Leisure boss speaks out on closures plan

By Richard Whitehouse   |   Local Democracy Reporter   |
Sunday 24th October 2021 10:00 am
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A recent protest against the closure of leisure centres in Cornwall at County Hall. Photo by Richard Whitehouse

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The man responsible for Cornwall’s leisure centres has said he was “surprised” when Cornwall Council’s Cabinet rejected a funding plan which would keep all facilities open.

James Curry, head of service for GLL in Cornwall, has spoken of how the company is 100% committed to providing leisure services in the county and says that he does not want to see any centres close.

The boss spoke to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after the announcement that GLL had indicated that it can no longer operate leisure centres in Falmouth, Launceston, Saltash and Wadebridge as well as the hydrotherapy pool in St Austell due to financial pressures.

In a wide ranging interview Mr Curry revealed:

Cornwall Council’s Cabinet rejected an option which would have ensured that no centres would close

That GLL had to consider how it could continue running services in Cornwall after seeing all income stopped due to covid-19

The council asked GLL to carry out an assessment of its services just weeks after they had reopened after the lockdown

Claims that the council has not made any provision for the future of leisure centres

That GLL had not wanted a public consultation as they knew it would be a “bloodbath” for the company and the council

Cornwall Council is currently carrying out consultation on its leisure strategy which is asking for alternative ways to save the at-risk services.

It has built this strategy based on a report from consultants who were brought in to undertake a review of leisure provision in Cornwall.

Mr Curry, who said he has worked in the leisure sector for 25 years, said that GLL did not want to see any centres close.

He explained that after lockdown started GLL had discussions with all its local authority partners including Cornwall Council to assess the impact that shutdown would have on services.

Those discussions went on for weeks and months and eventually the council offered a loan facility of up to £3.4million.

Once centres were able to reopen the company found that some – the four which are currently under threat – would be more difficult to get back and so the council provided a £620,000 grant to GLL so they could reopen. That money would only maintain support to July this year.

Mr Curry said: “The discussions at that time was that covid had rewritten the rulebook to some extent. The long term future for leisure provision in Cornwall, which was a marginal business anyway, it looked really bleak.

“The council agreed to do a strategic leisure review to look at all their options before July 2021. They engaged a company to provide an independent view on leisure in Cornwall, how covid had impacted it and the future of the service.”

However, that review was hampered by the lockdown and so it did not start until February this year.

Mr Curry said: “That review was going to look at a whole range of options from taking the service back in house and looking at the viability of all leisure centres, not just those run by GLL, and also look at the future lifespan of those centres and whether they were viable in the post covid environment; and whether the contract was achievable. It was going to look at everything and then come back with options. It hasn’t done that.”

GLL was then asked by the council in May to provide its own review and options for the service. However the centres had only recently reopened after lockdown and were operating under strict restrictions.

Mr Curry said: “We presented two options – the first option was our preferred option and was to have financial support for the four centres that are currently at risk. We estimated that would require around £700,000 a year.”

The GLL boss said that this had been based on estimates as the most recent figures they had were for centres which were operating with reduced numbers as they had only just come out of lockdown. He said that GLL had since revised the figure down to £439,000.

He added: “The second option, which is not our preferred option, is to reduce the portfolio and look at devolving of centres. We had done this previously with Newquay Sports Centre and Princess Pavilion in Falmouth to remove the liability off our contract.

“We were told that Cabinet had reviewed that and noted that no funding was available and option one was ruled out, so they went to option two.”

Mr Curry said that discussions continued and GLL were concerned that the decision was made without the council considering the outcome of the strategic review that it had commissioned as it had not been completed.

The council then decided that it would launch a public consultation on its leisure strategy which used the recommendations which had been made in the strategic review along with the second option put forward by GLL.

Mr Curry said that the company was not happy about the consultation route saying: “We knew in our minds that public consultation would be a bloodbath and wouldn’t be easy for GLL, council officers or members.

“We were not overly keen to go down this route, but the members wanted to go down this path.”

The company has since been concerned by the amount of negative comments which have been made as part of the consultation process.

But he said that the strategic review had agreed that the current contract that GLL has with the council is not sustainable. And he said there were concerns about the condition of the facilities in Cornwall.

“The centres are ageing, there is no long term planning for what will happen with those centres. The contract is for 25 years but there is no future replacement programme.

“It (the review) backs up GLL’s view that in the current climate that it is not sustainable to run the centres. But it hasn’t provided the answers that we were told would come from the previous administration.”

Turning to the possible closure of the four centres we asked Mr Curry about concerns that there would not be sufficient capacity at other centres for services like school swimming lessons.

However he assured us that there would be sufficient capacity “but they may not get the exact time that they currently get”. He did admit that the biggest challenge for schools would be transport to other centres.

Mr Curry added: “GLL are not in the business of closing leisure centres. We are a charitable organisation, a people-led organisation. It is not in our interests to be closing leisure centres, we want them to operate.”

However he said that the firm could not continue to operate centres “at a negative position” and said: “Cornwall has always been a challenging contract. We set a transformation plan in place that would deliver and reach a break even position. Then covid came along. We are at 75% of our 2019 income levels, we have tried to reduce our costs. It is a costly business running pools particularly. It costs £10 to £12 for every customer who comes in and our charge is £5 to £6. We subsidise almost every visit to the pool and that is done through the core business which is gym membership. That is a model that almost every leisure business uses.

“We don’t want to close centres, we very much want to support the council in finding solutions.”

On the individual centres Mr Curry said that Ships & Castles in Falmouth was “a very difficult site to get a break even position”.

“It is extremely costly, particularly on energy costs. It costs £250,000 just for heat, light and water in that swimming pool. It is a labour intensive pool to manage because of the shape of it.

“It is not a traditional swimming pool, you don’t get fitness swimmers in there. It is a hard site and it always has been. The strategic review was clear about it, that building a leisure pool on the headland was not particularly sensible and they need to rethink the provision in Falmouth. Most of the local people in Falmouth probably recognise that themselves.

“We don’t want to close centres, but we also want to provide facilities which meet the needs of the community. I don’t think Ships & Castles does that.”

Mr Curry said that he was concerned that the high costs of running the centre would make it difficult for another organisation to step in and take the Falmouth centre on.

“I don’t know how a local organisation is going to come in and pick up some of those overheads themselves. You can’t shut off gas, electric and water at Ships & Castles for example and it will cost someone £250,000 at least and it could be another £250,000 or something next year.”

In Saltash Mr Curry said that GLL was engaged with the local community and said that there had been support for GLL with positive comments about staff and the services provided.

He said that meetings would continue and they would continue to support any alternative ways of keeping the centre open.

The picture in Wadebridge is different and Mr Curry admitted that there “is probably quite a lot of bad feeling about GLL” in the town.

“That centre serves a very small community and it has always been difficult to get that to a sustainable position despite it being a really nice community centre. It is an ideal leisure centre for that catchment area with a good range of facilities, the problem is getting the footfall through the door.

“I know we have been criticised for taking classes out but we are operating at zero subsidy, if you don’t have many people coming in you can’t sustain services that have very low numbers. When you have classes with three or four people in them you can’t continue to operate them.”

The key to keep services open is to increase membership and this is an area that Mr Curry said had been most impacted by covid.

He said that membership rates had not returned to pre-covid levels but he also appreciated that there were people who were apprehensive about returning to leisure centres and also people having to make financial choices – he recognised that leisure services would be the first cost to be cut from a household budget when necessary.

Mr Curry also responded to criticism about the booking systems used by centres and a perceived lack of promotion of services which are available.

On marketing he said that GLL uses 3% of turnover on marketing and said that like many businesses this was focused on digital promotion rather than more traditional methods such as leaflets.

However he admitted that there was a need to improve this and said that it was something that the company was looking at as a matter of urgency.

But he also added that most local people know where their local leisure centre is and encouraged people to go to them and find out what is available.

On the booking system Mr Curry said that like many businesses this was introduced after lockdown to limit numbers and ensure the centres are covid safe.

He defended the company’s app and said that staff had been helping people who were struggling to use it and said that more help was being made available.

However he also said that all centres now allow people to walk in and use facilities and said that while it is better to book customers don’t have to.

Looking to the future Mr Curry said that GLL wanted to continue providing leisure services and stressed again that under its preferred option it did not want any to close.

“GLL are 100% committed to the contract. The biggest issue right now is that we don’t know what the future holds in terms of covid. We have had reports about concerns about a rise of cases, if plan B comes in and brings restrictions that will hurt us. We are vulnerable, the same as hospitality and tourism, the sectors that bring together people indoors.

“Our overheads are high and we work in a very low margin business. Cornwall is incredibly low margin, you can’t cut off all overheads and maintain a service. It is very, very difficult.

“The council has its own challenges and so they have no funding available.”

Asked whether he was surprised that the council did not consider the possibility of providing more funding to keep the centres open he said he was, but could understand why.

“We were surprised but it’s a new administration and they have other commitments, they have a housing crisis, they have adult social care. They made it very clear that they just don’t have the money.

“Whether that will change following the backlash and the consultation I don’t know. But we will support the council in finding the best way forward and we will work with them to try and find solutions.”

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