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Exclusive: More than a third of councillors say recreational, leisure and cultural services have been cut since 2010

Amid bankruptcies and lack of funding, Spotlight polling reveals that libraries, leisure centres and parks are all being sidelined.

By Sarah Dawood

Last week, Nottingham City became the latest council to declare itself effectively bankrupt. Citing the increased demand of children’s and adults’ social care, rising homelessness and the impact of inflation, the council has maintained that a lack of funding has pushed it to the brink of financial collapse, unable to provide essential services for citizens.

However, the council has also been accused of mismanagement and poor governance practices that have contributed to its dire financial situation. The collapse in 2020 of its publicly owned energy scheme, Robin Hood Energy, launched in 2015 with the intention of bringing down consumer energy bills, led to the loss of millions of pounds.

Nottingham is yet another on a growing list of councils that have issued section 114 bankruptcy notices since 2018 due to a combination of reduced central-government funding and financial mismanagement. Indeed, exclusive polling of English councillors by New Statesman Spotlight* reveals that a quarter of councillors believe their council will soon go bankrupt, with many more local authorities, such as Bradford and Cheshire East, now on the “brink”.

Nottingham is planning cuts to many essential and recreational services to manage its bankruptcy, including youth services, care home provision and public libraries. Spotlight’s polling shows that recreational services, such as libraries and leisure centres, are some of the first to go when councils need to make cutbacks, after road maintenance and street cleaning.

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Since 2010, four in ten councillors (42 per cent) said their council had made cuts to libraries, while a quarter (26 per cent) cited cuts to leisure centres. More than a third (39 per cent) said parks and recreational facilities had been cut back, while nearly half (45 per cent) said culture, events and tourism had. This means that, on average, more than a third (38 per cent) of councillors mentioned cuts to recreational, leisure and cultural services.

[See also: “Red Wall” areas are at the epicentre of “Broken Britain”]

Many councillors said that youth services in particular had been badly hit, which can include youth clubs and centres, playgrounds, childcare services, and sports, culture and arts programmes.

The issue appears to be worse among Labour-run councils. Four in ten Labour councillors (42 per cent) said library services had been cut compared to a third (34 per cent) of Conservatives. Nearly half of Labour councillors (46 per cent) said parks and recreation had been cut compared to a fifth (19 per cent) of Conservatives, and a third of Labour councillors (32 per cent) said leisure centres had been cut compared to one in eight (13 per cent) of Conservatives.

While these services might be classed as extracurricular or non-essential, youth clubs, gyms, swimming pools and parks all make a profound difference to people’s long-term health and happiness. Studies have shown that expanding free access to leisure facilities is likely to increase physical activity and reduce health inequalities. Meanwhile, the existence of community libraries has been shown to reduce social isolation, increase skills and language development for children and adults, and provide better access to vital information. Ultimately, these services have the ability to impact people’s healthy life expectancy – that is, the age at which they stop living in “good health”.

Councillors said that most of their depleted funding is having to go to stretched essential services, leaving little space, if any, for recreation. “The will to do things is often there, but the finance is not,” said one councillor. Another said that the closure of local leisure facilities over the next 12 months will have a “huge impact on our already deprived towns”, while another spoke about services staying open but “not reaching the right standards”. In some constituencies, the charity sector and volunteers are essentially in charge of all their recreational facilities.

It is perhaps more stark that councils, like in Nottingham’s case, are having to cut crucial services – social care, homelessness support, housing and special needs support to name a few. In trying times for local government, these essential services have to take precedent – but it does feel like depleted finances are sucking the joy out of towns and cities, and we will no doubt see the long-term health and socio-economic impacts of this in decades to come.

* The full councillor survey results, made up of responses from 528 councillors across English local authority districts, are available here, and in a special policy supplement with the New Statesman issue published on 24 November. Read it here.

[See also: Councils are on the brink – but there’s no mea culpa from Michael Gove]

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