The Mayflower Leisure Centre, Central Park Pools and the Leisure Water at Plymouth Pavilions will close following the opening of the Plymouth Life Centre.