Mayor John Biggs has written to the Prime Minister calling for the government to step in to ‘save our sports’ and provide a financial lifeline for council gyms and leisure centres.

During the lockdown gyms and leisure facilities, which are operated in Tower Hamlets by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) under the ‘Better’ brand, were closed in line with government advice to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. With facilities closed for over four months it has resulted in a major loss of income to GLL which operates across 12 other boroughs in the capital.

At a Cabinet meeting last week, the Mayor agreed a new funding deal that would pay a management fee of £593k to GLL to provide it with a financial lifeline. At the same time the council has begun a ‘safety first, phased approach to re-opening leisure centres’ which has seen 4 centres initially re-open with ‘Covid safe’ measures in place.

In his letter the Mayor highlights to the Prime Minister that with the council’s finances having also been hit by Coronavirus, government needs to step in to secure the long-term future of public sector leisure centres. The letter highlights that while in some cases the government has said where losses are more than 5% of a council’s planned income from sales, fees and charges the government will cover them for 75p in every pound lost, it does not apply in this case to the council’s leisure contract.

The Mayor also challenged the Prime Minister to honour his pledge made before the 2012 Olympics for a “massive sporting legacy” to ensure no matter what people’s background or where they lived they would have access to quality sports and leisure.

Mayor John Biggs said: “It’s important that the Prime Minister listens so residents can access gyms and leisure facilities as part of the Olympic legacy we were promised. When the government is promoting an anti-obesity campaign, investing in these facilities would be the best way to help my residents and support our future Olympians in Tower Hamlets.”

Councillor Sabina Akhtar, Cabinet Member for Culture, Arts & Brexit said: “We’ve done the right thing by stepping in now to protect our gyms and leisure centres. However all councils are facing a budget black hole due to Coronavirus, and the way that government has designed some of the support councils can access means our gyms and leisure facilities are missing out. It would be a shame for government to announce the reopening of leisure centres across the country, only to then not intervene to give support which risks them closing their doors again.”

Text of the letter sent from the Mayor to the Prime Minister:

Along with 12 other London boroughs our leisure centres and gyms are managed by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) operating under the ‘Better’ brand. Across London, local authorities had to close their leisure and gym facilities due to the Coronavirus lockdown and these are only gradually now reopening.

As a result, GLL have had a severe loss in income which has been compounded by their inability to generate income and the need to maintain facilities and pay their staff. Every borough has had to provide significant financial support to keep GLL afloat and ensure we retain the ability to operate our leisure facilities following the lockdown. This will help to keep them operating for now but is not a long-term funding solution.

Obviously as local authorities we have also experienced a severe loss in our income and increased spending to meet the challenge of coronavirus. The Government’s instruction to ‘spend what was needed’ at the start of the lockdown has not been backed up with the funding to match. Put simply, the challenge of financially supporting the leisure operators is not one councils can afford to meet alone.

As the lockdown gradually lifts, we are working with GLL to look at options to phase in use of facilities where we can, however this in itself involves a lot of work to ensure that the facilities are COVID-safe and are operating at reduced capacity. It’s important to our residents that they have access to sports and leisure facilities. We’ve known for a long time that tackling health inequalities is vitally important, and the impact of Coronavirus has highlighted how keeping residents fit and healthy is one of the best ways of protecting their overall physical and mental health. This is particularly the case for public sector leisure centres which offer a far wider range of options often including significantly discounted or free access for vulnerable, young or older groups which the private sector does not. It is also clear that given the high cost of running swimming pools, very few private sector leisure facilities include pools.

With London’s record number of obese children, high costs and high levels of poverty we want to promote sport and leisure that is affordable and accessible to everyone. Ahead of the 2012 Olympics you pledged a “massive sporting legacy” to ensure no matter what people’s background or where they lived they would have access to quality sports and leisure. In your own words, “sporting opportunity can be part of an early intervention strategy that tackles child poverty and under achievement.” Public sector leisure centres are the cornerstone of that work.

The government set out that where losses are more than 5% Government will support councils and meet 75% of the losses. However this does not apply to services that are ‘commissioned out’. It is common that sports and leisure are commissioned out as we have done and it seems unfair that they should not benefit simply because of the model put in place before COVID-19.

We ask you to look at what steps the government can take to offer financial assistance to GLL and other leisure providers to ensure they can continue to operate.

If you do not act then our residents face the real threat of losing some of their treasured sports and leisure facilities. Public sector leisure centres are a public asset. It’s time the government acts to Save Our Sports.

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