The Leisure Challenge

Barnet Council has published details of a Strategic Leisure Review ahead of the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday 14 September.

As we face what is likely to be a decade of public sector austerity, we are likely to be spending less on almost all non-statutory council services, leisure included. This means that every pound becomes more important and we have to make sure it is spent on getting the right outcomes for the people of Barnet.

The council’s spend, currently £1.7 million, is a comparatively small amount compared to the overall leisure spending in Barnet. The total residents spend on leisure in the borough is estimated to be around £340 million (around £48.10 each week for each household). That means that the most sensible use of council money is to support the development of opportunities that the private sector cannot provide alone, and to work with public sector partners on an agreed set of outcomes. This review will explore just how we can do this.

Council spending is, of course, centred on encouraging people to take some form of exercise rather on the broader definition of leisure. This is entirely sensible as we need to work with partners to support the health of Barnet residents. There is obviously a clear public good in supporting swimming that is not so immediately apparent in subsidising tickets to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

So in running the review we will look at how we meet the changing needs of the boroughs population. In Barnet we have both a growing number of young people and a growing number of residents over 65.

We will need to work with colleagues in the health service to ensure that we meet the needs of these groups. The population of young people is literally expanding – childhood obesity has risen as comparatively sedentary pursuits such a video gaming replace sport as many young people’s leisure activity of choice.

This, of course, will have to be balanced with the need to support the health of older people. We will explore how council spending can limit future demands on the health service and if it is possible to align health service and council budgets around agreed aims.

I’m particularly keen to see the role in wider wellbeing as well as health. There is for instance a great plenty of evidence to show that an element of exercise is very good for mental health.

Such challenges mean that we will need to have a wide ranging review of our work with partners. As well as a role for the National Health Service, we will be exploring how we can work with the Police and the Mental Health Trust in developing a co-ordinated approach to supporting the health and wellbeing of the borough’s residents.

In developing this review we have taken as a model the consultation the council ran over the future of the library service. Our library review looked beyond simply supporting bricks and mortar, to look at the purposes of the service for the future. We concluded that getting young people reading was a priority. It is possible that this review will see getting young people exercising as equally important. We have also had great success supporting reading groups through the library service and it would be interesting to explore if we could support residents exercise groups along similar lines.

That review saw us speak to existing service users, those who no longer used our facilities as well as a large number of groups with an interest in the service.

Every one of Barnet’s residents will have an opportunity to give us their views on the council’s support for leisure activities and what they believe our objectives should be.

I hope we will hear from as many people as possible.

You can access the Cabinet papers from the Barnet website.

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Library strategy discussed at Overview and Scrutiny

Last night, the Strategic Library Review was discussed by the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee having been called in by a Labour councillor.

When we first published the Strategic Library Review back in March, it received considerable cross-party support. In comparison to the plans put forward by many other London boroughs that face similar budget cuts, Barnet’s plan for local libraries is very positive. The council has made a commitment to focus on literacy, spend an extra £10k on books and increase library opening hours.

I take my responsibilities seriously, I care about the future of the Barnet’s library service and I’m proud of the strategy that has been developed.

While I can understand that political point scoring always plays a part in the democratic process, much of what was discussed last night centred on issues of trust.

You may have seen comments in the press last week that implied the council hadn’t had any meetings with the artsdepot about our plans to create a new landmark library at the North Finchley site. This is simply not true. Below is a statement from Tracey Cooper the Chief Executive of the artsdepot.

“artsdepot has been discussing with the council proposals for a joint artsdepot-library service in North Finchley for several months, including officer meetings with the artsdepot board. While the planning of detailed proposals are at an early stage, with a lot to cover before we can finalise an agreed model, our two organisations are jointly overseeing the project to confirm the detail of what will be offered and both are excited by the possibilities. Our initial project delivery meeting was positive and artsdepot looks forward to the detailed next stage of work.”

After yesterday’s meeting, libraries in Barnet have a clear future despite the financial pressures faced by the council.