Future of public leisure services discussed in Senedd

Future of public leisure services discussed in Senedd

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) gave evidence to the Local Government and Housing Committee at the Senedd on Thursday 4th May, discussing the future of public leisure services. 

The continued provision of vital services that public leisure facilities offer has been under unprecedented pressure and is faced with the real threat of closure across the UK. 

Despite a positive Local Government Settlement from Welsh Government, rising costs and inflation, staffing issues and geographical challenges all represent restraints upon local authorities and their operational models to maintain leisure provision, as outlined by WLGA Head of Education Sharon Davies in her Paper to the Committee. 

Leisure services are vital to public health and wellbeing, allowing the breadth of our society to maintain healthy minds and bodies and relieving dependence on other public services. Their future, however, is far from certain, as Councillor Carwyn Jones of Isle of Anglesey County Council states. 

The future of public leisure services 

“It’s difficult to say with any certainty what’s in front of us, in terms of cuts we’re going to face over the years to come,” he said. “One thing is certain which is that… provision has been cut to the bone throughout Wales. 

“But in the future, maybe we’ll have to cut more or look again at how we provide those services, as I mentioned, working with more social enterprises, fewer sites, or offering libraries and leisure in the same building as a health department – we’ll have to look at different ways.” 

Mabon ap Gwynfor MS asked the panel what the consequence of reverting to in-sourcing leisure provisions would be, and if out-sourcing was purely to cut costs and wages. 

“Look at social care,” responded Councillor Rob Stewart of Swansea Council. “Three quarters of social care is delivered through the independent or private sector. I’ve been an advocate for many years of a national care system… but the reality is that you cannot run social care on the current level of funding! So, if you want to achieve a fully funded national system, you have to put the resources in.  

“Likewise, the same applies to leisure,” he continued. “There are additional costs, they can be met, but there has to be more money in the system otherwise all you’re doing is diverting money from social care, education or other services in order to make the sort of change you want to make in the leisure services.” 

The value placed upon public leisure services 

The panel were faced with the issue of whether there is enough emphasis placed upon the value of leisure services upon questioning from Carolyn Thomas MS. 

Carwyn Jones replied, suggesting that they can quantify its impact. 

“What we have is numbers; we count how many people attend the sessions and events we put on… We know that 45,000 minutes of sports have been put on for people who are over 50. 

“We have these figures, we can work out the percentage of the population that attends (an activity), the difference it’s made with the feedback from users we have; so we have a lot of information… and the evidence is very important when we go in search of grants and we try to improve the provision.” 

He concluded by stating their importance to local communities, explaining that they “…help local people, not just with health and wellbeing but more broadly with the Welsh language and promoting sports and education.” 

“We have similar stats to Carwyn,” added Rob Stewart, “in terms of the usage and the multi-use purposes that are there, so clearly if those didn’t exist then you would lose that social benefit and additional impact.  

“Some of these are real long-burners,” he continued, “because if you don’t have leisure facilities, if you don’t have libraries, then you’ll see that in long-term health deterioration, the wellbeing of communities, the cohesion of communities, it eats into loads and loads of different parts of our social fabric. 

“We know that nearly three quarters of local authority budgets will be on social care and education, generally, and the remaining quarter to a third is on all of the other services. So, it’s not just about recognising the value they play, we’ve all, as leaders and local authority advocates, been trying our best under the hugely pressurised years of austerity budgets where budgets have gone down in real terms year on year, we’ve had to do our best as local government to try and reform and to try and rep-present services in a way we can still afford.” 

Potential legislative change to ensure that leisure provision becomes statutory 

Upon Joel James MS’ suggestion that there could be a legislative change to ensure that leisure services become statutory, Rob Stewart refuted the good that this would actually do. 

“I’d hope legislation wouldn’t be necessary…” he commented. “This is not a will issue, this is a finance issue and you can have all the legislation you want, but the funding needs to be provided, and that’s the bottom line in all of this.  

“Otherwise, you’ll give local authorities the unenviable task of rediverting funds from education or social care in order to meet their legislative requirements, so I hope it can be achieved without legislation.” 

Decarbonisation of the sector 

Alongside this, a clear vision and innovation of current systems were discussed, with decarbonisation mentioned as a factor for future sustainability.  

Rob Stewart, however, suggested that much more commitment would be necessary for this to be looked at seriously, explaining that his council’s who estate would need £700m to become net-zero by 2030, while the most recent Welsh Government Budget allocated around £20m to the issue. 

Future strategy for the sector 

Carwyn Jones went on to insist that there needs to be a cohesive strategy for the leisure sector moving forward. 

“One thing that’s worked very successfully here in Wales is the 21st-century schools policy,” he explained. “£1.4bn was invested in building 150 new educational provisions. What we don’t have in the area… is that kind of policy – what’s our vision for leisure, libraries, and joint provision for the future? 

“If there was a policy in Wales to invest, over the next 20 or 30 years, in provisions then authorities would be able to collaborate and… make effective changes to provide multi-agency services to our residents. 

“The 21st-century schools programme does provide 65% of the capital costs. If you start with that lump sum, different partners come together then, and it is doable to create a multi-purpose new centre to provide one-stop-shop services then, isn’t it? And that would be sustainable. 

“I would look to the Welsh Government to lead (a national strategy for the leisure sector) but in partnership… with Sport Wales and the WLGA, local authorities and big players – all the stakeholders that has a part in this sector,” he concluded, “and I think between us all we would be able to have a vision for the future.” 

“We should be looking at coproduction between local government, who would be the delivery arm of this, and Welsh Government together with the partners who’d potentially be able to provide a lot of those leisure expertise,” added Rob Stewart. 

View the whole Local Government and Housing Committee meeting here. 

The Welsh Sports Association (WSA) will continue to work with the Welsh Government and Sport Wales on the future of public leisure.  

We are committed to providing as much support as possible for our membership base amid the incredibly challenging financial landscape that currently threatens the sector. Our Procurement Portal, for example, has already supported grassroots clubs with their energy costs to great effect.  

Contact the WSA team to discover ore about how we can support! 

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