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Special report on social entrepreneurship: The golden legacy of the Copper Box

Sarah Morrison hears a sports foundation’s plans for an iconic Olympic venue as it reopens this week

To sports fans worldwide it became known as the “box that rocks” and quickly became one of the most visually arresting venues of the London Olympics. But after the games, the legacy of the Copper Box was uncertain. Private companies scrabbled to secure the contract to run the third-largest indoor venue in the capital, which had hosted handball, modern pentathlon fencing and the Paralympic goalball competition.

But its fate will not rest with big, profit-hungry corporations. Instead it, and a healthy slice of the Olympic legacy, will be managed by one of Britain’s largest social enterprises. Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), the largest provider of public sport and leisure facilities in the UK, will reopen the Copper Box on Saturday, and run it for the next decade. It will also manage the Olympic Aquatics Centre, in a contract that will provide more than 250 new jobs and 86 apprenticeships a year.

This is not surprising – GLL already runs more than 115 public leisure centres across the country, with 6,000 staff and 45 million visits to its centres each year. But what is unusual is the fact that this business calls itself a “charitable social enterprise.” In short, this means the profits from its £126m annual turnover are ploughed straight back into the running of the business; training its staff, providing new jobs and ensuring low-cost prices for the communities it serves. GLL is employee-owned and its staff – including lifeguards, directors and receptionists – can run its board.

It also runs one of the largest sporting foundations for young people in the UK – providing grants or training bursaries for 1,300 promising athletes across 28 regions. More than 50 of their athletes competed in the games last year.

Sally Gunnell, the champion hurdler and the GLL Sport Foundation’s patron, told The IoS that “all these facilities could easily have folded or crumbled”. “It’s expensive to join sports centres, or use facilities, and often young people can’t afford to,” she said. “What these guys [GLL] are doing is keeping people in sport at a really crucial point, at 15 or 16, allowing them to carry on.”

Peter Bundey, GLL’s deputy managing director and chair of the sport foundation, said: “The private sector cherry-picks the profit-making stuff [gym memberships] and leaves the non-profitable [athletics stadiums] to rot. This doesn’t provide a balanced outcome for sport and physical activity. We match social outputs with business outputs.”

GLL is not the only social enterprise in the park. A café will be operated by the Camden Society and Unity Kitchen – a chain that channels its profits into funding training and apprenticeships for people with learning disabilities. A spokesperson said: “We aim to show that social enterprise can make a serious contribution to the Olympic legacy.”

Help choose a worthy winner

The Independent on Sunday is sponsoring the UK Social Enterprise Awards 2013 and has its very own award to make: the Social Enterprise Champion Award. If you know an exceedingly talented individual working to improve society – either in a social enterprise or in a public or corporate organisation – then please nominate them at www.independent.co.uk/enterprisechampion and download the form, or send an email to socialenterprise@independent.co.uk before Friday 6 September. Your nominee could have created positive change in communities by demonstrating socially entrepreneurial skills or they may simply have shone a light on the sector and the work that it does. The award will be presented on Wednesday 27 November.

Click here to download the application form