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UK government pledges a ‘vital lifeline’ of £63m for leisure centres and pools

As part of the Spring Budget, Sport England will manage a £63m fund from the government to support at-risk leisure centres and swimming pools in wake of energy crisis
Jeremy Hunt, chancellor of the exchequer, has called the funding a ‘vital lifeline’ that will ‘keep them afloat’
More than 350 facilities have shut down or restricted services since October 2022 – just one of Freedom Leisure’s swimming pools rose from £180,000 to £600,000 in 12 months
Last month, a coalition of more than 200 national health and sports bodies, fitness and leisure groups, athletes and celebrities signed a letter to demanding support for the sector
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This is a significant and welcome amount of support from the government
Tim Hollingsworth, CEO, Sport England
Credit: Sport England

In an announcement made today in advance of tomorrow's Spring Budget (15 March), the UK government has pledged £63m to support publicly-owned swimming pools and leisure centres as part of a one-year scheme to relieve pressure caused by high fuel bills.

The funding allocation was revealed by Sport England, which is managing the fund and will be a huge relief for operators who have been battling to stay open.

Local authorities and pools run on behalf of councils by contractors and charities are eligible for support and can apply for funding to alleviate cost pressures surrounding operational, maintenance and energy bills, however, one of the main goals of the funding will be to make facilities more energy efficient to avoid the need for future subsidies. There will be no support for private sector operators.

“This is a significant and welcome amount of support from the government that will offer a lifeline to many public leisure centres across England as well as help sustain them into the future,” said Tim Hollingsworth, CEO of Sport England. “Swimming pools play a vital role in our communities and are enormously important in helping people to be physically active in their daily lives.

“We know how difficult the present situation is and have been working hard to ensure these providers get the support they need. We’ll now turn our efforts to supporting the process in the weeks ahead to distribute the funding made available today to ensure it goes where it is needed the most.”

There are more than 2,000 public leisure centres in England, over 800 of which have pools, but the economic impact of the energy crisis has driven around 350 facilities to restrict services and either close temporarily or permanently since October 2022.

“Soaring bills are hitting us all hard, and community pools have been thrown in the deep end,” said Jeremy Hunt, chancellor of the exchequer. “I know they are loved by millions of people and this vital lifeline will keep them afloat.”

In February 2023, less than one month before the funding and Spring Budget announcement, a coalition of more than 200 national health and sports bodies, fitness and leisure groups, athletes and celebrities signed a letter to the prime minister asking for energy crisis support. Demands in the letter included setting out support for the sector to navigate the energy crisis and producing a plan for growth for the industry in line with the proposed new Sports Strategy and Spring Budget.

In response to the government's funding scheme announcement today, Huw Edwards, CEO of UK Active said: "We welcome the announcement of this package of financial support that will help those parts of the sector most exposed to the increase in energy prices. We will now support the government and Sport England to channel this financial package to those facilities most at need, helping to retain services and keep facilities open.

“Going forward, we will continue to share sector insight with the government to monitor future energy price trends, and work with them to ensure these facilities play their fullest role in helping improve the health and wellbeing of the nation."

BACKGROUND TO THE CRISIS

In January 2023, the government had scaled back its support for businesses battling the energy crisis, capping it at £5.5bn from 1 April 2023 (the previous scheme from 1 Oct 2022 to 31 March 2023 was £16bn). It was unclear why business activities such as museums, zoos and botanical gardens were classified as “energy intensive” and listed under Energy and Trade Intensive Industries or ETIIs when swimming pools and leisure centres were not, although it has since emerged that government data which indicates the size of industry sectors may have been out of date, showing the industry as being far smaller than it actually is.

At the time, Huw Edwards, CEO of UK Active, said the implications of the new Energy Bill Relief Scheme (EBRS) would be “severe” and, along with Active Partnerships, CIMSPA, the Local Government Association, the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the Sport for Development Coalition, Swim England and the Youth Sport Trust, issued a joint statement highlighting the need for economic support as part of the Energy Bills Discount Scheme (EBDS).

Towards the end of last year, UK Active confirmed it was receiving daily reports of shutdowns or service restrictions from across the leisure industry. Data from a survey in November 2022, demonstrated that 40 per cent of council leisure centres and swimming pools were at risk of closure by March 2023 without additional government funding.

Freedom Leisure, a not-for-profit leisure and cultural trust, for example, saw bills for three sites rise by more than £1m annually since 2019. Even under the Energy Bill Relief Scheme (EBRS), costs for one of Freedom Leisure’s swimming pools rose from £180,000 to £600,000 a year.

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The government has pledged £63m to support publicly-owned swimming pools and leisure centres as part of a one-year scheme.
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