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A Level Playing Field: Social Inclusion in Public Leisure

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The transfer to partnership in public sector management has created significantly new modes of service delivery and is suggested to be the best means of ensuring that disadvantaged groups are socially included. This research set out to examine New
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   A Level Playing Field: Social Inclusion in Public Leisure Ian R Hodgkinson Business School Loughborough University Loughborough, UK Paul Hughes Business School Loughborough University Loughborough, UK  Abstract Purpose -  The transfer to partnership in public sector management has created significantly new modes of service delivery and is suggested to be the best means of ensuring that disadvantaged groups are socially included. This research set out to examine New Leisure Trust (NLT) structures in public leisure provision relative to direct, in-house managed facilities and privately run Leisure Management Contractor (LMC) facilities. In particular, NLTs receive significant government funds and subsidies through tax breaks that are not forthcoming to rivals which raise questions as to whether NLTs deserve such aid for delivering upon the social inclusion agenda of the government. Methodology -  The research involved a national survey questionnaire to 1,060 public leisure service providers in England. Empirical testing through multiple analysis of variance and regression analysis was applied to the dataset. Findings -  We find that NLTs do not follow social orientation strategies to any significantly greater degree than rivals nor seem to create social inclusion to any greater degree. Further, NLTs have the least to gain in terms of business performance from creating social inclusion whilst in-house (in particular) and LMC facilities stand to gain the most. Practical implications -  Though each approach to provision examined places a considerable strategic emphasis on being socially oriented they are not effective at increasing the social inclusion of recreationally disadvantaged groups.   Originality/value - This paper calls for the current public leisure management playing field to be levelled in a rebalance of opportunity and investment through the removal of anti-competitive measures. Keywords -  partnership, new leisure trusts, public services, social inclusion, performance Classification -  Research Paper      - 1 -  A Level Playing Field: Social Inclusion in Public Leisure 1. Introduction  A key element of interest in social policy over the last decade has been the provision of, and differential access to, public services (Gorard et al. , 2001). New Labour’s social inclusion agenda, of which social inclusion objectives emerged as vital mechanisms (Green, 2007), forced many to question how social inclusion can be achieved within a   local government environment of funding cuts (Reid, 2003). Simmons (2004) documents the dilemma faced by leisure service managers as to how the balance between financial and social objectives should be struck, which is more relevant than ever given increasing budgetary cuts ( Berg et al. , 2008).  Social inclusion, in this debate, refers to the inclusion of disadvantaged groups in activities that they would otherwise be excluded from (Pavis et al. , 2001). Public leisure services have a clear role to play in promoting the well-being of citizens (Liu et al.  2007) and social inclusion is a significant component of this role, seen as enabling disadvantaged groups to gain greater access to health and healthy environments (SEU, 2003). According to Liu et al.  (2008) in the context of social inclusion policy, the access of disadvantaged groups to public leisure facilities has been a major concern of local government for a long time, despite the changing modes of service provision. Traditionally, local government committee boards have overseen public leisure services. Though, increasingly the concept of ‘partnership’ has become widely promoted as an ideal model for public sector management (Friend, 2006; Peters, 1998) and the policy response to a range of political ills, such as the reduction of inefficiencies in service delivery (Laffin and Liddle, 2006). This is consistent with public management reforms across Europe in an attempt to get public sector organisations to function more effectively (e.g., Turrini et al. , 2010). Collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors was subsequently promoted under New Labour in leisure service delivery (Diamond, 2006). It is suggested that local government are of the view that high-quality services, delivered by local partnerships characterised by high levels of user and community participation, are the best means of ensuring that disadvantaged groups are socially included (Ellison and Ellison, 2006). This transfer to partnership has created significantly new modes of leisure service delivery yet there is a need to examine and reflect upon the implications these models present (Diamond, 2006). The interest of this research, then, is to investigate social inclusion across different modes of public leisure provision in the context of on-going governmental concerns for social inclusion in an environment of increasing budgetary cuts. 2. Public Leisure Service Delivery Continual restructuring of the public sector has taken place in England over the last twenty years in response to central government policy changes. A central theme underpinning this transformation concerns financial accountability and effectiveness, an emphasis introduced by the Conservative government of the 1980s, which heavily critiqued the welfare state of the past that had focused on the provision of a minimum standard of service to all citizens (Osborne and McClaughlin, 2002). Perceived inefficiency and ineffectiveness in public sector services resulted in privatization (Ascher, 1987) via the introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT). The Competition in Sport and Leisure Facilities Order (1989) marked the introduction of CCT into the realm of local government sport and leisure management and   - 2 - contended that local government should not be the sole service provider  ,  implementing a shift towards different vehicles of provision. In 1997, CCT was replaced by New Labour’s policy of Best Value (BV). Similar to CCT, competition is an essential management tool via the use of benchmarking to compare relative performance and the requirement to achieve continuous improvement (Coalter, 2000). As with CCT, under BV, services should not be delivered directly by local government if other more efficient and effective means are available. In sustaining this momentum for change and modernisation, the emphasis on performance measurement has been reinforced by the introduction of Local Public Service Agreements and Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) (Andrews et al. , 2005); a performance management framework introduced by the Audit Commission and central government to measure local authority performance (Liu et al. , 2007). More recently, the single set of National Indicators (NIS), introduced by Communities and Local Government, is the only set of indicators on which central government performance manage local government services; including those delivered by local government alone and in partnership with other organisations. Such changing political and ideological reforms in the sector underpin a shift in emphasis from securing greater productivity and value for money to partnerships and networks in the delivery of service provision (Ferlie et al. , 2003). In response to central government policy changes there are now several management approaches in public leisure service provision. These include hierarchical, market-based, and collaborative approaches to managing service delivery (Martin, 2003). These distinguishable approaches to leisure provision are now addressed. The in-house  management approach to provision (hereafter in-house) is the traditional form of managing public services and still dominates public leisure provision in England (Audit Commission, 2006). In-house provision is hierarchical, with a local government committee board directly monitoring management. Local government takes full responsibility for income, expenditure, pricing and programming, and is accountable for all risks involved. In addition, in-house providers have the smallest marketing budgets of the three approaches to provision to be examined. According to the Audit Commission (2006) this often results in ineffective marketing and missed opportunities to increase income, address the needs of priority groups and improve overall participation. Due to the increasing financial pressures on public leisure services local governments are moving away from in-house provision, towards New Leisure Trust (NLT) or Leisure Management Contractor (LMC) provision. The trust is a term to describe a range of not-for-profit organisations that may or may not have charitable status (Simmons, 2004). The development of a NLT involves the local government, under the Local government Act (1976), transferring the service and facility to a NLT. This form of management has been a response from local government to a changing environment, particularly in resisting financial pressures resulting from 20 years of government regulation and reform. As the Centre for Public Services (1998) notes, a not-for-profit organisation with charitable status can obtain exemption from VAT on fees and charges, relief on corporation and capital gains tax, and 80%-100% relief on National Non-Domestic Rates. Significantly, however, although these are savings to local government budgets they represent a substantial loss of revenue to the Treasury (Audit Commission, 2006). In response to competition from NLTs, the private sector now offers partnerships with local government for the management of public leisure facilities. A Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is a somewhat complex arrangement whereby, in exchange for a lengthy management contract, a commercial company invests in the facility that   - 3 - provides the service. In turn, local government enters into a performance-management contract with a private sector operator, where the private LMC  manages the service as an agent of the local government. The financial performance of LMCs is fundamentally stronger than for the other approaches to provision (Audit Commission, 2006). This is largely attributable to a superior level of customer information, achieved through customer profiling, primarily in order to increase income (Audit Commission, 2006), which may carry social implications. Coalter (1995) notes that much of the academic opposition to the contracting out of public leisure services concerns the presumed shift from welfarism to entrepreneurialism, with an associated decline in the willingness of public leisure services to cater to disadvantaged groups. However, Liu et al. (2009) present evidence to counter this argument, which suggests that commercial contractors (i.e., LMCs) outperform significantly both in-house and NLT facilities across a number of social performance indicators. This provides an interesting avenue to investigate, since the Audit Commission (2006) suggest that a large proportion of LMC marketing is focused exclusively on higher-income groups,  which could be assumed to run counter to social objectives. 3. Public Leisure Provision and Recreational Welfare Social inclusion is the policy or act of overcoming barriers such that people have more opportunity to take part (Collins, 2004). Social inclusion became a major policy objective of the British government from 1997 (Liu et al. , 2009) and has been a strong tradition in UK local government leisure provision, which has focused on the promotion of equal opportunity for participation (Liu, 2009). The significance of social inclusion and leisure provision to both central and local government is expressed by Collins (2004: 62), who states: “If in the modern world, access to sport, physical activity and culture are part of the citizen’s package of expectations, or even, by some people’s values, of citizen’s rights, then this is a social policy issue for the state both centrally and locally”.  This is highlighted by the growing significance of sport policy interventions that have sought to promote inclusion in sport and leisure, examples include  A Sporting Future for All ,  Game Plan , Sport Playing its Part , and Every Child Matters  ( cf.  Green, 2007). Social inclusion, then, represents a key rationale for public leisure provision, that is, a concern with recreational welfare and the targeting of provision for recreationally disadvantaged groups (Coalter et al. , 1986). Public leisure facilities are provided by local government on the basis of equal opportunity or presumed associated benefits (Liu, 2009). Participation in sport and leisure, for example, is suggested to be beneficial to society (Collins, 2004; Gratton and Taylor, 2000), with the potential to improve health and reduce crime (Audit Commission, 2006). These social objectives have traditionally provided the  justification for the provision and subsidy of public sport and leisure services (Robinson, 2004). More recently, the initiative to pursue social inclusion has been a direct expression of government intervention on the grounds of equity (Liu et al. , 2009). Equity in this context “…implies that the unequal should be treated unequally and involves allocating services so that economically disadvantaged groups receive extra increments of resources”  (Liu et al. , 2009: 5). Pavis et al.  (2001) identify this redistributive discourse in British social policy. Here, it is argued that some groups of people lack the material resources necessary to participate in activities, which are available to the rest of society. Therefore, public leisure facilities are provided at subsidised prices by local government (Liu, 2009). However, large differences remain in participation as measured by social groups   - 4 - (Collins, 2008). In addition, there is a degree of variation in the financial operation of the approaches to provision identified, which if accounted for, may influence the participation of social groups. For example, redistributive objectives in the name of fairness, social justice and solidarity can arguably enable not-for-profit organisations, such as NLTs, access to additional central government financial assistance in support of disadvantaged groups. In-house provision receives considerably more local government subsidy for the operation of leisure facilities, relative to NLT or LMC approaches. While LMCs are afforded flexibility by local government on membership prices in order to provide opportunities to increase income (Audit Commission, 2006). Hence, the adoption of different approaches to service provision may carry social inclusion (exclusion) implications. The heritage of charitable NLTs lies in the creative defence of public services (Simmons, 2004), providing an opportunity to preserve the social welfare of service delivery in response to the assumed shift towards the commercialisation of leisure services, through contracting with the private sector (i.e. LMC). NLTs are therefore claimed to offer the greatest opportunities for community benefit, providing local government with an opportunity to establish the welfare objectives of leisure services (Simmons, 2004) while resisting the budgetary pressures faced by direct in-house public leisure provision. The Audit Commission (2006), however, has suggested on the basis of its independent research that no single approach to provision consistently results in more investment or higher levels of participation. There has been a significant acknowledgement of this knowledge gap in the literature in recent times, particularly in relation to social inclusion of public leisure facilities (e.g., Liu, 2009; Liu et al. , 2009, 2008, 2007). It remains vital, however, to broaden the analysis of social inclusion in public leisure services to account for the social orientation of public leisure providers, relative to each approach to provision, and the need for leisure services to simultaneously realise social objectives and secure economic survival through business performance, during a time of increasing budgetary cuts ( Berg et al. , 2008).  This study has three aims, first, to carry out an investigation of significant variations in the degree of strategic social orientation among the three approaches to managing public leisure provision. It has been identified that the opposition to the externalisation of leisure services lies in the concern for recreational welfare. Social inclusion should, however, be a strategic concern regardless of management approach, since the rationale for public leisure services is the promotion of recreational welfare. Second, in examining the degree of inclusion of recreationally disadvantaged groups, within facilities across management approaches, an attempt is made to develop existing understanding of the success of leisure services in achieving central government-governed social objectives. Third, an empirical examination of significant relationships between social inclusion and business performance in public leisure provision will identify whether social inclusion is viable for public leisure facilities given an environment of increasing budgetary cuts ( Berg et al. , 2008) . 4. Hypotheses For the purposes of hypothesising, we define a strategic social orientation as the reduction of inequalities between the least advantaged groups and communities and the rest of society. Whereby, the public leisure facility seeks to include all citizens, achieved through targeted programming. Social inclusion, as previously stated refers to the inclusion of disadvantaged groups in leisure activities that they would
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