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?”