Preston gets cash to keep city leisure centres open, but Chorley and South Ribble lose out
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The councils had hoped to be able to ease the strain on their own coffers by seeking cash from Sport England’s Swimming Pool Support Fund - but both have now been told that they have lost out.
However, Preston City Council has been awarded £257,000 which it will pass on to the charitable social enterprise company, Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), that has operated the Fulwood and West View leisure centres since 2017. The organisation said that the cash was vital in helping to keep the doors of the facilities open.
The three Central Lancashire authorities had all submitted applications for financial help from the Sports England cash pot.
Meetings of Chorley and South Ribble councils last month heard that their leisure centres - which are all now effectively run in-house after previously having been outsourced - risked going under by next spring in the absence of additional support. Stubbornly high energy costs and a larger-than-expected pay rise, which is now likely to be given to all council staff as part of a national deal, were cited as the prime reasons for the financial pressures.
However, user numbers have also fallen across the two districts compared to before the pandemic. Membership of Chorley’s three leisure centres - All Seasons, near the town centre, Clayton Green Sports Centre, in Clayton-le-Woods, and Brinscall Baths - currently stands at just 73 percent of pre-pandemic levels, at around 3,500 users.
In South Ribble, membership of the Leyland, Penwortham and Bamber Bridge facilities is up 27 percent on the post-Covid level it fell to June 2021 - but, at just over 4,000, still only 75 percent of the March 2020 figure.
Before approving the bailouts, councillors at both authorities were told that the council-owned companies that now run the centres - Chorley Leisure Limited and South Ribble Leisure Limited - were otherwise unlikely to have sufficient "cash flow" to operate through until March 2024.
The funding they committed will now have to be covered by the councils in full after their Swimming Pool Support Fund bids were unsuccessful. Phase one of the Sports England fund allocated £20m to help those facilities with swimming pools which faced “increased cost pressures, leaving them most vulnerable to closure or significant service reduction”.
South Ribble’s cabinet member for communities, leisure and wellbeing, Clare Hunter, said that the decision was “disappointing”.
However, she added: “This will not deter us from doing all we can to make sure our leisure centres can thrive. We know how vital our centres are – particularly swimming pools – across the community and we want to see them succeed. We have made another bid in the next round of funding,” Cllr Hunter said.
That second round of applications to the Swimming Pool Support Fund is for councils seeking a share of £40m of capital investment to improve the “energy efficiency” of their facilities.- and so help cut their day-to-day running costs.
Chorley Council’s executive member for early intervention, Bev Murray, also expressed disappointment at missing out on an allocation from the first tranche of cash - and said that it, too, had made a pitch for the second round.
“We are committed to ensuring the success of our leisure centres and in a climate where, unfortunately, many leisure centres across the country are being forced to close, we are doing absolutely all we can to make sure our centres are still available for our communities, as we know how important they are in supporting our residents’ health and wellbeing,” Cllr Murray added.
Meanwhile, Tim Bestford, GLL’s head of service for the North region, said that the funding the organisation had received for the West View and Fulwood facilities had come at “a critical time for us to help keep the swimming pools open for our residents”.
He added: “While GLL’s leisure centres continue to be maintained as a very important, central part of our communities, we have also been under increasing pressure to pay the bills. We are pleased that, through working together with the council, we are able to avoid any unnecessary closures.”
Jennifer Mein, Preston City Council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The funding will help towards the high costs of running the swimming pools, which include utility bills and pool chemical costs.
“Swimming is a great way to stay healthy and active and is used by lots of different members of the community as a low impact, all-round beneficial form of exercise. It is important that we continue to safeguard and support our leisure centres and provide access to community facilities that contribute to the greater health and wellbeing of our residents.”