Gordon Lindhurst: Sports facilities await their fate

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This summer saw publication of the much-anticipated Barclay Review into non-domestic rates. Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has given a holding response, highlighting areas in which he agrees with its conclusions and others in which more time to consult is said to be needed.

One of these is apparently the removal of rates relief for arms-length external organisations (ALEOs).

Leisure and sports facilities are often run by councils through ALEOs and an important example is Edinburgh Leisure. It also runs some golf courses in Edinburgh.

Golf clubs also bore the brunt of the Barclay Review. The recommendation was that some private member clubs should suffer the removal of rates relief. At this stage, as highlighted by the vague answer received to my recent question on the subject in the Scottish Parliament, we are none the wiser as to which ones, under what criteria, will be hit should the Scottish Government adopt the recommendation.

In these cases, public leisure and sports facilities, as well as some of our most treasured golf clubs, could receive new and significant business rates bills. Until now they have not had to pay these bills, allowing money to be invested in facilities and costs kept down, to the benefit of the wider community.

What effects might there be if the Scottish Government goes ahead with a rates raid on these providers of sporting facilities?

We are becoming increasingly aware of the disastrous effect of lack of physical activity and sport on the young people of Scotland. In the week before the Finance Secretary responded to Barclay, it was revealed that children as young as two years old are being referred to specialist weight programmes run by NHS Lothian.

This newspaper also revealed the extent to which playing fields in Edinburgh are being sold off for development, limiting the ability for sports groups such as youth football clubs to find suitable pitches to play on.

Meanwhile, Scottish Golf’s SportScotland budget has been cut from more than £1 million to around £665,000 this year. Members and golf tourists may now need to make up that shortfall. Golf courses in Lothian have been closing in recent years as financial pressures and falling membership numbers reap their toll. Torphin and Lothianburn are two that come to mind, with others struggling to make ends meet.

It has been disappointing at the lack of true enthusiasm for sporting facilities or clarity evident in the lacklustre response from Scottish Government ministers over the past two weeks. Even as a non-golfer, I can see the immense value to Scotland of continuing its ancient game.

Any need to cut facilities and increase prices for sport centres by ALEOs such as Edinburgh Leisure, if faced with a new tax bill, would be extremely concerning. Reasonably priced and well run facilities, which I do myself occasionally use, are a huge benefit to wide sections of the community.

The Scottish Government needs to come up to the mark on the rates issue and live up to its pledge to “support people to live an active and healthy lifestyle through access . . . to places to participate in physical activity”.

To fail to do so would be to empty of any meaning those oft repeated phrases we hear from this government about promoting health, equality and social inclusion.

Gordon Lindhurst is Conservative MSP for Lothian Region.