Fears for Edinburgh sports centres and swimming pools in budget cuts

Ainslie Park Leisure Centre could be at risk. Picture: Bill Henry
Ainslie Park Leisure Centre could be at risk. Picture: Bill Henry
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FRESH fears were raised today over the potential closure of sports centres and swimming pools as the city council prepares to wield the axe on next year’s budget.

The spending squeeze – which requires the council to find savings of around £162 million over the next four years – includes a further funding cut for arms-length company Edinburgh Leisure.

And opposition councillors said the latest tightening of the screw could mean previously-voiced fears of closures now being realised.

Last year’s budget cuts sparked warnings of up to eight sports centres being forced to close across the city as soon as 2016/17. And the then boss of Edinburgh Leisure said the projected reductions were likely to mean “withdrawal from multiple venues and services”.

Tomorrow’s meeting of the full council will be asked to agree that Edinburgh Leisure’s current £8.4m budget should be reduced by £334,000 next year and a further £407,000 the following year.

The report to councillors says: “Edinburgh Leisure is developing a range of savings proposals which seek to avoid service closures wherever possible.”

And it adds: “The council will continue to work with Edinburgh Leisure to ensure service impacts are mitigated wherever possible.”

But Green finance spokesman Gavin Corbett said he feared the £741,000 cut could mean closures now become a reality.

He said: “I’m really concerned about the proposed council cut to Edinburgh Leisure’s budget. Only last year Edinburgh Leisure chiefs were warning of the risk of closure for swimming pools or sports facilities and a further cut to the budget keeps that shadow looming.”

He said when the council’s ruling Labour-SNP coalition presents its budget for approval tomorrow, the Greens will put forward an amendment to restore Edinburgh Leisure’s funding.

Their motion notes “the continuing threat of swimming pool and leisure centre closures”.

The projected £2m reductions announced last year led John Comiskey, then chief executive of Edinburgh Leisure, to speak out about the “unprecedented” cuts and warn of “multiple” closures.

Research by the Evening News then revealed up to eight sports centres – a third of the council’s venues – could be forced to shut, with the leisure centres at Ainslie Park and Gracemount, Carrick Knowe Golf Course, several bowling greens and Dalry Swimming Pool among those at risk.

Only flagship venues such as the Royal Commonwealth Pool, Meadowbank, the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena and Warrender Swim Centre were said to be safe.

The council said at the time no facilities would close in the following financial year, but no guarantees were offered beyond that.

Today the SNP’s Richard Lewis, convener of culture and sport, defended the Edinburgh Leisure cut, saying the organisation had seen a £1m turnaround in its financial position since last year.

He said: “Their internal finances are much healthier than a year ago. Of course, any cut is of concern to any organisation, but they are now in a much more robust position than they were.”

He said council funding now accounted for only around 30 per cent of Edinburgh Leisure’s revenue compared with 60 per cent at the time the company was set up in 1997.

“They have doubled the number of users in that time and halved their reliance on council funding,” he said. “In terms of efficiency and bang for bucks it has been an extraordinary success story.”

And he insisted there was no immediate threat of closures. “Last year there were scare stories about centres being under threat, but that £1m change around in the space of a year means they are now in a much better situation in terms of efficiency to deal with the cuts.

“At the moment there is no reason to fear any potential venue closures.”

The council also plans to press ahead with transferring the management of school sports facilities outside class hours from the education department to Edinburgh Leisure. The move, which would increase public access to school swimming pools, gyms and football pitches on a pay-and-play basis, is projected to generate up to £1m of extra income.

Councillor Lewis said similar arrangements already existed in many other local authorities.

“Edinburgh is quite slow in coming to this,” he said. “It is a well-tried model, not only in other parts of the UK but also in other countries.

“We still have to work out exactly how it would take place, but there was an independent report last year which said the case was overwhelming for us to move to a system where Edinburgh Leisure could use its experience and expertise to run sports facilities in schools.”

Operating costs for providing public access to secondary school sports facilities has been estimated at more than £9m a year, with only around £1.2m of income generated as a result.

At least eight city secondaries – including Currie, James Gillespie’s and Balerno high schools – allow residents and community groups to use swimming pools and nearly all senior campuses in Edinburgh offer some level of access to sports halls.

The council said it was committed to encouraging greater participation in sports and exercise across all age groups in every part of the city and handing out-of-hours management of school facilities to Edinburgh Leisure was intended to increase the number of gyms, pitches and fitness suites available to the public.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com