It’s no secret that the COVID lockdown lunacy wreaked havoc with businesses up and down the country, with public leisure centres being hit particularly hard. So much so, in fact, that in July 2020, Huw Edwards, CEO of trade body ukactive, warned MPs that half of them could close by the end of the year. He predicted that an £800m injection was required to cover losses during closure and make them sustainable in the “short to medium term”.
Fast forward three years, and things are still dire. Many leisure centres still haven’t recovered despite some receiving partial bailouts. Adding to their financial woes is the cost-of-living crisis, making recuperating doubly difficult as they contend with rising energy bills and general inflation. Though they have done well to weather the storm thus far, it seems Edwards’ warning is finally coming to fruition.
Kirklees, Yorkshire, gives us an indicative snapshot of what is quickly becoming a national phenomenon. Three leisure centres, Dewsbury Sports Centre, Batley Sports and Tennis Centre and Colne Valley Leisure Centre, face closure under the local Council’s plans to find £47million in savings. All three centres are run by Kirklees Active Leisure (KAL).
Kirklees Council defends its plans by warning it would have to issue a Section 114 notice, effectively declaring itself bankrupt, if it does not find savings of £47.8m. Graham Turner, cabinet member for finance and regeneration, said the Council had remained committed to protecting leisure centres, but the economic situation was having a “significant impact”.
“Government funding has failed to plug the gap created by the long-term impacts of austerity, Covid and increased energy prices,” he said.
“This means statutory and other essential front-line services are absorbing more council budgets. This has left us having to make very difficult decisions on the ongoing provision of other services, such as sport and leisure.”
It certainly sounds like a very unfortunate situation, with Kirklees Council backed against the wall and their coffers well and truly bled dry.
However, don’t reach for your violins just yet. It emerges that Kirklees Council inexplicably have the means to generate substantial funds when it suits them. Case in point: their £210million plans to create a “Cultural Heart” in Huddersfield Town Centre.
The Cultural Heart would embody the Council’s plan to adapt town centres to focus more on culture, leisure, greater accessibility and more green and open areas. Proposed amenities include a multi-storey car park, a food hall and an art gallery (no prizes for guessing what kind of “art” would most likely be exhibited).
To surmise, we can only assume that the Council doesn’t consider leisure centres to be included under “essential services”, despite the obvious physical and mental health benefits they offer. Amid an obesity crisis and a worrying decline in the mental health of the population, you would think such services would be cherished by our government, which, after all, exists to serve our well-being.
Leisure centres are more than simply the sum of their parts. Much like a local pub or community centre, they serve as hubs for communities to come together and share a sense of belonging and connection. On top of that, they can help to provide routine, escape isolation, create a sense of purpose and build discipline. All of these are prerequisites to a healthy mind and lifestyle.
When people struggle with poverty, as they are increasingly doing so now, they turn to each other for help and support, and this is why communities are so important during economic turmoil. The loss of leisure centres doesn’t necessarily devastate the local community, but it can certainly help to fracture it.
Kirklees Council, and most certainly other councils across the country, don’t care about our health and sense of community. They lie to our faces about budgets and austerity while wasting our hard-earned taxes on frivolous endeavours which no one wants or benefits from.