In December 2021, the Committee published the report A national plan for sport, health and wellbeing. The key recommendations to the Government were to develop a national plan for sport, health and wellbeing, featuring a new delivery and funding structure and strengthened monitoring and evaluation metrics.
- Leisure centres and swimming pools are more than a lifestyle choice, they are a vital service. The NHS’ performance relies on leisure facilities to deliver its services - two thirds of cancer rehabilitation services and 79 per cent of social prescribing initiatives are delivered in leisure centres. 94 per cent of councils report using leisure centres in schemes to tackle health inequalities.
- Public sport and leisure services across the country are facing a financial crisis as they recover from Covid-19. On top of this, leisure services and swimming pools haven't been made eligible for extra support from the Energy and Trade Intensive Industries scheme and the Energy Bills Discount Scheme. The LGA is calling for them be reclassified as energy intensive as part of Energy Bills Discount Scheme so they have access to the higher level of discount on energy prices.
- Without the Government’s support it is anticipated that 40 per cent of council areas will lose their leisure centres or will see reduced services before 31 March 2023, and three quarters (74 per cent) of council areas are classified as ‘unsecure’, meaning there is risk of the closure of leisure centres or reduced services before 31 March 2024.
- Councils are responsible for provision of, or supporting, both formal and informal opportunities for activities. They 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 spend over £1 billion per year on sport, leisure and green spaces, parks and playgrounds.
- Reductions to councils’ core funding, dating pre-pandemic, has meant that councils and providers have needed to focus on income generation to run facilities. While councils worked hard to ensure most facilities were self-sustaining through a combination of driving efficiencies and income-generation, significant challenges remain in generating sufficient income to invest in capital projects. As a result, over two thirds of leisure facilities and swimming pools are past their expected lifespans or overdue refurbishment. Making many facilities energy inefficient and costly to run.
- Councils and their partners have been working together to transform facilities into assets fit to meet the challenges of the future. Many Levelling Up Fund bids from councils are aimed at continuing this transformation and Government has chosen to invest in many of these bids. But if council-run and commissioned facilities close because of unaffordable running costs, these transformations will not happen and a core plank of the levelling up approach will fail. We want to work in partnership with Government to accelerate this work and invest in a sustainable, energy-efficient infrastructure that can deliver on our shared ambitions for the country for generations to come.
- The Government’s yet to be published sports strategy should be aligned with the Spring Budget in a “plan for growth” for the Sector, to unlock the potential of the sector to support the economic, health, and social wellbeing of the nation.
In December 2021, the Committee published the report A national plan for sport, health and wellbeing. The key recommendations to the Government were to develop a national plan for sport, health and wellbeing, featuring a new delivery and funding structure and strengthened monitoring and evaluation metrics. The principles underpinning the national plan were to improve physical literacy, foster a welcoming and inclusive environment, promote behaviour change and motivation, tackle inequalities, and link sport with development.
The LGA was pleased to see the report acknowledge the need for a radical shift in thinking and delivery at national level to better reflect the contribution sport and recreation makes to wider policy objectives. In addition to their vital role in supporting the health of the nation, increasing activity levels and tackling inequalities.
The LGA fully supports the report’s recommendations to introduce a long-term, cross-government national plan to integrate sport and recreation services into health systems and to invest in sport and recreation at grassroots and community level. With inactivity levels rising and statistics showing disparities in physical literacy across the country, the current delivery and funding streams are fractured and ineffective to tackle inequalities. It’s vital that we embrace new ways of working and ensure communities have the same levels of access to achieve healthier lifestyles.
The LGA agrees that a new, dedicated Minister for Sport, Health and Wellbeing leading this work would have an enormously beneficial impact on the health and wellbeing of residents in this country while reducing the burden on over-stretched NHS and public health resources. As place-shapers, local authorities are at the forefront of this delivery and stand ready to support the development and implementation of this plan. Through their leisure services, parks, transport responsibilities, and public health teams, as well as their support for myriad grassroots groups and clubs, councils have an essential role to play in supporting the nation to be active. Their role must be central to any new national plan for sport and recreation. However, the current financial situation for local government threatens existing partnership working and delivery.
The budget decisions being made now leading to the closure or mothballing of facilities do not reflect councils’ ambition for their communities or their recognition of the benefits of these services to their communities. We must ensure they are able to continue their essential work for communities.
The Government responded to the Report in February 2022. The Government agreed with the Committee’s overarching recommendation on a need for a new ambitious national plan, and that sport, health and wellbeing are closely linked, which will be set out in a new sports strategy and an updated School Sport and Activity Action Plan and the National Physical Activity Framework.
We are deeply concerned by the Government’s decision to exclude swimming pools and leisure centres from the list of sectors eligible for higher support under the Government’s Energy Bills Discount Scheme. This is despite the sector submitting significant evidence to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which demonstrated that leisure facilities are highly energy intensive to run and are at high risk of closure due to the severity of financial pressures.
Since 2019, energy bills at leisure centres have risen by 300 per cent. Providers are also facing wider financial pressures, such as meeting increases in the National Living Wage and increases in the cost of goods, services and chemicals. At the same time, footfall and income is still below pre-COVID levels. The cost of living crisis has intensified the tough decisions people are having to make regarding their expenditure, which includes leisure centre memberships.
Sporting and leisure facilities were already highly vulnerable going into this crisis. Prior to the pandemic, reductions in councils core funding meant that councils and providers had to focus on income generation to run facilities. While councils worked hard to ensure most facilities were self-sustaining through a combination of driving efficiencies and boosting income-generating activities, significant challenges remained in generating sufficient income to invest in capital projects. As a result, over two thirds of leisure facilities and swimming pools are past their expected lifespans or overdue refurbishment, making many facilities energy inefficient and costly to run.
During the pandemic, councils across the country invested £159 million to keep facilities afloat, alongside £144 million of provider reserves, and in addition to the Government’s welcome £100 million national leisure recovery fund. Providers operate on small profit margins, ploughing money back into the service to support communities, and now they have used up their reserves, they are simply unable to cover the significant increase in costs. The Local Government Finance Settlement for 2023/24, announced on 8 February, provides a welcome overall increase in baseline funding for local authorities, but we are concerned that a significant proportion of the increase in core spending power for 2023/24 has been achieved through a combination of potentially one-off grants, ring-fenced funding, re-allocation of existing funding, and the assumption that local authorities will implement council tax increases.
This is particularly significant for those councils who deliver leisure responsibilities, who will see the smallest increase in their budgets and have the least flexibility in using this funding to support their leisure services. At the same time, the announcement of the Public Health grant has been further delayed, hindering the possibility of using this funding to support services and putting at risk those health services that are commissioned through leisure providers, including Tier 2 weight management schemes.
Unique value for public sport and leisure
Ninety-four per cent of councils report using leisure centres in schemes to tackle health inequalities and 97 per cent of councils and leisure providers wish to commission these services to do more. Recent health economics research shows that an increase in healthy life expectancy by 3.7 years could be achieved over a decade if leisure centres were used to deliver a national physical activity improvement scheme (DCN).
Our national public sport and leisure sector is more than a lifestyle choice. It provides an essential service to communities, to public services and to the public purse. It provides affordable opportunities for 8.9 million users annually to be active and is especially important for users in more deprived areas who prefer to exercise in a leisure centre over other informal settings. Fourteen million swimmers a year would have nowhere else to swim without their local pool. Swimming saves the health system £357 million per year.
The NHS’ performance relies on leisure facilities to deliver its services - two thirds of cancer rehabilitation services and 79 per cent of social prescribing initiatives are delivered in leisure centres. 72 per cent of schools use public swimming pools to deliver their statutory responsibility for learning to swim and the water safety curriculum. 75 per cent of grassroots sports clubs rely on public leisure centres to operate.
Savings accrued from being physically active amounts to £9.5 billion per year. £5.2 billion of this is in healthcare savings and £1.7 billion is in social care savings. A further £20 billion of value comes from stronger and safer communities. It provides an estimated 585,000 jobs in the UK, providing opportunities for young people who make up a large proportion of the paid workforce: 45 per cent are aged 16-24 and 21 per cent are aged 25-34.
Physical activity and grassroots sport have an essential role in tackling the loneliness and obesity epidemics that pose a longer-term threat to our nation’s health which have worsened during the pandemic. Grassroots and community sport also have a fundamental role in bringing communities together, promoting mixing of different groups in healthy competition, and as a positive activity for young people.
Leisure services are essential to public health and wellbeing, and to quality of life for individuals. They produce quantifiable and cashable savings to the NHS. East Riding leisure services moving from double the national average of bariatric operations to half the national average in 8 years, and saving the NHS £2.5 million in the process.
Although councils currently spend over £1 billion per annum on sport, leisure and green spaces, parks and playgrounds, these services are discretionary There is a real and immediate risk that many services will close. Already some facilities are being closed due to the immediate budget pressures from COVID-19, while as far back as 2017 the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee found that some councils had had to reduce parks budgets by 97percent over five years. Unless local government, and its leisure providers, are put on a sustainable financial footing, we will experience a significant loss of public amenities which are relied upon by communities with drastic consequences for the nation’s health and wellbeing. Facility closures will have unintended consequences on the Government’s commitment to protect vulnerable communities and vital public services like the NHS and social care, reduce inequalities and grow the economy.
This is not a call for a hand-out. Councils and their partners have been working together to transform facilities into assets fit to meet the challenges of the future, whether co-locating with GP surgeries to create wellness hubs, retrofitting with solar panels and heat pumps, or energy-efficient newbuilds that boost participation and cost less to run. Many Levelling Up Fund bids from councils are aimed at continuing this transformation and Government has chosen to invest in many of these bids. But if council-run and commissioned facilities, including Trusts and Community Interest Companies (CiCs), close because of unaffordable running costs, these transformations will not happen and a core plank of the levelling up approach will fail.
We want to work in partnership with Government to accelerate this work and invest in a sustainable, energy-efficient infrastructure that can deliver on our shared ambitions for the country for generations to come.
Risk to participation in sport and recreation
The failure to identify ongoing support for the sector will be the final straw for certain facilities and services across the country – especially for swimming pools, which cannot be replaced by limited private sector provision and where Sport England data shows swimmers do not transfer to another form of activity.
Without further Government support a November survey by Ukactive showed that 40 per cent of council areas will likely see leisure centres close or services reduce before 31 March 2023. Three quarters (74 per cent) of council areas are classified as ‘unsecure’, meaning there is risk of closure or reduced services before 31 March 2024. Many provider contracts also have legally binding schedules that transfer the risk of energy price increases to their local authority meaning pressures will likely come to a head at the end of this financial year, affecting council budgets for 2023/24.
Councils have a number of key ambitions for their leisure facilities and would welcome Government’s support. Our key asks in the near to medium term include:
- Reclassifying swimming pools and leisure centres as energy intensive as part of Energy Bills Discount Scheme so they have access to the higher level of discount on energy prices.
- Set out what tangible support it will provide to the wider sector – including gyms and sports facilities – to help navigate the energy crisis across 2023 so that service restrictions and facility closures can be minimised.
- Set out a “plan for the growth” for the sector by aligning the proposed new Sports Strategy with the Spring Budget to unlock the potential of the sector to support the economic, health, and social wellbeing of the nation.
- Improving local delivery requires a joined-up approach at national level. While stronger cross-Government working is a feature of the Sporting Future Strategy 2015, it has not delivered on its ambition. A lack of ownership for strategic policy for sport and health outcomes at a national level causes challenges for councils and local partners when seeking to join up these initiatives in their local places. We recommend a strategic partnership between Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and local government is established better join up national and local systems.
- Overall, Government funding where it is available is frequently fragmented and accompanied by bureaucratic and burdensome bidding processes. A National Plan for Sport and Recreation, or a refresh of Our Sporting Nation, could help improve this by requiring and reminding departments of the need to work collaboratively across Government.
- While Government states that DCMS works closely with other departments like Levelling Up, Education, and Health and Social Care, this could be evidenced more through policy announcements, funding streams, and objectives. Improved co-ordination through shared Ministerial responsibilities or an inter-ministerial group could help to address this. In particular, the forthcoming sport strategy must be a cross-government strategy, and not a DCMS strategy.