Alison Johnstone: Closing sports centres bad move

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Edinburgh Leisure is a council-owned company which runs most of the city’s swimming pools and other sporting facilities. No public company lacks critics but I believe it does an important job, with some truly excellent programmes,

for toddlers to octogenarians, and with special initiatives for young people in care, citizens with disabilities and health issues, and older people in disadvantaged areas.

I’ve been involved in competitive sport all my life, as an athlete in my teens and 20s; now as a qualified athletics coach. I am utterly convinced that our sporting barometer needs to be firmly set to wider participation in physical activity. Our NHS struggles to cope with the consequences of an inactive nation. Every playing field sold, every swimming pool closed puts an even greater strain on our health services.

So, why, oh why, is Edinburgh Leisure now being threatened with a 22 per cent cut which my Green colleague Councillor Chas Booth describes as a “sports Armageddon”? The city council knows that a cut of that scale will lead to centres being closed at precisely the time when Scotland’s capital should be seeking to broaden grassroots sports after a fantastic Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Back in 2010, Audit Scotland showed that Edinburgh invested less in physical recreation per head of population than any other council in Scotland, and less than a third of the commitment in Glasgow. I doubt that this has shifted much since and, if the funding cuts go ahead, budgets will be back to where they were in 2001, when visits to facilities were far less than now.

So what is to be done then? Firstly, the city council needs to take the 22 per cent cut off the table. Now. It has a review of all its sports facilities, including those in schools, under way at present. The purpose of the review should be to increase access to physical activity. That review is hamstrung with the shadow of massive cuts to the budget.

Secondly, I want to see evidence of much more joined-up thinking, not just across council departments but across public services, building on existing partnerships with NHS Lothian and increasing links with Police Scotland. I guess that older people would rather spend more time at the swimming pool or bowling club than the GP surgery and I’d much prefer to see teenagers getting stuck into five-a-side than taking up police time.

And thirdly, I want to look at how we can build on the role of Edinburgh Leisure as an arms-length company to harness greater community involvement in our sports facilities. One of the great sadnesses in the closure of Leith Waterworld three years ago was the missed opportunity to harness community capacity and funding. Let’s make Edinburgh a sporting capital to be proud of.

Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian and a former East of Scotland 800 metres and 1500 metres title holder