40% of local authorities to cut services by March 2023 without continuing government support / LBeddoe/Shutterstock
A number of UK local authorities and their leisure management partners are in crisis over rising energy costs, with 40% saying leisure centers and swimming pools will be closed or services reduced before the end of March 2023 unless they receive government support.
The numbers come from a survey conducted by UK Active, to determine the vulnerability of the public sector.
The study also found that a further 34% of the facilities surveyed will be at risk before 31 March 2024, meaning a total of 74% of local authority facilities in the survey will be classified as at risk in the next 18 months.
At the other end of the spectrum, 26% said they were financially secure, with no risk of closure or curtailment of planned services through March 31, 2024,
The responses already take into account the support provided by the government through the Energy Bill Relief Scheme (EBRS), which runs until 31 March 2023.
Swim England also said more than 100 swimming pools will be lost across the country, with swimming pools at the heart of the crisis given their energy needs.
UK Active spearheaded a response to the Government’s Autumn Statement by a coalition of representative bodies in the sport, recreation and physical activity sectors, including Active Partnerships; CIMSPA; Sport Coalition for Development; Alliance for Sport and Leisure; and the Youth Sports Fund.
The statement set out financial challenges for businesses, but did not comment on sectors that are disproportionately affected by rising energy costs, such as leisure centers and swimming pools are vulnerable, with some operators forced to close their doors.
Freedom Leisure, a non-profit leisure and culture trust, says bills for just three of its sites have risen by more than £1 million a year since 2019. Also under the EBRS, one of the swimming pools at Freedom Leisure has seen costs rise by £180,000 to £600,000 a year. The trust has already been forced to close its Milton Keynes and Rye sites and warns that further closures are inevitable unless further support is provided.
“We are now seeing daily announcements of public sector leisure facilities that are either restricting services, at risk of closing, or closing permanently due to the energy crisis,” said Huw Edwards, CEO of UK Active. “The government must intervene now.
“We remain committed to bringing together members and representatives of our operators from across local government, to explore all available options to stem the flow of closures,” he said.
While the government has pledged to review the EBRS to ensure ‘support is targeted at those most in need’ by the end of 2022, there are fears that any further aid – should it be granted – will not start until April 2023, which will be too late for many recreation center managers.
“While we do not prejudge the outcome of the EBRS review, we do not believe the announced measures will be sufficient or come into effect fast enough to address the challenges facing the sector,” the joint statement said. “Grass clubs, community organizations and schools must absorb rising costs by reducing supply and raising taxes, and facilities are streamlined and closed across the country, impacting jobs and livelihoods and removing essential pillars that support physical well-being, mental and social communities”.
Furthermore, the coalition suggests that short-term support for all health, fitness and leisure players, not just the public sector, should include an extended energy price guarantee, VAT relief, company holidays and local government grants. The DCMS has supported the sector during the pandemic with £100m of subsidies which, if re-issued, could provide temporary relief to avoid a lockdown crisis.
Britons’ participation in weekly swimming alone saves the NHS more than £357m a year, according to Swim England, while evidence from Sheffield Hallam University and Sport England shows that physical activity and sport contribute value estimated social welfare of £72 billion and are worth £13 billion to the economy each year, providing 585,000 jobs, of which 300,000 are in health and leisure centres.
“Swimming pools and leisure centers help take the strain off the NHS, saving more than £350m a year,” said Jane Nickerson, managing director of Swim England. “However, they are particularly vulnerable to rising energy prices, as we are seeing now, with more closures and reductions in services.
“Our fear is that more than 100 pools will be under threat in the next six months. It would be a devastating blow to the millions of people who rely on being active in the water for their physical and mental health and life-saving abilities. Without further support, the situation will only get worse, which would be an absolute tragedy.”
The damage to public health is aggravated by the cost-of-living crisis. In a consumer survey conducted by Savanta ComRes, UK Active found that 43% of respondents said rising cost of living will have a “negative impact” on their ability to play sport and exercise, and 20 % say it will have a ‘big negative impact’ and significantly reduce their physical activity.
“Councils are working hard to prevent community facilities from closing and understand that many people are facing rising individual costs, so they have no desire to raise prices or change opening hours if that can be avoided,” said the councilor. councilor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, president of the Department of Culture, Tourism and Sport of the Association of Local Authorities. “Rising energy costs are a very real and significant problem for the industry. Without enough support, municipalities will be forced to make difficult decisions about opening new facilities and closing existing centres.”
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