South West councils make urgent call for leisure centres funding
South Hams District and West Devon Borough Councils are working in partnership with local authorities across the South West in urgently calling on the Government to provide funding to safeguard the future of leisure centres.
They are asking ministers to approve a funding submission to help local authorities meet the costs of reopening and operating leisure centres across the country caused by the lockdown and ongoing impact of Covid-19.
Local authorities across the South West are making the formal plea following the reopening of some leisure centres while many leisure centres remain closed.
Centres which have reopened or partially reopened are facing substantial increased costs due to additional Covid-secure measures they have had to put in place, including limiting customer numbers and reduced opening hours.
Some leisure providers are reporting up to 50 per cent drops in income which are predicted to continue into the next two years.
Councils which are members of the South West Leisure Group are warning that the government needs to act now before the furloughing scheme ends this autumn and it is too late for the sector.
Under government funding announced last month, only around a quarter of councils will be able to recover a proportion of the income that has been lost as a result of the pandemic.
Many councils have been or are being asked to provide financial support to keep these companies and organisations financially viable and allow them to open up, but in many cases, Council simply do not have the funds.
Sport England have been leading cross sector support on the challenges facing local authorities' leisure provision due to COVID-19. They have made Government aware of the severe impact on public leisure provision and the need to secure additional financial support as serious concerns remain over its economic viability.
John Hart, Chair, 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."
Cllr Judy Pearce, Leader of South Hams District Council, said: "The extremely tough, but necessary, social distancing restrictions has had a huge impact on the number of visitors able to use the leisure spaces and pools at any given time. This has had a huge impact on the leisure service getting back on its feet after months of being closed.
"As with other Councils nationally, we have stepped in where we can to help financially but this isn't sustainable indefinitely. We really need the government to support the industry or we will face a national crisis in our leisure industry at a time when people really need the wellbeing benefits they enjoy from being able to exercise."
Cllr Neil Jory, Leader of West Devon Borough Council, said: "Leisure centres are, in our view, vital for our local communities. They are going to be very important in both maintaining mental health and fitness, especially if there is a second wave of the virus later in the year. The government has provided very effective support across many sectors of the economy. As yet, they have not provided tailored support for local authority owned leisure centres that recognises their importance and the various business models that exist.
"We have done all we possibly can by helping Fusion, our leisure provider, with financial support to keep leisure services available and running in the Borough. We know it's still not enough and doesn't meet the needs of all of our residents."
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. This is because they cannot recover the vast sums of money required to effectively prop up their external providers and enable them to open."
Mike Eathorne-Gibbons, Cornwall Council's portfolio holder for customers, said: "Cornwall Council is one of those authorities that is being asked to financially support its leisure providers to enable facilities to re-open. The cost of keeping centres in hibernation for four months with no income, and the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and how services will be delivered, has resulted in a total funding shortfall for our leisure provider GLL of around £5m."
"We are not alone and most councils across the South West, and we have been told nationally, are in similar positions. While the government has recognised that some councils have lost income from leisure facilities and has decided to compensate them, many other have not by virtue of who is providing them. This just doesn't make sense; these centres really need some help now. This is a crisis that will not go away."
Issued: 3 September 2020