Charlotte Nichols – 2022 Speech on Government Support for Leisure Centres

The speech made by Charlotte Nichols, the Labour MP for Warrington North, in the House of Commons on 15 December 2022.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak about the important issue of leisure centre provision. As we consider all the sectors struggling with increased bills and financial pressures, we must not forget leisure centres. In many ways, they are something of a Cinderella service even in good times—they are not glamorous and they are taken for granted as spaces where people can meet, socialise, rehabilitate, exercise and, in this bitter weather, keep warm —and, as we all know, we are in anything but good times.

I will speak about my local leisure centres in Warrington, but I first want to set out the national picture, and I am grateful to the Local Government Association for many of the figures that I will use. Councils in England are currently the biggest funder of sport and leisure services and facilities. If we include parks and green spaces, councils currently spend over £1.1 billion a year and are responsible for 2,727 leisure centres, a majority of the UK’s 27,000 parks, 31% of grass pitches, 33% of all swimming pools—the majority of publicly accessible pools—20% of health and fitness facilities and 13% of sports halls.

Our councils cannot prioritise leisure centre provision because these centres are not statutory services, and while we all understand the pressures from more acute needs, the swimming pools, sports facilities and community halls that are provided by local authorities are treasured by the public like few other council facilities. Up to and including the past decade of austerity, councils have broadly managed to be self-sustaining for day-to-day leisure spending through fees and other charges, while seeking to subsidise poorer users—in some cases even being able to raise revenues for other council services. They have not, however, had the scope to afford capital expenditure to upgrade buildings, make repairs or improve insulation. As an aside, I say that 68% of sports halls and swimming pools are more than 20 years old, and so are used less by the public than newer facilities.

And then came covid. Despite the Government’s support through the national leisure recovery fund, this did not match the significant maintenance and staffing costs that leisure facilities incurred even without the footfall and income that they would usually have. Many councils used their own funds to save facilities from closure and provided £159 million of emergency funding in total, while leisure providers contributed £144 million from their reserves. Following this emergency funding, operators were already financially vulnerable going into the current energy crisis. They now face bills up to 200% higher this year compared with 2019—the last normal operating year—with costs set to grow by up to 240% next year.

Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)

In my constituency, Freedom Leisure works alongside the local authority to deliver services, and it was able to upgrade as a result. It was really tough during covid. I met Jeremy Rowe, its operations director, and he told me that in Wales alone there is a £3.3 million uplift in energy costs. The figure for Swansea is £1.4 million. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of these vital community assets could devastate our local communities?

Charlotte Nichols

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I will come on to, we cannot put a pounds-and-pence figure on the value of leisure centre provision locally and what it means to our communities, and particularly our most vulnerable residents. That is why this debate is so important, and I am grateful that she has come to support it.

In October, ukactive research found that 40% of council areas are at risk of losing their leisure centres or seeing reduced services at their leisure centres before 31 March 2023. Three quarters—74%—of council areas are classified as “unsecure”, which means there is a risk of leisure centres closing and/or reducing services before 31 March 2024.

The LGA believes that, without Government intervention, large numbers of public sector leisure facilities are unlikely to make it through to next spring, with service restrictions and facility closures already growing. As the voice of local government, the Local Government Association has called for discussion of a number of measures to address the immediate financial pressures: an in-year grant with an increase to the local government settlement from 2023-24 to ringfence and protect public leisure facilities; an immediate review of sector taxation and regulation that minimises other outgoing costs, with longer-term business tax reform to collectively support the sustainability and growth of the sector; and support for a move to non-carbon-intensive heating methods, including opening up existing capital funding programmes to ensure that new build facilities are eligible for support, improving energy efficiency for the future, while also ensuring that they meet the needs and expectations of future communities, encouraging them to be active. I hope that the Minister will take all those on board, and confirm that he is engaging with the LGA on these specific points to save our leisure centres.

I want to turn now to our leisure services in Warrington, provided by LiveWire. At this point, I should declare an interest, in that I rent my constituency office from Warrington Leisure and Library Trust at commercial rates—I am not sure whether that is strictly declarable, but I wanted to flag it up. The building my office is in, the Orford Jubilee Neighbourhood Hub, also houses our local gym, pool, library and other services, such as the pharmacy, Macmillan Cancer Support and even a Subway—which I spend far too much of my money in on the days I am in my office, but I digress

LiveWire is an employer of more than 352 people in Warrington, delivering leisure, library and lifestyles services that attract more than 422,000 visits from local residents per quarter and make a vital contribution to the health and wellbeing of the community. LiveWire operates three neighbourhood hubs, two leisure centres, one community hub and 13 libraries. It is important to note here that it has been managing those services in Warrington since May 2012 as a community interest company. That means that it is designed to re-invest in services and facilities; it is not a private business, it does not have shareholders and it does not own any assets that it can leverage bank loans against. It is therefore specifically vulnerable to the economic storm that we face.

As LiveWire has noted in a letter to me:

“Our income-generating activities underpin discounted access to many health programmes—such as rehabilitation, prehabilitation and preventative services—to some of the poorest and most in need of support. Services that would not be operated in a market driven solely on a for-profit basis.”

Now, due to increased energy costs, higher than budgeted pay awards for staff, a lack of customers returning post covid, customer cancellations because they have less disposable income due to the massively increased cost of living, and increased prices for raw materials and services, LiveWire tells me that its expenditure has increased by £2.3 million compared with 2021, which is not sustainable. It is at serious risk of being unable to operate after March 2023 without financial support, despite increased demand for swimming and aquatics activity, for example.

I have already written to the Chancellor about this situation, and would like to repeat LiveWire’s plea to this Minister today. First, charitable trusts and community interest companies should be named as a vulnerable sector in January’s energy review, with support offered beyond March 2023. Secondly, any future cap should be more generous than the current cap, which still resulted in significant losses for CICs such as LiveWire.

I am very aware of the demands on the public purse, but I also note the role that this sector plays in keeping the public healthy. We all know that preventive healthcare is far cheaper than later interventions, and these facilities in the heart of our communities, which subsidise getting fit and keeping healthy for people who need it most, are truly vital. Swim England states that swimming alone saves the NHS more than £357 million every year, and the contribution to the nation’s mental health will be enormous.

We have a chronic lack of long-course pools across the country, and it is tragic to think that access even to our short-course pools could be even further curtailed. Swimming is a vital life skill, especially in communities such as mine, which have rivers and canals running through them—it saves lives. It is also a vital skill for participation in other sports, especially rowing, which we are trying to make more inclusive and accessible in Warrington, through the incredible work of Warrington Youth Rowing and the Warrington Rowing Club.

When we consider all the sports and activities that our leisure sector supports, including things such as self-defence classes for women and classes catered specifically towards our more elderly residents, we see how much of a loss it would be to our communities if these became less accessible to, or priced out, those who benefit from them the most. Public participation in public leisure fell by 35% between April 2021 and January 2022. It would be a false economy to let this sector flounder and close. I want to hear from the Minister and the Government what they will be doing to help it through this most difficult time, for all our sakes.