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Protecting the leisure sector is more important now than ever

Copyrights: Tevarak Phanduang/Unsplash

Protecting the leisure sector is more important now than ever

Across the world, but particularly in the United Kingdom a fresh crisis is emerging. However, communities are once again proving to be more powerful than crises.

A lack of leisure provision has been caused as lockdowns have prevented people from attending leisure centres, gyms, swimming pools and athletics tracks. Further, with the UK government advising people to conduct daily outdoor exercise, changes in physical activity behaviour have seen a reduced demand on leisure services.

Leisure companies have still faced maintenance, rent, and staff costs that need to be paid, despite their reduced income. It is obvious why this sector is struggling but the impact of this on leisure facilities, particularly those in community and public ownership, is alarming. For instance, there are more than 2800 publicly owned and ran leisure facilities across the UK, and Community Leisure UK, the national members organisation for these organisations, have suggested that up to half of these may face permanent closure by Christmas. This would mean the loss of 1,300 centres by the end of the year, along with more than 58,000 jobs.

Campaigns have been launched nationally to offset the damage to the sector that this virus has caused. The #saveleisure campaign has been effective in bringing this issue directly to the Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. What campaigns hope to achieve by raising awareness of this issue, is to unlock additional funding form the government in the UK that can support these leisure facilities. Campaigners have argued that these facilities are integral to the UK Government’s public health agenda of reducing obesity and improving health. As shown by Professor Nanette Mutrie MBE, Chair of Physical Activity for Health at the University of Edinburgh, who stated:

“The leisure industry must be saved if we are to prevent an increasing cost burden for the NHS [National Health Service] in dealing with increasing obesity, type 2 diabetes and poor mental health which loss of activity will create. Money used to save such facilities, which are in danger of permanent closure due to the impact of the pandemic, must be seen as an investment and as future cost saving to the NHS. Public leisure facilities need to re-open in order that the health benefits of activity are available to all and all age groups and not just to those who can afford a private membership.”

Even at local levels of politics this campaign has been effective. In Peterborough, the city’s leisure trust, Vivacity, collapsed in June. Meaning that after £8m of COVID caused losses, the trust handed its contract for leisure operation back to the City Council. Whilst uncertainty for these facilities loomed, the efforts of local campaigners, local sport leaders, and the local media, meant that the fate of these leisure facilities was at the top of the Council’s agenda. This meant the Council discussed opening facilities ahead of their initial plan, and gave locals the space and places necessary to conduct physical activity.

The scenario in Peterborough is just one of many recent instances where the efforts of local people to #saveleisure, has ensured that leisure provision is valued and provided, in a time when it is needed most. Other efforts have included proposals for further community ownership of leisure facilities. Dr Lindsay Findlay-King at Northumbria University has suggested that to further save these essential facilities, they may need to be placed into community ownership.

Regardless of who provides these facilities and services, what has become clear recently is that they are essential and they are valued. If governments across the world are to deliver their public health agendas, then safeguarding the spaces and places for physical activity to occur is of paramount importance. As these examples of community ownership, community activism, and the #saveleisure campaign illustrate, communities will take action when they feel their government does not appreciate the transformative, health-enhancing, and socially benevolent outcomes of leisure provision.

If we are to offset the public health impact that COVID-19 has caused, then a joined-up approach from governments, clubs and communities is the way forward. Furthermore, achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, rely on the provision of these services. For instance, at least 50% of our global population live in cities. But as the faces of these cities are changing, sport and leisure provision and the subsequent public health benefits are essential in building collective resilience to the challenges faced in cities.

Therefore, we can get back on track, but we need to open them first!

Stuart Haw is PhD Candidate in Community Asset Transfer of Sport and Leisure Facilities. He also runs a blog, which can be found here

Twitter: @haw_stuart



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Stuart Haw


Monday, September 14, 2020 - 17:50