Temporary funding for leisure centres is a step forward, but the government needs to do far more to safeguard their future
Public goods for all, or private luxury for some? There is perhaps no greater symbol of these opposing visions than Rishi Sunak’s new private swimming pool. The prime minister’s heated pool consumes so much energy that he apparently paid for the local electricity network to be upgraded to meet its power demands. Meanwhile, many council-run swimming pools are underfunded and struggling. Almost 400 have closed in England since 2010, the majority in poorer areas. Writing recently of proposals to close a leisure centre in Gateshead, one GP warned that removing facilities from a deprived area would see “increases in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, long-term sickness and deaths”.
So it is good news that the spring budget will offer a one-off £63m grant to help public leisure centres with heating bills and energy efficiency measures. But this temporary lifeline will only stop some pools from closing in the short term: many will need more sustainable funding. It also does nothing to reopen those that have already shut. Sustained investment is needed to address the prolonged struggles that leisure centres face. Many were built in the 1960s and 70s, when spending was more generous; some have not been refurbished for more than two decades, and are becoming too old to upgrade. Even before the energy crisis, half of Britain’s pools were at risk of closure. Some need drastically retrofitting, while others need rebuilding altogether. Without a long-term plan, the risk is that many leisure centres – like other features of England’s dilapidated public realm – will fall into a state of managed decline.