Underused swimming pools and sports facilities could be sold to help raise cash
Birmingham leisure centres and swimming pools could be sold off, contracted out or even closed under a major review of leisure services in the city.
The council has launched a consultation over the future of its 45 leisure facilities after it emerged they are set to run £6.9 million over budget this financial year.
Spiralling energy costs, ageing facilities, and a reduction in income from paying customers have all contributed to the funding problems.
But there has also been a major boost of £4 million this year and next, from the public health budgets through the popular Be Active gym and swim for free scheme, which aims to tackle obesity.
Some leisure centres which prove they are key in the battle against obesity could be rebranded as “Wellbeing Centres” with shared input and funding from the NHS.
Meanwhile, parks, open spaces and canal towpaths could be improved to encourage more people to take up running, cycling or take fitness classes in the open air.
The council will also talk to outside providers – like those already running Harborne Swimming Pool and the seven municipal golf courses – about selling or contracting out centres.
It will also consider renting space or facilities at private gyms, rather than continue ploughing money into costly ageing facilities.
Council leader Sir Albert Bore said: “Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out.”
He stressed that they would not “take a hatchet” to facilities as councils have in the past. Such an approach, he explained, would have seen all but four centres – those that pay their bills – closed.
But he warned that swimming pools and centres which do not meet the council’s sport and health priorities could still go.
“Our stock is not in the best condition. Some of them are tired, they have not had major capital investment and some are not in the best places,” he said.
“We haven’t had a city-wide vision for leisure and sport before. Our key aims will be getting people healthy through sports participation.
“But there has also been a failure at the elite end of sport. Not one Olympic medallist at the London Games came from Birmingham. We haven’t got a single gold post box.”
Sports centres which are of international and national standard or are part funded by national bodies like Sport England are likely to be spared.
They include high-profile venues like Alexander Stadium and less well-known facilities like Billesley Indoor Tennis Centre or Stockland Green Leisure Centre, a national centre of excellence for netball.
Centres in deprived areas where the need to tackle the obesity epidemic is greatest could also be protected, as there are few sports clubs or private leisure centres.
Sir Albert explained: “We will need facilities in areas of high deprivation because the market will not provide in these areas.”
The consultation and decision over each individual facility will take place in the council’s ten district committees – who are responsible for the centres – with results due back later this summer.
The costs are apparent in the Erdington district which is running a £600,000 budget deficit last year, of which £550,000 was through its four pools and leisure centres.
They will be encouraged to approach private providers, sports clubs and voluntary groups as well as talk to the NHS about the future of facilities and opportunities for partnership. The approach is as much about increasing participation in sport and improving the health of the city.
Birmingham’s director of public health Adrian Phillips said that the Be Active scheme, which offers gym, swim and fitness sessions for free focused on areas with highest obesity rates had been “groundbreaking”.
He said 73 per cent of those taking part were not previously active, while the biggest increase in participation had been among women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage. It is claimed every £1 spent on the scheme will save £21.30, most of it from the NHS budget, over a person’s lifetime.
Mr Phillips said: “Be Active was groundbreaking and other authorities are looking at what has gone on in Birmingham. But we need to go further.
“One in four ten-year-olds in Birmingham are obese, and 40 per cent are either overweight or obese. That is almost half of the city’s young population who have little chance of an Olympic medal or gold postbox unless something is done.
“This is a high priority.”
He stressed that it is not just about saving the NHS cash, but “people live longer, they have a happier life, they take less time off work and have better relationships”.