Leisure centres like Lichfield District’s under threat because of Government’s lack of help

Without further Government support a November survey by Ukactive showed that 40 per cent of council areas will likely see leisure centres close or services reduce before 31 March 2023. Three quarters (74 per cent) of council areas are classified as ‘unsecure’, meaning there is risk of closure or reduced services before 31 March 2024 Local Government Association.

Just over five years ago when the District Council awarded Freedom Leisure the contract the then Cabinet Member for Leisure, now Deputy Leader, Iain Eadie said:

“Where Freedom has taken over the operation of leisure centres in other areas of the country, such as Wrexham and Arun, participation levels have gone up, significant investment into the facilities has taken place, and local communities have responded well to the wider opportunities to live healthier, more active lifestyles, and to make the most of their leisure time.”

Freedom Leisure has had help from other councils because of energy costs – including Wrexham Council and Arun Council in October last year.

Why not Lichfield District?

I hope to find out tomorrow when Cllr Wilcox and I meet with the Chief Executive over the issue. Why wasn’t the same action taken by LDC as Wrexham, Arun and many other councils have done? It seems a sudden decision withour going through the proper Scrutiny process. After all the Committee met only 11 days ago to discuss the Council’s finances for the year ahead.

The full text of the letter from Local Government Leaders to Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove is below.

Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt
Chancellor of the Exchequer
HM Treasury
1 Horse Guards Road

Rt Hon Michael Gove
Secretary of State for Levelling up, housing and communities (DLUHC)
2 Marsham Street

Cc Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Cc Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

23 January 2023

Dear Chancellor and Secretary of State,

Urgent support for public sport and leisure through crisis and transformation

We write as the lead organisations representing local authorities in England. Our members are responsible for the country’s public sport and leisure infrastructure, which is facing an extraordinary financial crisis due to the ongoing impacts from COVID-19, the cost of living and the energy crisis. In light of these pressures, we have significant concerns about the decision to exclude swimming pools and leisure centres from the list of sectors eligible for extra support under the Energy and Trade Intensive Industries scheme and the Energy Bills Discount Scheme.

Since 2019, evidence from our leisure providers shows energy bills have risen by 300 per cent. During the pandemic councils across the country invested £159 million to keep facilities afloat, alongside £144 million of provider reserves, and in addition to the Government’s welcome £100 million national leisure recovery fund. This money now risks being wasted if we allow these facilities to close. At the close of this letter we set out three clear actions Government can take.

This is not a call for a hand-out. Councils and their partners have been working together to transform facilities into assets fit to meet the challenges of the future, whether co-locating with GP surgeries to create wellness hubs, retrofitting with solar panels and heat pumps, or energy-efficient newbuilds that boost participation and cost less to run. Many Levelling Up Fund bids from councils are aimed at continuing this transformation and Government has chosen to invest in many of these bids. But if council-run and commissioned facilities, including Trusts and Community Interest Companies (CiCs), close because of unaffordable running costs, these transformations will not happen and a core plank of the levelling up approach will fail. (See annex for case studies)

Without further Government support a November survey by Ukactive showed that 40 per cent of council areas will likely see leisure centres close or services reduce before 31 March 2023. Three quarters (74 per cent) of council areas are classified as ‘unsecure’, meaning there is risk of closure or reduced services before 31 March 2024. Many provider contracts also have legally binding schedules that transfer the risk of energy price increases to their local authority meaning pressures will likely come to a head at the end of this financial year, affecting council budgets for 2023/24. 

Facility closures will undermine the Government’s commitment to support vulnerable communities, protect vital public services, tackle inequalities and grow the economy.

Leisure centres and swimming pools are more than a lifestyle choice, they are a vital service because:

  • They provide affordable opportunities for communities to be active and healthy with 8.9 million users annually and 165 million unique visits; and are especially important for users in more deprived areas, where data tells us users prefer to exercise in a leisure​ centre over other informal settings.
  • People’s health and wellbeing, and therefore NHS performance relies on leisure facilities. Leisure centres deliver two thirds of cancer rehabilitation services and 79 per cent of​ social prescribing initiatives. Swimming alone saves health system £357 million per year according to research by Sheffield Hallam University and Swim England.​
  • Seventy-two per cent of schools use public swimming pools to deliver their statutory responsibility for learn to swim and the water safety curriculum. And 75 per cent of grassroots sports clubs rely on​ public leisure centres to operate.
  • Being physically active prevents many serious physical and mental health conditions, calculated to save £9.5 billion per year (Sport England). Of this amount, £5.2 billion is in healthcare savings and £1.7 billion is in social care savings, while a further £20 billion of value comes from stronger and safer communities.
  • They provide an estimated 585,000 jobs in the UK, in particular offering career opportunities for young people who make up a large proportion of the paid workforce: 45 per cent are aged 16-24 and 21 per cent are aged 25-34.

Many councils have commissioned out leisure services helping to deliver improved outcomes. 94 per cent of councils report using leisure centres in schemes to tackle health inequalities and 97 per cent of councils and leisure providers wish to commission these services to do more. Recent health economics research shows that an increase in healthy life expectancy by 3.7 years could be achieved over a decade if leisure centres were used to deliver a national physical activity improvement scheme (DCN).  Leisure providers have done a sterling job delivering these outcomes; providers operate on small profit margins, ploughing money back into the service to support communities, but this has left them vulnerable and unable to do more.

The failure to identify support for the sector will be the final straw for certain facilities and services across the country – especially for swimming pools, which cannot be replaced by limited private sector provision and where Sport England data shows swimmers do not transfer to another form of activity. Leisure, sport and swimming pool closures on a national level will unequivocally damage our national health, the economy and will increase pressure on the health service. Action taken now will be far more cost-effective and will prevent costly knock-on impacts for society and the public purse in the long-term.

We therefore urge the Government to act swiftly with three key measures:

  1. Reclassify pools and leisure centres as energy intensive in the Energy Bills Discount Scheme so they can access the higher level of energy price discount.                               
  2. Set out what tangible support it will provide to the wider sector – including gyms and sports facilities – to help navigate the energy crisis across 2023 so that service restrictions and facility closures can be minimised. 
  3. Set out a “plan for the growth” for the sector by aligning the proposed new Sports Strategy with the Spring Budget to unlock the potential of the sector to support the economic, health, and social wellbeing of the nation. 

Our members stand ready to work in partnership with Government to prevent further closures and accelerate our progress towards a sustainable leisure network.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson
Chair, Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, Local Government Association and Leader, Portsmouth City Council

Professor Jim McManus
President, Association of Directors of Public Health

Mo Baines
Chief Executive, Association for Public Service Excellence

Councillor Linda Taylor
County Councils Network Unitary Spokesperson and Leader, Cornwall Council

Debbie Kaye
Chair, Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association

Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen
Chairman, District Councils’ Network and Leader, Breckland Council

Councillor Elizabeth Campbell
Executive member for London’s Future: Business, Economy and Culture, London Councils and Leader, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Sir Stephen Houghton CBE
Chair, Special Interest Group of Metropolitan Authorities and Leader, Barnsley Council

William Benson
Solace Spokesperson for Finance and Chief Executive, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council

No help for energy costs ends Freedom Leisure at Burntwood Leisure Centre

I will also be asking why the council leadership did not consider funding the increased costs – it will have to anyway if the Leisure Centre is not to operate at reduced hours

Today, Thursday 26th of January, Lichfield District Council announced they were taking back Burntwood (and Friary Grange) Leisure Centres following Freedom Leisure’s inability to carry on with the increase in energy costs.

Clearly, the District Council, has not agreed to help with the increased running costs of the Leisure Centre and so are taking it back “in house” where they (council tax payers) will have to wholly fund all the running costs.

There is no help from the Government – and it will be interesting to see what the MP says about it – after all he’s already mentioned “Burntwood” this year – when he had a break from promoting the Mayor of the West Midlands.

Plenty of warnings

In fact, this should not come as a surprise as Freedom Leisure closed its first swimming pools in Milton Keynes and East Sussex last October with the Chief Executive Officer, Ivan Horsfall, saying:

“We are frankly devastated that it has come to this. Public sector leisure is one of the most exposed sectors because energy costs are such a large proportion of our overall costs particularly with swimming pools and as a not-for-profit leisure trust we operate at very low surpluses and these increases simply cannot be absorbed”

Then only just over two weeks ago, responding to the government’s announcement of the Energy Bill Discount Scheme he said:

“I am extremely disappointed and frustrated as to why public sector leisure has been omitted from the list. Public sector leisure is one of the most exposed sectors because we are a very intensive user of utilities with energy costs a very large proportion of our overall costs particularly in centres with swimming pools. We have recently seen our annual energy bill move from £8m to £20m even with the temporary cap.”

It seemed, therefore, almost inevitable that Burntwood and Friary Grange would fall victim and that has proven to be the case though the decision to take the service back in house was not.  Other options were and are available.

Clearly help from the Government is needed.  After all it has a Health and Wellbeing strategy I think and has just given millions of pounds in Levelling Up Funding in the country for other Leisure Centres – albeit not in Lichfield.

Answers are needed

Councillor Mike Wilcox, Chair of the district council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee and I as Vice Chair will be meeting with the council’s Chief Executive next week to seek reassurances on the way forward that does not impact on the service for residents in the Burntwood area.

I will also be asking why the council leadership did not consider funding the increased costs – it will have to anyway if the Leisure Centre is not to operate at reduced hours.  The decision has been made without it going to councillors and it is unclear as to the reason the Council seems keen to take it back in house when other options are available.

Lichfield District Council does have form on this

Councillor Sue Woodward was Leader of the District Council Labour Group in early 2019 when Freedom Leisure were telling LDC of the problems with the Friary Grange Leisure Centre.

She said: “The Cabinet Member responsible at the time said there was to be a Condition Survey, but LDC sat on it until after the elections that May. There were some long-standing issues with Burntwood Leisure Centre but again LDC have not reacted quickly enough”

“However, when we were at the Leisure Centre for a Police Consultation meeting on Tuesday the place was packed.  Was there something wrong with the contract?”