Sarah stands in front of an Alliance Leisure centre at night.

Twenty-five years ago, Sarah started to transform the UK’s leisure industry. Today, she’s tackling the sector’s latest challenge: Health inequality.

Sarah Watts, CEO, Alliance Leisure, UK
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‘Dynamic’, ‘forward thinking’, ‘determined’.

These are just some of the words people use to describe Sarah Watts, a woman working with local authorities up and down the UK to transform their leisure centres. Sarah’s drive and passion comes from her belief in the power of physical activity to improve public health and create positive well-being in communities. A belief that harks back to her tenure as British judo champion. 

Sarah’s journey to improve public health nationwide started 25 years ago, just after the birth of her third daughter. Assistant director services organisation manager for Bristol City Council at the time, Sarah engaged with local leisure centres every day. Outdated and tired, unprofitable, and unwanted, these community assets were heading to eventual extinction. 

Intent on changing the fortune of the leisure centre, Sarah established Alliance Leisure in 1999, an SME working almost exclusively in the public leisure sector. It wasn’t easy at first – balancing a CEO role and parenting duties put enormous pressure on Sarah – but she persevered.

Over its lifespan, the developer has worked with local authorities, leisure trusts and operators to develop innovative leisure environments across the UK. ISG became part of Alliance’s journey in 2003, delivering a spa at Pendle Wavelengths in Lancashire. This was the start of a long-lasting collaboration that has seen the pair collaborate across 36 projects, including Alliance’s first new build project, in 2019: SC2 Rhyl.

Thanks to Sarah’s drive, local authorities can and do compete with private sector leisure. It’s been years since she began her campaign to transform the industry. Now, the sector faces a new challenge. With one in five GP appointments in the UK dedicated to issues wider than health, the conversation turns to social prescribing. This is where Sarah’s latest mission comes into play: Tackling health inequality.

Alliance Leisure, Sarah, and the battle for wellness

Wellness is more than a local issue. It’s more than a nationwide issue. It’s a global issue. The World Health Organisation states that factors such as stress, unemployment, debt, loneliness, lack of education and support in early childhood, insecure housing and discrimination can impact 30-55% of people’s health outcomes. In the UK, one in five GP appointments are dedicated to issues wider than health, especially for people living in areas of high deprivation¹. With GP appointment demands at an all-time high, something needs to be done. That’s where Sarah comes in.  

For Sarah, CEO of Alliance Leisure, this shift in focus requires a shift in approach. “I don’t think Alliance will ever build another leisure centre,” she says. Instead, she wants to prioritise the development of living and wellness centres. It’s a big challenge for Sarah and her team, but one they’re relishing – and, fortunately, they already have a blueprint for success. Clay Cross Active in Derbyshire is an excellent example of what Alliance Leisure can achieve. It’s a model leisure centre, with a Citizens’ Advice centre, and an NHS suite of services including maternity and children’s services.

An Alliance Leisure lifeguard teaches young kids how to dive into a pool
Pupils dive into swimming lessons at Monmouth Leisure Centre in Wales

Where did it all start?

Sarah and Alliance Leisure’s journey started 25 years ago. At the time, she was based at home following the birth of her third daughter. She’d recently finished five years of work at Bristol City Council as assistant director services organisation manager. Here, she experienced first hand how tired and outdated leisure centres were. Leisure centres which were rapidly falling out of favour with the public.

Following the old model of a sports hall, swimming pool and gym, the makeup of the UK’s traditional leisure centre – most of which were created in the 1970s – was dated and uninspiring. The result? They were rapidly losing members to private health and fitness clubs, which offered more exciting and relevant facilities. Yet, for many, leisure centres remained an essential route to daily activity and well-being. If they disappeared, it would leave a gap in our communities – even more concerning considering the growing number of activity-related health issues nationwide.

“We don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. All of our projects are meticulously researched to ensure we design and build the facilities needed for the local demographic. Therefore, every project is bespoke to the local area, but our aim is always to provide cradle to grave facilities that are inclusive and can be enjoyed by all.”

Sarah Watts, Alliance Leisure

Sarah recognised the need for action. As someone with a vested interest in promoting physical activity – being a British judo champion in her youth – she wanted to provide a way for local authorities to evolve their leisure centres and keep pace with emerging trends and the changing needs of the public. Her solution? Alliance Leisure. Sarah founded the SME in 1999 with the goal of providing funding mechanisms for local authorities. This critical funding could provide local authorities with the means to develop and enhance their own leisure centres, something that was previously out of the question. Speaking on the reasons behind founding Alliance Leisure, Sarah states: “It was my love of exercise and my passion for using public leisure as a vehicle for positive change that inspired me to launch Alliance Leisure. Since founding, we have constantly evolved to tackle the challenges that local authorities face.”

It wasn’t easy at first. Early days saw Sarah juggle her business duties with a care role for her three young daughters. “Ironically, I left my role at Bristol City Council to dedicate more time to the family, but once Alliance Leisure became established, the demands of the business on my time put incredible stress on me. I managed to maintain a balance, of sorts, but at times this was difficult. I’ve had to make sacrifices along the way. For example, I was not always there to watch my daughters in their school productions – I probably made 80% of them – and I used to have to work at night after they were tucked up in bed. But overall, the sacrifices weren’t that great, and speaking with my daughters now, they say they always felt they were my priority,” Sarah comments.  
A young girl traverses one of Alliance Leisure's climbing walls

Users scale new challenges at Summit Indoor Adventure in Selby, Yorkshire. Completed in 2016, the centre included a six-lane, 10 pin bowling facility, adventure climbing and play zone, aerial trekking ropes, an indoor skate and BMX park, and two indoor ski simulators.

Making an impact and building income

Fast-forward 25 years, Sarah persevered, and Alliance Leisure has completed more than 250 developments, representing an investment value of over £370 million in UK leisure infrastructure. 

To see Alliance Leisure’s impact, look no further than North Wales, where the company developed the SC2 Rhyl waterpark alongside Denbighshire County Council. Delivered by ISG, SC2 Rhyl has transformed the previously derelict coastal town since its completion in 2019. One economic impact assessment2 found that footfall through the town increased by a seismic 300,000 visitors thanks to Rhyl’s new waterpark. Sarah and Alliance Leisure’s impact in Rhyl doesn’t end there. A major store – one of the biggest loss-makers in its group – received a £1 million investment because of Alliance’s development. Now, the store is one of the busiest in the chain – and local caravan parks are busier than ever with holidaymakers flocking to the waterpark.

Further down the coast, Alliance and ISG transformed Nova in Prestatyn from a traditional pool facility into a multifaceted destination, with indoor and beach hut restaurants, four Costa outlets, and a premium health club. Nova Prestatyn went from a loss-making, ageing burden for the local authority – Denbighshire County Council – to a profitable, seafront destination. The restaurant used to generate £20,000 a week. Now it generates £107,000. 

“We don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. All our projects are meticulously researched to ensure we design and build the facilities needed for the local demographic. Therefore, every project is bespoke to the local area, but our aim is always to provide cradle-to-grave facilities that are inclusive and can be enjoyed by all,” says Sarah.

There were challenges along the way, namely the transition from single site developer to an organisation which facilitated the development of entire portfolios. For this, Sarah needed to scale up, and so she recruited more talent and developed a wider supply chain network. A testament to Sarah’s approach and Alliance Leisure’s ethos, 70% of Sarah’s people have been with the company for more than 10 years, even though recruitment and retention continue to be an issue in the industry.

Sarah Watts
See how ISG and Alliance Leisure work in partnership

Sarah’s latest mission 

Sarah and the team’s new mission is to tackle health inequality through place. She explains: “We all know how big an issue the nation’s health is: More than seven million people on NHS waiting lists, high levels of obesity, diabetes, musculoskeletal issues, an ageing population living longer but in poor health. Historically, we’ve always had co-location: A doctor’s surgery here, a library there, a gym over there. All in the same building, but not really linked. Better than that is integration, where thought goes into how the different services interact to really live and breathe wellness.” 

The benefits of this can positively impact communities across the UK. Sarah comments: “Integration will also unlock social prescribing. A holistic approach to people’s health and well-being, speeding up signposting to other services, and in turn significantly boosting health outcomes in some of the most deprived parts of the UK.”

That’s not all. Working with leaders in the sector, Sarah has formed a ‘health supergroup’ to look at how best to embed health-related programming. Programmes that might relate to obesity or diabetes prevention, not only in Alliance’s facilities, but the sector as a whole. While it might take some time – it’s a marathon, not a sprint – Sarah is hoping they can drive more activity, more well-being, and more positivity across the UK.

A man climbs up netting in one of Alliance Leisure's facilities

Over a 1,000 visitors a day walk through the doors of White Oak Leisure Centre in Swanley, Kent. The new-build centre which opened in 2022 includes a TagActive Arena (pictured).

The road to net zero

Did you know leisure centres are usually the largest energy consumers in a council’s portfolio? With every local authority across the UK signed up to the Climate Emergency pact, pledging to be carbon neutral by 2030, it’s important for Alliance Leisure and its partners to facilitate greener, more sustainable spaces.

With the latest technology and techniques, Sarah, Alliance Leisure and its partners, including ISG, are doing that and more. Sarah explains just some of the solutions: “We use air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps and solar power, and we’re investigating the use of small wind farms on top of some of our coastal facilities.”

“Integration will also unlock social prescribing. A holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing, speeding up signposting to other services, and in turn significantly boosting health outcomes in some of the most deprived parts of the UK.”

Sarah Watts, Alliance Leisure

Denbighshire County Council ensured its leisure facilities complemented, rather than overlapped and over-serviced a location. The Nova centre in Prestatyn was delivered in 2015, and SC2 in Rhyl in 2019. The centres are just four miles apart.
Denbighshire County Council ensured its leisure facilities complemented, rather than overlapped and over-serviced a location. The Nova centre in Prestatyn was delivered in 2015, and SC2 in Rhyl in 2019. The centres are just four miles apart.

A recent success story at Knaresborough Leisure Centre in Yorkshire demonstrates what can be achieved when Alliance Leisure, local councils and contractors engage early in the build process. Alliance Leisure and the ISG team utilised off-site pool manufacturing and the latest technology to increase sustainability and reduce running and maintenance costs. Thanks to the team’s efforts, 160 sq m of photovoltaic panels generate 38kwh of electricity in the facility. There’s LED lighting throughout the centre, two air source heat pump systems, and pool filtration which reduces energy and water consumption by 40%. In total, carbon output was reduced by over 60% when compared to the previous centre. Owing to the innovative development, the local authority has benefitted in more ways than one. After just two months in operation, membership went from 117 to 1,822. That’s not all. The revitalised centre experienced a 144% increase in GP referrals, fulfilling Sarah’s mission of minimising burden on the NHS. Knaresborough Leisure Centre is also helping local education, delivering 31 schools with a swimming learning programme – a 60% increase since the redevelopment.  

From SC2 Rhyl to Nova Prestatyn and beyond, Alliance Leisure’s impact on the local authority leisure sector is significant. As Sarah moves on to her next mission, there is little doubt that her drive to deliver innovation through space in the health sector will be transformational, leading to new ways for people, councils and contractors to engage across the UK.


Denbighshire Council -

Published on the 6th of June 2024.

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