"Associative democracy" and leisure services asset transfer

It's always a pleasure to highlight the amazing breadth of the work CIMSPA members do across the sector, and today we're signposting some work which steps back from the bustle of sport and activity management to examine the wider impact of the pace of change in our industry.

Two of our members – Geoff Nichols and Gordon MacFadyen, working with colleagues in academia, have recently had a research paper published in the Administrative Sciences journal. Geoff has kindly written an overview of the thesis, with links at the end to the whole article.

Is the asset transfer of public leisure facilities in England an example of associative democracy?

This paper uses examples of public sports facilities and libraries which have been transferred to volunteer management; termed ‘asset transfer’; to consider if this potentially represents a change in the way the public think about these services and the way they should be provided.

The theoretical idea is ‘associationalism’. This means individuals grouping together to attain a shared purpose or express a shared set of values. It is like a sports club led by volunteers; in that they share an interest in a particular sport, collectively want to provide a way of playing it, and want to promote it.

Volunteering is developmental for the volunteers and enriches the communities they are providing services for. The idea was politically popular just after the Second World War and has a lot in common with David Cameron’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ in which citizens were urged to take more responsibility as the state shrunk. We use criticisms of the lack of progress towards a Big Society to identify limitations in asset transfer.

The catalyst for asset transfer was a desire to reconcile reductions in local authority budgets with keeping facilities open, often in response to local pressure groups. Case studies of eight facilities (some of which are described on the CIMSPA website) show that asset transfer required a set of volunteers with particular skills. Volunteers also needed confidence that they could take on managing an unfamiliar facility. An awareness of local politics or the support of politicians was very helpful; as was help from volunteer support agencies, where it was available. Volunteers were local – with the exception of one facility which had a wider catchment area due to a specialist gymnastics club.

Volunteers had to change from an organisation campaigning to keep the facility open to one capable of managing it. For the volunteers leading the transfer was a huge personal effort. An obvious point is that if such transfers are only going to be practical in areas with a supply of volunteers with high levels of skills and confidence, then facilities in other areas will close. We were aware of several facilities which had closed either because volunteers had not come forward or because transferred had failed. We hope to research these in the future, as well as the ways local authority support is developing as experience of asset transfer grows.

Transferred facilities had a strong sense of community ownership; for example, swimming pools had been used by generations of local residents. They also had a high political profile.

The transfers were a genuine transfer of power to the volunteers. Control over pricing and programming allowed them to be innovative in responding to community needs. For example a pool in Leeds introduced a session for a naturalists group and a community garden. Increasing and diversifying use was important to increase revenue and to broaden the number of people who might potentially take volunteering roles. There was also a tighter control over costs by paying attention to details, for example, type and level of lighting and changing utility providers.

For groups to develop they require time, enthusiasm skills and confidence. Volunteering is not evenly distributed across social classes. When there isn’t an existing group prepared to take on an asset developing one may take years. This time is not available – ideally volunteer development would be part of a long term approach to community enrichment. Volunteer groups in disadvantaged areas need support but budgets of support agencies have also been cut. In the long run groups will need to recruit new volunteers and fund capital costs.

So ‘associationalism’, is a viable way of running some facilities, at least in the short term. However, developing volunteer capacity requires support. Long term viability will partly depend on a continuing supply of local volunteers who see leisure facilities as something to be created by their own efforts rather than provided in exchange for their taxes.

The full article

Is the Asset Transfer of Public Leisure Facilities in England an Example of Associative Democracy?

Nichols, G., Forbes, D., Findlay-King, L. and MacFadyen, G. (2015) Administrative Sciences. 5(2), 71-87; doi:10.3390/admsci5020071


The CIMSPA voluntary transfer research hub

We are expanding our set of case studies, especially to cover ones where asset transfer has been unsuccessful and where local authorities have developed innovative support. If you would like to contact the research team they are:

Geoff Nichols, Sheffield University Management School g.nichols@sheffield.ac.uk
Deborah Forbes, Newcastle University Business School deborah.forbes@newcastle.ac.uk
Lindsay Findlay-King, Northumbria University lindsay.findlay-king@northumbria.ac.uk
Gordon Macfadyen, Northumbria University gordon.macfadyen@northumbria.ac.uk

Incorporated by Royal Charter Charity registration number 1144545

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