We lose our leisure centres at our peril - Alex Cole-Hamilton

People often apologise to me unnecessarily. It’s usually in the World Foods aisle of Sainsbury’s or up Corstorphine Hill during a dog walk. The apology comes before something like, “I know you aren’t working but can I ask about the lack of NHS dentists locally” or “have you had an update on when the library might reopen?”
Portobello swimming pool is one of the eight venues at risk of closurePortobello swimming pool is one of the eight venues at risk of closure
Portobello swimming pool is one of the eight venues at risk of closure

Living in the area I represent means I live among the people I serve in Parliament and I actually really enjoy it when people feel they can approach me during normal life and ask for help or advice.

My favourite example of this is something my wife, Gill and I used to call the “casework sauna”. In my first years as an MSP, we used to take our kids to swimming lessons at Ainslie Park, the Edinburgh Leisure pool off Ferry Road. We would always have to look after at least one child in the main pool while the others got lessons so we had to take it in turns to relax in the sauna there.

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Almost invariably, every time it was my turn and despite me being in my trunks and without means of writing anything down, someone in the sauna would ask for some kind of help or advice, hence the term “casework sauna”.

I found myself thinking about the casework sauna when reports recently emerged about the threat to Edinburgh Leisure. Increased energy bills, inflation and other costs like the introduction of non-domestic rates on things like football pitches have created a £3.6 million blackhole in its finances.

While it is run independently as a not-for-profit by its board, much of the funding for Edinburgh Leisure comes from the council and given the threadbare state of the city coffers, following the disastrous SNP/Green draft budget published before Christmas, it’s unlikely council leaders will be able to close that gap. This could see much loved leisure facilities close and as those who campaigned to save Leith Waterworld a decade ago will tell you, once Edinburgh loses a leisure centre it’s gone for good.

While lists of facilities that may face the chop have been shared with the media, Edinburgh Leisure bosses have been quick to challenge those suggestions, saying that it’s their intention to keep everything open. Nevertheless, CEO June Peebles has stated that she still “fears for public leisure services” against such a yawning gap in their budget.

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I have written many times about the quiet death of local government finance at the hands of the SNP/Green coalition government. The year-on-year raid on the local authority block grant has taken us to the point where Edinburgh’s cupboard is bare. We are struggling to sustain so many basic services that this current crisis in Edinburgh Leisure may turn out to be just too big an ask for the council to ride to the rescue. That’s simply not good enough.

My party will always stand up for local services and access for everyone. That’s because we recognise that community leisure centres are vital to the life of our city and other communities across the country. They are great for physical and mental wellness but they are also a fantastic social leveller. They bring children and adults together from every background, every income bracket, every walk of life across our nation’s capital. They also provide much needed human contact for some of our most isolated and vulnerable residents.

People know that we lose them at our peril so they come out to fight to preserve them. With an election potentially just months away the SNP and Greens would do well to remember that.

Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP is Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats