As we face the biggest public health crisis in living memory, physical activity and sport have a critical role in building individual resilience to the immediate challenge of COVID-19, but also in tackling the loneliness and obesity epidemics that pose a longer-term threat to our nation’s health.
- Local government plays an important role in promoting sport and physical activity and maintaining leisure infrastructure.
- Councils are responsible for a third of all swimming pools, 31 per cent of grass pitches; 13 per cent of sports halls; and almost of fifth of all health and fitness facilities. They also spend over £1 billion per year on sport, leisure and green spaces, parks and playgrounds, providing communities with access to vital facilities to improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
- As we face the biggest public health crisis in living memory, physical activity and sport have a critical role in building individual resilience to the immediate challenge of COVID-19, but also in tackling the loneliness and obesity epidemics that pose a longer-term threat to our nation’s health.
- It is important that our response to COVID-19 is evidence-based and that we take a risk-based approach to opening and closing key facilities and businesses in our communities. It must also consider the important protective factors offered by being physically active, both in terms of resilience to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, but also for mental resilience and wellbeing.
- Leisure centres have proven themselves to be a safe and essential service in the fight against COVID-19. Data from ukactive found that from 25 July to 11 October gyms and leisure centres have seen more than 45 million visits, with an overall infection rate of only 0.99 cases per 100,000 visits. On behalf of local government, we are keen to work with central government and public health experts to ensure they can reopen safely as soon as is possible, and to meet the needs of our most vulnerable families.
- In light of their crucial contributions to public health, including resilience to COVID-19, it is therefore concerning that many leisure centres may not be financially viable for at least 6-12 months. The promise to match 75 per cent of lost income is not applicable to the almost 70 per cent of the leisure services contracted out to charitable trusts or “for profit” providers, leaving these services requiring an immediate investment of at least £700 million from Government if communities are to retain their leisure centres.
- The £100 million allocated to leisure centres will help services through the most difficult period they have faced. However, the recently imposed national restrictions and social distancing measures when these facilities reopen, once more means leisure services will continue to face a challenging financial position for the foreseeable future.
- We risk losing our national leisure and sporting infrastructure. Earlier in the year Vivacity Leisure had to hand back its contract to Peterborough Council, and at least three other trusts across England have since closed. We are concerned others are on the brink of a similar decision.
- Losing these services will leave many people and families in more deprived areas, rural areas and black and ethnic minority groups, without access to affordable leisure provision, exercise opportunities and community sports clubs.
- We are calling on the Government to provide a second round of funding to meet the immediate survival needs of public leisure services, and to use the Spending Review to fund a strategic investment of £500 million for councils to invest in leisure facilities, pitches, and parks to reduce obesity; ensure a healthier, more active nation in the future; reduce our carbon footprint; and prepare our communities for the inspiration provided by the Commonwealth Games.
Sport England estimates that that 63 per cent of main sports halls and 60 per cent of swimming pools are past their expected lifespans or overdue refurbishment. This does not mean all of these assets need replacing like for like. Instead, it is vital to work with communities to design the leisure centres, sports pitches, parks and other infrastructure that will best meet their needs and enable them to build activity into their lives. This could also mean realising the potential for new facilities to revitalise the high street, be co-located with other facilities to form wellbeing or community hubs, and ensuring they meet the latest environmental standards for energy efficiency. In our calls for the Spending Review, we are asking for a strategic investment of £500 million for councils to invest in leisure facilities, pitches, and parks to reduce obesity; ensure a healthier, more active nation in the future; reduce our carbon footprint; and prepare our communities for the inspiration provided by the Commonwealth Games.
We are also proposing to work with the Government on incentivising the creation of health and wellbeing hubs. These would combine swimming pools, gyms and sports halls, with GP drop-in centres, libraries and police services, to create a one-stop-shop for public services. This would also help tackle the challenges of the current ageing infrastructure, as outlined above. Empowering the public to take greater responsibility for leading a healthy lifestyle is a task that requires a joined-up effort across all public services, not just local government.
Laura Johnson, Public Affairs Support Officer