South Ribble's post-lockdown fitness plan for residents as council retakes control of leisure centres
South Ribble’s leisure centres will play a key part in efforts to tackle health inequalities when they return to direct local authority control this spring.
That was the message from South Ribble Borough Council’s deputy leader Mick Titherington, who also has responsibility for health and wellbeing in the district.
The authority has decided to take its leisure services back in-house when a 16-year outsourcing arrangement – which has seen them operated by Serco, via South Ribble Community Leisure Trust – comes to an end on 31st March.
Cllr Titherington says that the council will mount a dual effort to improve the health of individuals and help get the borough’s three leisure centres – in Leyland, Penwortham and Bamber Bridge – back on their feet whenever lockdown restrictions are lifted. They are all currently closed, as per government regulations.
“The pandemic changed the game for so many sectors, but leisure has been one of the hardest hit – and the only thing that’s certain about the future is the uncertainty.
“Post-lockdown, it could be like it usually is after Christmas – where gym membership goes through the roof and there is an upsurge in those wanting to give exercise a go – or people might remain a bit wary.
“But it’s not just about getting the fit and well back into the leisure centres, it’s about reaching out and being inclusive for everybody,” added Cllr Titherington, who compiled a report on South Ribble’s health disparities eight years ago when he chaired the council’s scrutiny committee.
The authority is planning to use sports development officers to encourage people of all ages to get fit by making use of the facilities that are on their doorstep. There will be a particular focus on increasing participation amongst residents of the borough’s more deprived communities.
“I’m really passionate about [getting the involvement of] kids, older people and those living in poor housing who often don’t exercise.
“If we’re serious about tackling health inequalities and making it easier for people to make healthy lifestyle choices, we have got to be reaching out to them.
“Taking leisure services back in-house doesn’t solve everything – we need to be doing more to ensure people have decent jobs when we come out of this pandemic – but it does give us the opportunity to use those facilities for the benefit of residents,” said Cllr Titherington.
However, before the borough can focus on its health and fitness aspirations, it first has to deal with the harsh economic legacy that Covid has left the leisure sector.
A recent report to the council’s cabinet report notes that income from South Ribble’s leisure centres has been reduced to “near zero” during the three periods of lockdown over the last 12 months.
It is forecast that income for the coming financial year will be at just 75 percent of normal levels – with a return to the pre-pandemic position not expected for another three years.
That would leave a £1.6m gap in the leisure budget in the borough, for which the council is proposing to use money already set aside for increased maintenance and repairs. However, the cabinet report states that use of this funding to cover the temporary deficit “will not prevent the council from continuing to undertake the necessary work to support high-quality leisure provision”.
The authority committed to a £2m programme of repairs and upgrades at the borough’s three leisure facilities – spread across two years – back in January 2020.
Separately, the council has set aside £240,000 to support the leisure trust currently overseeing the three centres, in recognition of the income collapse caused by the first two lockdowns. It has also been successful in securing £210,000 from a government fund to assist local authority leisure centres, which would be used to provide support for the period between December 2020 and the end of the contract next month.
However, the cabinet report states that the proposed payments are “still subject to agreement with the leisure operator and will only be paid where the council is obliged to pay” – and also notes that the cost of covering future income shortfalls would be the same whichever operating model had been chosen to replace the current set-up.
Cllr Titherington said that while he believed taking the service back in-house was the most appropriate route in any case, “the only alternative would have been to get an extension from Serco or go out to the market and engage another provider”.
“If we [had done that], then because of the circumstances we are now in, any operator was always going to build in that risk factor [of uncertainty caused by the pandemic].
“So we would keep all the risk and they would make what they could out of it,” he said.
As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed last month, South Ribble Borough Council’s external auditors highlighted a £2m pension liability accrued since the authority’s leisure services were outsourced in 2005.
Although their report acknowledged that it is “unlikely” that the authority would be pursued for any shortfall – because of the contractual agreement with the leisure trust and SERCO – “negotiations” would be required between the three parties over how the liability would be met.
The council was unable to provide any update when approached by the LDRS about whether an agreement had yet been reached on the matter ahead of the end of the outsourced contract next month.
Mark Snaylam, contract manager for Serco Leisure, said of the transfer of South Ribble’s leisure centres back to the council: “Our relationship with South Ribble Borough Council is a strong one, which will be maintained during the transition process.
“The priority of this handover will be the people who will remain working at the leisure facilities, once they reopen. I would like to wish all soon-to-be former colleagues and South Ribble Borough Council every success for the future.”