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11 August 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:09am

Olympic dreams begin at council leisure facilities – don’t let them fail

The decline of sports centres could see people's fitness ambitions flounder and have a detrimental impact on physical and mental health, argues councillor Daniel Humphreys.

By Daniel Humphreys

I’m sure I am not alone in being incredibly proud of the achievements of our Team GB athletes at this year’s Olympics. Under the most extraordinary circumstances, taking part in a competition that has been delayed with many being unable to train for much of the build-up, we’ve seen our athletes triumph and make our nation proud.

Many of those who have competed started their journey to Tokyo in their local council leisure facilities. They have worked hard through the grassroots sports system to be able to compete at the highest stage in the world. But our leisure centres aren’t just routes for aspiring athletes to kickstart sporting careers, they are the only local facilities that are open to all, from the first time a child learns to swim, to the fitness classes that help older people stay active – they offer vital services that keep people healthy and provide an important community hub.

However, it’s alarming that as we celebrate these achievements, the future of many of these leisure and wellbeing services is in serious doubt. Analysis from the District Councils Network (DCN) found that one in three district councils expected to be forced to close leisure centres due to the devastating financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the pandemic these services have seen their income decimated from closures, with no reduction in costs. Many are now seeing memberships remaining below pre-pandemic levels, and anticipate these will take years to recover. There are also serious threats to the wider services, with over three quarters of districts having to contemplate cuts to targeted activities such as exercise referral schemes, and many unable to invest in needed improvements.

For example, as Emily Borthwick and Harry Coppell prepared to compete in the high jump and pole vault respectively, their local council in West Lancashire are concerned about finding the finances to replace out of date leisure buildings due to the impact of the pandemic. Brentwood Council have had to step in to save their leisure centre after their previous operator went into liquidation. This as James Gall, from Brentwood, helped the GB Hockey team to reach the men’s quarter finals in Tokyo.

Such services are a crucial and affordable way to support people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Our survey of district councils found that nearly 9 in 10 have used leisure centres in projects to improve mental health and tackle health inequalities. They represent a springboard for a healthy recovery for our communities and workforce, and a critical piece in the jigsaw for levelling up the health of the nation. They offer so much more than simply a place to get fit. They offer a venue for communities to meet and support groups to convene, they provide children’s creche services and holiday activities, and they are destinations providing footfall to our town centres. All of these wider benefits and more could easily be lost.  

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Our Olympic legacy cannot be derailed by the decline of leisure and wellbeing services, which have been so instrumental in building the successes we have seen in Tokyo. This is why councils are calling on the Government to use this opportunity to tackle a £325 million funding gap faced by district leisure services alone.

A longer term strategy and financing of services, placing them within the health agenda, will not only help find more Olympic champions for the future, but will improve the wellbeing of all within the communities they serve and help to prevent health problems in those most vulnerable to them.

Cllr Daniel Humphreys is District Councils Network spokesperson for Enhancing Quality of Life and Leader of Worthing Borough Council. The District Councils’ Network (DCN) is a cross-party network providing a single voice to 183 district councils.

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