Cabinet met this week to determine the future of Gateshead Council's Leisure Services

Cabinet met yesterday (24 January) to determine the future of Gateshead Council's Leisure Services and which centres should be closed to create a stock of leisure centres which are aligned to the Council's budget. 

In October 2022, a report to cabinet identified through a desktop analysis that Dunston Leisure Centre, Gateshead Leisure Centre and the Birtley Sports Hall were most at risk of closure. The report clearly identified that the proposals could change following public consultation. Cabinet agreed in October for the council to carry out a public consultation to bridge the gaps in understanding of how potential closures may impact upon residents. A detailed analysis of the feedback from the public consultation changed officer recommendations from the original desktop evaluation to Birtley Swimming Centre and Gateshead Leisure Centre. 

The decision to review the Council's Leisure Services is a financially driven exercise. Due to increasing costs and decreasing income, leisure centres have been relying on the council to subsidise the cost, currently at £1.9m on top of the £2.2m budget (£4.1m in total). The council is now in a position where it must consider all options to provide a leisure service with a sustainable future. At a time where the cost of living is at its highest the Council is facing increased pressure to deliver its essential services as its budget has decreased by £900 per resident. Essential services delivered by the council are accessed by our most vulnerable residents at a time they need support and help the most. 

At yesterday's Cabinet meeting the Leader of the Council Martin Gannon agreed to grant a 3-month extension to the review process. Birtley Swim Centre and Gateshead Leisure Centre would have faced closure at the end of March if the paper presented to Cabinet this morning had been agreed. Councillor Gannon has asked Council to reopen the consultation process to the public and for conversations on community asset transfer to continue but warned that the extension to the consultation will use £900K of council reserves and funds are not infinite and continuous extensions are not possible. 

Throughout the initial consultation period the Council has had discussions with community groups that have expressed an interest in taking ownership of the leisure centres through a Community Asset Transfer. However, operating and maintaining a leisure centre is no small task and the Council wants to ensure the community groups are fully prepared for the commitment they would be taking on. 

No formal timeline on when the consultation will open has been determined by the Council. Officers are looking at the logistics of the extended consultation period, but the Council does not want to delay the process and use additional reserves if avoidable. 

The Council are also continuing to support Council employees who work at the leisure centres during this extremely unsettling period.  

Cllr Martin Gannon, Leader of Gateshead Council, said: "I am committing nearly a million pounds to ensure that we have a rounded view of the impact potential closures will have on our residents. This will also provide additional time to ensure that community groups which have expressed an interest in running the leisure centres have a fair opportunity to present their business case. 
"Closing leisure centres is a devastating decision to consider. I appreciate the impact that this will have on residents who frequently use these centres. But over Christmas we had 69 adults in hospital who could not be discharged because there wasn't the support available for them to return to their homes and to me we must prioritise this area of spend with our limited budgets, in order to protect our most vulnerable residents. Over the last 12 years we have had a 56% reduction in our budget, we have to make these devastating decisions to protect the sustainability of the council. 
"We recently made the political decision to apply for Levelling Up funding. Government have recently given us the £20m of Levelling Up funding for the new arena, conference and exhibition space on the Quayside. The development of the Quayside will have numerous economic benefits for Gateshead including creating 2,000 long-term sustainable jobs. It is evidence that when people are in good work that it protects against social exclusion and residents can live better and healthier lives." 
Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health, said: "No director of public health would want to be recommending to Cabinet these incredibly difficult decisions. This is a financially driven report as we have to balance increasing demands on council services alongside a significant reduction in the revenue grant. The health and wellbeing of all our residents is a priority to me and the Council, but we have residents who are having to choose between heating and eating and we must endeavour to reach those who need our services. 

"I fully accept concerns that the closure of the leisure centres will impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents that use them. I also understand that this could potentially lead to increased pressure on NHS services. In recent years initiatives such as social prescribing have been established with the aim of supporting residents to live an active life through activities which are free to access, such as walking. 

"I am in regular contact with my NHS colleagues to discuss the impact of potential closures will have on them. I will continue this dialogue as we move through the next phase of the consultation process."