The pandemic quickly followed by the cost-of-living crisis and spiralling energy prices have all combined to give our industry quite a battering.
So, it was with the weight of our industry weighing heavily on my shoulders that I embarked on a watershed moment (no pun intended) at Stockport’s Grand Central Pools to meet with key figures from Ofgem, the UK’s energy regulator, whose role it is to protect energy consumers, writes Jon Keating, GM Active’s Head of Business Operations and Company Secretary.
Given the Greater Manchester location, I’d been entrusted by colleagues at UKactive to help facilitate Ofgem’s fact-finding mission, which was led by Jonathan Brearley, CEO, Louise van Rensburg, Head of Non-Domestic Retail Policy, and Harry Booty, Senior Stakeholder and Communications Manager.
In light of the energy crisis this is a hugely important connection, not just across Greater Manchester but for our sector as a whole.
As high energy consumers – particularly those sites with pools – we need to do all we can to protect the sector against the risks of rising energy costs, and work tirelessly to achieve less reliance on fossil fuels and ensure sustainable and green energy solutions using the latest technology, are front and centre at all sites.
This is vital to mitigate against future rising costs and to control our own destiny.
Fact-finding: (left to right): Louise Van Rensberg, Ofgem’s Head of Non-Domestic Retail Policy, Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem CEO, John Matson, Head of Facilities, Life Leisure, and Jon Keating, GM Active’s Head of Business Operations and Company Secretary.
Without putting too light a spin on things, the pressure was on to make sure that on behalf of the whole sector I along with colleagues from Life Leisure (Stockport Active CIC) were able to present the risks and challenges in great detail.
I felt humbled and honoured that I was entrusted to do so on behalf of the industry.
Grand Central is a 50m pool and now 30 years old. It has seen significant challenges and rising costs during the peak of the energy crisis. For this site alone, utility costs are running at more than £1million per annum, and as with many facilities that raises the question of whether it’s actually sustainable without some sort of financial intervention – and that’s where connecting with Ofgem could be crucial.
I was joined on the site visit with colleagues from Life Leisure in Charlene Murphy, General Manager, and John Matson, Head of Facilities, who both did a stellar job pointing out all the risks and challenges of a volatile energy market and the impact of wholesale cost spikes.
We started discussions at the main pool, explaining why energy is needed 24/7, 365 days-a-year not only to keep the pool at the right temperature but to power the water and air filtration, lighting and much more besides. John in particular was able to point out all areas of high energy consumption.
We then moved into the gym, and again, we were able to point out lighting, gym equipment and all areas of significant energy usage.
In all the discussions Charlene, John and I were able to point to areas of retrofit solutions. What we also pointed out was that energy and cost saving technology solutions exist but often come at a high price, and as a sector still recovering from a pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and high energy prices, we simply don’t have the capital to be able to invest in these solutions.
Finally, we moved into the plant room. Our Ofgem colleagues were blown away by the size of the plant room, and the sheer volume of equipment behind the scenes that’s needed to keep a centre such as Grand Central fully operational. As our Ofgem visitors stated, they doubted the general public has any idea what happens behind the scenes to keep the pool water clean and heated, air filtered, facilities lit and heated and much more besides.
Overall, I’m confident that between Charlene, John and I, we really highlighted the challenges and risks to the sector and made the visit of Ofgem a hugely beneficial one, with plans for follow-ups and next steps with UKactive.
Right: John Matson explains how the Grand Central boilers work to the Ofgem visitors.
Jonathan and Louise asked many searching questions all of which we were able to respond to between us. I also highlighted that a recent energy benchmarking exercise for Greater Manchester showed that if all publicly owned leisure sites were on the lowest tariffs there would be a £10 million cost saving, and if Ofgem can support us with anything it would be to help us to secure the best deals across the sector.
Louise in particular asked for the three key areas the sector needs help and support with in relation to energy. Our responses, starting with the most obvious:
That third point was a significant area I spoke to our Ofgem visitors about.
In the light of Our Pivot to Active Wellbeing project in GM, we must as a sector be part of a health, wellness and wellbeing solution across the country.
I was able to speak about our Prehab4Cancer programme and how this needs expansion, and how over time it can be expanded to other long term health conditions. I pointed out that as a sector we can offer both preventative and curative health solutions as a trusted partner to the ICB.
This in the context of energy is vital, and a key component of why our sector needs protecting from the volatile market and any future energy spikes should they occur again.
Huge thanks to Charlene and John from Life leisure, who did our sector proud, and thank you to UKactive for putting faith in me to carry out this task on our industry’s behalf. Here’s hoping we some benefit.