The Decline of Community Sport- Can you Help?

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Up and down Scotland and the rest of UK local leisure centres, swimming pools and gyms are at a crisis point. Community sport needs urgent help.

This week has seen a last ditch attempt from the swimming community to alert Westminster to what will happen to the UK’s swimming pools if urgent funding isn’t provided. As you could imagine the cost of heating a pool in a Scottish climate isn’t cheap, but many pools have seen their bills triple in light of the recent energy crisis.

This should be relatable to Mr Rishi Sunak as he too has his own pool to heat at his country estate. A man of the people struggling with the rest of us, but I guess he can always head over to his tennis court if his pool is out of order.

Scottish Olympian Duncan Scott also commented on the disaster that could see half of all pools close in the UK or be forced to offer reduced services by the end of the year. He wanted to see the government commit to putting swimming pools and other leisure buildings on a vulnerable status, entitling them to more support with energy bills.

Among the importance of communities being able to swim is the need for children to have access to swimming lessons, especially since Scotland has one of the worst drowning rates for a Western European country. However you also can’t forget the huge amount of jobs on the line, there are approximately 880 swimming pools in the UK and they employ around 17,000 people either directly or indirectly. That’s a lot of jobs to be playing Russian roulette with. There are two emergency options that swimming pools have to stay afloat (sorry for the pun), increase the admission prices and lower the temperature. In some council swimming pools it already costs more than £20 for a family swim session. Unfortunately for some this doesn’t make swimming an accessible pastime when it is simply too expensive and the other option to pay for a private gym and pool is also out of reach. Lowering the temperature although can save a lot of money even if only by a few degrees is definitely not ideal, as you could imagine for a four-year-old learning to swim in a cold pool is not very inviting.

A quick google of “leisure centre closing” brings about plenty of results. Local news outlets from all over the UK report on sports halls, gyms, and pools in their local areas being forced to close their doors, due to the current energy crisis and councils being unable to plug the funding gap. From Aberdeen, Huddersfield, and Gateshead, to Falkirk council attempting to close all High School swimming pools, the squeeze on the leisure sector is real.

With every pool that closes that’s a potential swimming club that has to relocate, a swimming school out of business, a sports hall closing on the weekends could mean no more gymnastics or ruby tots.

Rising energy bills are one thing but it’s a quick fix to a long-term problem, which is rooted in an inability for the people in charge to appreciate the importance of sport and exercise. Of course you ask any politician whether exercise is important they’ll most definitely say yes, but I’m not seeing many fighting for the leisure industry. The outright need for people to be able to easily exercise without breaking the bank and put community sport as a priority should never be underestimated.

The NHS is under pressure like never before and a rather straight forward way to help alleviate that would be to seriously promote and enable exercise, and the joys of doing physical activity whatever that may be. Evidence has shown that someone who even does just half an hour of fairly rigorous exercise a day can lower their chances of developing ailments such as heart disease, dementia, type two diabetes and many more. Considering diabetes alone costs the NHS approximately £10 billion per year, giving people the means to exercise just makes financial sense, and we all know the weather in Scotland doesn’t always allow for outside exercise.

The NHS has already seen the positive effects of their Diabetes prevention programme which saw a 7% reduction in type two diabetes diagnoses potentially saving them millions. There’s even been research that suggests parkrun events have already saved the NHS a considerable amount of money. Having events such as Parkrun successfully creates tangible goals for people, goals that the NHS cannot replicate. Events like these help to promote a sense of community as different abilities take park, and help to integrate exercise into everyday routines. Yet even Parkrun has come up against problems with councils around the country when trying to get potholes fixed or continuing to run the events without paying to use local parks.

It seems that both councils and the government don’t realise that sometimes they’re biting the hand that feeds them. Why can’t it be that something such as Parkrun is run by the council or the NHS, and although that may seem excessive it could be one of the best money-saving actions they do. If we are to believe that exercise is part of our healthcare then why can’t the NHS be actively involved it and the government serious about safeguarding it.

So have the councils and government actually found out the true cost of closing down the local pool, or reducing opening hours in the local sports hall? Yes it may be a quick saving in the short term but in the long term it may carry a hefty price-tag. People need to have access to affordable and free spaces to exercise, just as we all need schools, pharmacies and GP surgeries.

Common Weal wants to explore how Scotland can save community sport, stop the slow decline of the leisure industry and grow it. We would like to create a Scotland that really prioritises affordable sport and exercise, not just for the sake of more Olympic medals. If you feel like you would be able to contribute to this or have knowledge in community sports no matter the discipline then please contact me via email kaitlin@common.scot.

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