Hot Seat: Leading the Harrogate district’s leisure revolution
Last updated Mar 22, 2022
Mark Tweedie Hot Seat

Public leisure centres in the Harrogate district are experiencing their greatest investment ever.

Harrogate Borough Council is spending more than £40m on new pools in Ripon and Knaresborough and on a major refurbishment of The Hydro in Harrogate.

Mark Tweedie, managing director of Brimhams Active, oversees 250 staff responsible for delivering services at these sites as well as several others.

Brimhams is the council-owned company set up last year to promote health and wellbeing in the district.

It operates swimming pools in Harrogate, Ripon, Knaresborough, Pateley Bridge and Starbeck. All of these sites, except the magnificent old Starbeck Baths and the soon-to-be-rebuilt Knaresborough Pool, also have leisure or fitness centres.

Mark Tweedie and Jack Laugher

Mark Tweedie with Jack Laugher at the opening of Ripon’s new facility.

Brimhams also oversees Fairfax Wellbeing and Community Hub in Harrogate, Jennyfield Styan Community Centre, a children’s nursery and the Harrogate Turkish Baths.

Mr Tweedie, 54, a former PE teacher with considerable experience of the leisure sector, was hired by the council in November 2020 to support the creation of Brimhams before transferring to his current role in July last year.

He says he was attracted by the council’s vision of using leisure to improve the health and wellbeing of people in the district, backed by its willingness to invest serious money to make it happen.

Difficult start

It hasn’t been an easy ride. There have been costly delays at the new Jack Laugher Leisure and Wellness Centre in Ripon due to sinkhole issues that long pre-date Mr Tweedie. A report due imminently will determine how much more work needs to be done before the site can fully open. He says:

“I’m absolutely confident it will be resolved. Yes, it’s been frustrating. I know customers have been desperate to come back since Spa Baths closed.”

There has been some discontent about the consultation and need for a new leisure centre in Knaresborough, where work is due to begin next month on a 65-week building programme due to finish in July next year.

How Knaresborough’s new pool will look.

Mr Tweedie says the transition from old to new site will be “seamless”, with the current facility operating until the new one opens — something that didn’t happen in Ripon, where the Spa Baths closed four months before the new pool opened due to delays.

Now there is the looming nine-month closure of The Hydro, which will leave Harrogate without a council-run pool.

Staffing has also been difficult — Brimhams has been consistently operating with 20 to 30 vacancies. Opening hours have been affected. Mr Tweedie says:

“It’s been a significant challenge, and it’s shared across the sector nationally.”

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But there is little doubt that when all the projects are completed, the district’s facilities will be significantly better than they were pre-Brimhams. He says:

“We are through the worst and back on track and people in the Harrogate district and our staff have got a lot to look forward to.”

Aim to nearly double membership 

The aim is to increase total membership at the sites in Harrogate, Ripon and Knaresborough to 5,000 within six months of the new facilities opening. Membership totalled about 3,000 at its pre-covid peak so it would be a considerable achievement but Mr Tweedie is “very confident” of achieving it. He says 400 people joined the Ripon centre in the fortnight after it opened.

A computer generated image of how the Hydro would look.

How the refurbished Hydro will look.

Brimhams’s current monthly rate is £38.95. Customers at The Hydro are being offered a reduced rate of £32 to use the other sites while it is being refurbished. They will also be able to take part in group exercise sessions at the nearby Jennyfield Styan Community Centre.

Large private gym chains such as Pure Gym and Coach Gyms, which offer membership at about £20 a month, have extended their tentacles into the district, which can’t make life easy for council-run alternatives, but Mr Tweedie insists they are serving different markets.

“The private sector is dealing with the 15% that want to join a gym. The question is, what happens to the other 85%? How do we use public facilities to reach out to them?”

He talks about Brimhams taking “a more holistic approach” that leads to a “deeper and more purposeful relationship” with customers. People won’t come just to use the pool or gym, he says, but also to access a wider range of service that are being developed, such as mental health support, nutritional advice and mindfulness. It’s no coincidence that two Brimhams Active sites now include ‘wellbeing’ in their names — it’s clearly the way ahead.

A new software system, due to go live at the end of the month, will enable online booking and a “better digital relationship with customers”, as well as capturing footfall data that Brimhams can use to improve services.

Will it consider 24-hour opening, as many private gyms are? Mr Tweedie says:

“We have no plans for 24/7. We feel we can deal with our customer base between the hours of 6.30am and 10pm.”

Starbeck Baths

The scale of the council’s investment in leisure leads Mr Tweedie to say confidently there are no plans to reduce services or close Starbeck Baths, which is a constant threat to such an ageing facility. He adds:

“What the commercial approach is not about is reducing wages and staff and providing the bare bones of a service.”

All change next year

But his reassurances are tempered by the fact that Harrogate Borough Council will be abolished next year and control of Brimhams will transfer to the new North Yorkshire Council.

Brimhams staff will have a new employer from April 1 and, in time, a new strategy run by different managers.

Mr Tweedie, who lives in Morpeth and divides his time working from home and in the Harrogate district, says it could take at least a couple of years to implement whatever model the new council introduces so his role could exist for some time yet. He says:

“I want to deliver our three-year strategic plan and I am already working with other district leisure service leaders and North Yorkshire colleagues to manage the transition to the unitary authority.”

The important thing, he adds, is that customers don’t notice any sudden changes next year and that frontline staff, such as lifeguards and receptionists, are looked after. He says:

“It’s business as usual for us. We have a vision. We have a strategy. We have a plan we will deliver on that with a high level of tenacity.

Nidderdale Pool

Nidderdale Pool and Leisure Centre in Pateley Bridge.


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