In the late 1960s the Westway A40 elevated flyover, providing a fast route from White City into Central London, was driven through the heart of North Kensington. Around 600 houses were demolished and more than 1,000 local people moved away. By 1970, a decade of community action networks had grown up in North Kensington fighting for better housing and open spaces.
The following year, the trust’s original incarnation – the North Kensington Amenity Trust – was set up in partnership with the local authority. It had two goals: to use the mile-long strip of land under the motorway to compensate the community for damage and destruction caused by the road, and to ensure that local people would be actively involved in determining its use.
Over the years the trust has successfully combined the roles of charity, developer, social enterprise and landlord. Eighty per cent of the land has been developed for community facilities and 20% developed commercially, providing a long-term income stream.
As well as managing the commercial portfolio and delivering community projects, education and the arts, the trust also provides a wide range of sport and fitness opportunities to the community of Kensington and Chelsea through the trust’s flagship facilities – the Westway Sports Centre, (354,000 user visits in 2009/10), and the Portobello Green Fitness Club, (95,000 user visits in 2009/10).
Portobello Green pioneered GP-referral fitness programmes in the late 90s, while Westway operates a Performance Tennis Centre, one of the country's leading climbing and bouldering centres and football pitches, basketball and netball courts, cricket nets and the only publicly available handball fives court in London. The trust's ethos is about all members of the community enjoying sport in a fantastic environment on a 'pay and play' basis.
The trust learnt very quickly that well-used facilities can become very tatty, very quickly
Sport and fitness director, Westway Development Trust
Although the specific circumstances surrounding the origins of the trust are naturally unique, a history of pragmatic financial management and a policy of re-investment in facilities is a transferable principle for the sustainability of any asset transfer of a community sports facility. Scheduled refurbishment works to the playing surfaces of pitches and large sections of the climbing wall are vital elements of meeting the demands of the trusts' customers.
As John O'Brien, sport and fitness director at the trust, explains: "The trust learnt very quickly that well-used facilities can become very tatty, very quickly. We used the published industry standards for the life-span of materials but found that going and seeing similar operations elsewhere in the country gave us a much better idea of typical wear and tear.
"From that benchmark we've built up historic cost models with suitable inflation measures for sub-elements, which are under periodic review in response to fluctuations in price."
The trust has also developed a pragmatic, but realistic, approach to its facilities management. After large scale contractor arrangements did not bring the promised economies of their scale, the trust now uses the services of a smaller local provider combined with a policy of training duty managers in day-to-day preventative maintenance and minor repair tasks.
"Our new contractor is smaller, but locally based and more responsive," says John. "The relationship is more of a partnership. They give us health and safety credibility and, combined with using committed staff as our eyes and ears on the ground, many issues can be tackled relatively cheaply before they become critical."
Kensington and Chelsea is the fourth most densely populated borough in London
Other contractor and supplier arrangements are also under constant review to maximise their efficiency and effectiveness. Cleaning is currently outsourced, (with a condition that the supplier pays the 'living wage' of £10.55), and a longstanding catering franchise has proven better value than in-house efforts.
A specialist climbing kit retailer rents a unit from the trust, which provides a consistent income stream and provides customers with a more specialised service than the trust itself could provide. And, as a result of a recent partnership with a new enterprise, customers can now enjoy the experience of 'endless pools', which use a flow of water to swim against.
Although the trust has won national awards for its approach and is often cited as an example for others to replicate, with mainstream fitness club competition the trust has to continually look at forging innovative partnerships and providing distinctive programmes.
"We need to take another big step to stay ahead", says John. "Being known for GP referrals isn't enough. We're now planning a more holistic wellbeing offer that will positively affect the health of a critical mass of the local population. This will be attractive to the NHS as well as trusts and foundations whose priorities also include youth and education."
This ambition will also entail a big investment in upskilling the trust's staff, so that more of them will have a broader knowledge of the health benefits of exercise.
The continuous development of staff is seen as a critical success fact for the trust. Enthusiastic staff who have sympathy for the area and the community they serve bring an extra level of commitment to their roles.
Long-serving coaches have built deep networks into the community
Sport and fitness director, Westway Development Trust
"Their friendliness rubs off on customers, particularly young people", says John. "Long-serving coaches have built deep networks into the community and when the kids keep coming back, their parents start to get familiar with the environment and the staff, and want to get engaged too."
In an effort to revitalise itself, the trust has also taken on five apprenticeships, with an ambition to bring this up to 10.
Beyond sport, staff are also encouraged to build relationships with key people and networks in the local authority and NHS Kensington and Chelsea, including the local education authority, environmental services, children and families and adult social services.
"You don't know where that new funding opportunity is going to come from next sometimes, so you need to keep knocking on a lot of doors and making yourself known", says John.
"We benefited from some last-minute funding from a local Olympic legacy fund. If we weren’t known and trusted, I suspect we would have missed out on what was a good opportunity for us."
Despite its status as a royal borough and its glamorous image, Kensington and Chelsea, with a population of around 155,000, is the fourth most densely populated borough in the UK where extremes of wealth and poverty co-exist.
For more than 50 years the trust has been meeting the changing demands and expectations of its cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith community. Through its re-investment in physical assets and continuous improvements in programming and maintaining highly skilled and motivated staff, the trust provides a good model of how to run a community sports facility for the long term.
Critical success factors
- Scheduled maintenance and re-investment in facilities is essential for health and safety reasons, but also maintains their value as an asset to the organisation.
- Benchmark against similar operations to understand patterns of usage and wear and tear, rather than relying on industry and supplier data.
- Keep supplier and franchise contracts under constant review to ensure value for money and customer expectations are met.
- Health and safety is everyone's job - staff can play a vital role in spotting things before they become critical and expensive to tackle.
- Invest in staff skills and areas of interest, encouraging them to build key relationships with partners beyond their job role.
For more information, visit the Westway Development Trust's website.