Bath & North East Somerset Council has joined local authorities across the South West in calling on the government to urgently provide funding to safeguard the future of local leisure centres.
Members of the South West Leisure Group are asking ministers to help local councils meet the increased costs of reopening and operating leisure centres caused by lockdown and the ongoing impact of COVID-19.
Councillor Paul Crossley, cabinet member for Community Services for Bath & North East Somerset Council, said: “While I’m delighted we’ve been able to start a phased reopening of some of our leisure centres, they are facing substantial increased costs as a result of putting Covid-secure measures in place – including limiting customer numbers and reducing opening hours.
“We’ve already had to provide significant financial assistance to our leisure providers GLL (a not-for-profit social enterprise) and, at time when Covid has placed a severe strain on our finances, this is not sustainable.Until confidence and demand grows, the government needs to ensure the sector gets the funding it so desperately needs.”
Across the South West, many leisure centres remain closed. Others which have reopened or partially reopened say they’ve seen their income drop by 50 per cent and predict the situation may not improve for up to two years.
This has led the South West Leisure Group to warn the government it needs to act now before the furlough scheme ends this autumn, or it may be too late for the sector.
Government funding announced last month will enable around a quarter of councils to recover a proportion of the income they’ve lost from leisure services as a result of the pandemic.
But many other local authorities, such as B&NES, have been asked to financially support the private companies, charitable leisure trusts and other organisations contracted to run leisure facilities on their behalf to keep them financially viable.
David Worden, Leader of North Devon Council said: “The leisure facilities provided by local authorities are vital to our communities as councils provide the facilities that the private sector is not generally interested in such as swimming pools etc.
“Councils that outsourced management of these facilities are now being penalised by the government because they cannot recover the vast sums of money now being required to effectively prop up their external providers and enable them to open facilities.”
Sport England and Community Leisure UK have been leading cross-sector support on the challenges facing local authorities’ leisure provision due to Covid-19 and have also made the government aware of their serious concerns about the impact on public leisure provision and the need to secure additional financial support.
Community Leisure UK’s £1bn funding campaign #saveleisure is calling on the government for a leisure sector bail out similar to that offered to the arts and hospitality sectors.
John Hart, Chair of South West Councils, said: “The position is pretty simple really. Councils are being asked to financially support companies purely to enable public facilities to re-open.
“Councils cannot afford to do this and so there is now a real risk that facilities in some areas will not be opening. That will undermine national initiatives to reduce obesity and make the nation healthier and more resilient.
“It is vital that the government holds firm to its promise to do whatever is necessary to support councils’ efforts.”
Through the Fit for Life Strategy, leisure contributes to many critical council priorities including tackling obesity, improving physical health and wellbeing; addressing mental health and reducing the impact on climate change through walking and cycling.