As local towns fight to save their sports facilities, Rachael Rowe highlights the clash between budget cuts and public health priorities
What do you do when a sports centre or recreation ground that plays a critical part in the community’s health and wellbeing is at risk of closure?
With limits on the public monies available, local authorities have to make difficult spending decisions. Cutting sports and leisure funding seems inevitable. How can recreational facilities be protected, maintained and become sustainable, when closing them seems to fly in the face of the council policy of keeping people healthy?
QE Leisure Centre, Wimborne
In March 2022, Dorset Council Cabinet agreed to serve a two year notice period on the QE Leisure Centre. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring they get best value for money within their limited budgets, and their contribution to the leisure centre in Wimborne is £550,000 annually – a third of Dorset’s entire leisure budget.
From April this year, the management of the leisure centre will be handed to the Queen Elizabeth School and the general public, apart from those in clubs with prior arrangements, will no longer be able to use the facilities.
In 2021, 64 per cent of the 1,799 respondents to a public consultation said they used the facilities. A petition was launched as soon as local residents heard news of the closure. Stuart Paterson, from the group QE Leisure Centre Action, which is working on the response, described the initial reaction to the news in 2022: ‘At the time, although the clubs were happy to discuss the issue, there was a bit of reluctance to do anything because there was a widespread view that alternative arrangements would be made.
‘It’s a very popular centre and there is a lot of support for it. It looks like that’s the end of the public facility, so it will have a big impact on the community. We have a 25 metre pool that’s deep enough for scuba diving clubs to use. There are daily hydrotherapy sessions, which people are referred to for medical reasons. The prospect of that closing is a major issue. And the Wimborne Wagtails is a disability swimming group which uses the pool. Some don’t have their own transport and public transport often doesn’t tie in with the timing of sessions.
‘Although the council is quick to point out that there are three other council-run leisure centres within a 20 minute drive of Wimborne, it’s not like-for-like. Some centres don’t have the facilities that we have.’
Initio Learning Trust, which runs the school says:
‘We understand the concerns expressed by users of the QE Leisure Centre and swimming pool after the council’s decision to withdraw from running the facility from 31st March. The pool requires improvements, and in order for those to be carried out it will have to be closed for a period. It will therefore be unavailable for use from 1st April 2024. We anticipate the works will be completed in time for the new school year in September this year, which is when we expect school lessons to restart. From that point the pool may also be hired to swimming lesson providers, clubs and community groups, but we do not intend to directly provide lessons or general public swimming.’
Much like the QE Centre in Wimborne, Sturminster Newton Leisure Centre’s purpose was always to provide a sports facility for the high school as well as the local community – the land for the building was provided by the Pitt-Rivers Estate with a covenant on it to that end.
When it was at similar risk of closure due to lack of funds in 2011, an open Sturminster Newton Town Council meeting was held to find a solution. During the meeting, it was proposed that a charitable trust might take over the running of the centre as a not-for-profit organisation, and various local residents volunteered to be the trustees of the newly-formed Sturfit charity.
Sturminster Newton High School recently joined the Sherborne Area Schools Trust (SAST) and Sturfit and SAST have continued an already excellent working relationship. The leisure centre is used by several thousand people each week.
Chairman of Sturfit, Courtenay Hitchcock says: ‘During term times, Sturfit has full use of the gym and dance studio, and the school has priority use of the main hall. We manage the facility on behalf of SAST and they are responsible for the fabric of the building. We employ a full time manager, other staff are subcontracted, and we also support the numerous local small businesses who run the various classes and clubs here.
‘One of the challenges we face is the common misunderstanding that we are funded and run by the council – we’re not, and haven’t been since 2012! But the model we have is working well for all parties. Sitting down together and working out what works for everyone was key.’
The Sturfit trustees have had to work through lots of important lessons, and their experience could perhaps help those places that are now at risk of closure. Courtenay added: ‘Leisure facilities are in a difficult situation right now when running either as a for-profit private enterprise or, especially, as a cash-strapped council-funded facility. Our model is a really good solution for us and for the school.
‘From the outside, I can’t see why it wouldn’t work for Wimborne too. If there is a core of people with the will and momentum to change to a charitable model, it’s a viable option that can also open up further opportunities in terms of grant funding.’
- To support the QE leisure Centre Action petition, sign here.