Skip to content

A year on: How Covid spelt crisis for Vivacity

Stewart Francis is the former chair of Vivacity; these are his thoughts on the last year and how Covid spelt crisis for the leisure trust before it terminated its contract with Peterborough City Council in June.
Stewart Francis
Former Vivacity chair Stewart Francis has spoke about the closure of the charity

I can't put a date on when we first became aware of Covid and what it could mean, but there was that time in February when the news stories started, which meant it became quite clear that this was going to be really serious. 

When the announcement was made we looked at the reality of the situation - the images we had seen were in the front of our mind - and we knew that we just had to close. It dawned on the senior leadership team of trustees that at 10pm we were going to switch the lights off, and all of our revenue would disappear.

Ten years of work were in jeopardy. We were hoping it might be for six weeks.

Our finances meant that we were guaranteed £10 million every year, with the council grant of £2 million of that. So even if that continued we would have an 80% drop.

We had resources for a period of time, but we knew that even when things opened again people would not just come flocking back in the next day.

We were looking to see how it could be supported. We couldn't let it become insolvent, which would see 500 staff on the street. But the support was not forthcoming, so we had no choice but to terminate the contracts, with three months left of money. We had to protect services and jobs. 

In ten years we saved the Key Theatre, the Lido, the Splash Park in Bretton and the St George Hydrotherapy Pool from closure. Our trustees don't get paid, they do it because they care about arts, leisure and culture in the city.

I have come out of this bruised and battered. The council made the right decision ten years ago when they set up Vivacity.

The reason they did so was that at the time we were living in austerity, and in those times the first thing that tends to get the chop is libraries and leisure, because they're not going to cut adult and children's services, for example. 

So by getting it out of a council and into a trust, with the council maintaining the buildings, they can then let leisure and culture grow.

The reason I'm bruised and battered is that, having done that and creating one of the largest heritage festivals and many other things for art and culture, we've now gone full circle and we are back with a cash-strapped council.

The Vivacity staff have been Tupe'd (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)) over to other organisations, including Nene Park Trust who we helped by giving them the Lost World - that's very popular.

We have ensured everything was passed over in the best possible start; now the question is how things will be managed in the future, because I believe these services are now in more jeopardy than they were before Covid.

Crowds will come back eventually, next year or the year after, but how many services will survive until that time? Will there be fewer libraries, for example?

You have still got to have the same staff. As an example, it doesn't matter whether there are three people in the Lido, or 100, it still has to be staffed. And in the past ten years the Lido has made a profit in one year, when there was a heatwave.

It's wonderful, but it costs money to maintain it.

The question should be: 'how much are you going to invest in culture, leisure and heritage - are we expecting to get it for nothing, or will rate payers be expected to make a contribution?' In the next 12 months we will find out.

There are cities that have invested in arts, leisure and theatres, and they have benefited from it. Hull, as a city of culture, has brought in billions of pounds of investment.

Not every city is going to get that, but it's an indication that a city can make itself more attractive for people to visit and invest.

Every penny of the £10 million has been reinvested, as we are a charity. When (infrastructure group) Balfour Beaty did their analysis of the social value of Vivacity, that came to £60 million.

That's because we had 400 volunteers working with people with disabilities, attacking loneliness and other societal issues, teaching children to swim, and enabling people to use the running track and other facilities to boost their health.

Therefore that £60 million shows that cities that invest can actually increase their economic income, rather than take from it.

The city needs to be painted in bright colours - let's make it exciting.

Keep an eye on Peterborough Matters tomorrow for part two.