‘We must be realistic’ – Warning over £63m fund as decision nears on at-risk Gateshead leisure centres

Council bosses in Gateshead will bid for a share of a £63m fund to help keep struggling pools and leisure centres afloat – but say they “must be realistic” about the chances of saving at-risk facilities.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the creation of the “lifeline” pot in his Spring Budget in March and local authorities have been asked to lodge initial fact-finder submissions to Sport England by tomorrow, Friday May 12. Beloved leisure centres in Gateshead have been placed under threat of closure due to controversial council budget cuts and campaigners have pleaded with local leaders to “seize this opportunity” to secure some much-needed help.

But, with more than 800 centres in England potentially eligible for cash for the Swimming Pool Support Fund, there is concern that whatever allocation Gateshead receives will do little to plug the gap in its leisure services’ budget. Meanwhile, negotiations continue over plans to hand control of both Gateshead Leisure Centre and Birtley Swimming Centre to their local communities in order to save them from shutting down.

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Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon said: “We intend to continue to apply for funding made available by central government and will be applying for a share of the £63m which was announced as part of the Spring Budget, which is aimed at supporting local authorities with spiralling costs. But we must be realistic, the money made available is disproportionate to the actual funding needed to sustain leisure centres in our borough and across the UK.”

The council is due to make a final decision on the future of its leisure centres in June. A verdict had been due in January but, after a public backlash, the proposals were put on hold to allow for extra consultation and further talks over potential asset transfers that could hand control of the centres over to the community.

Birtley Swimming Centre on Durham Road in Birtley.
Birtley Swimming Centre on Durham Road in Birtley.

At last week’s local elections, Gateshead’s ruling Labour Party lost seats to the Liberal Democrats in wards where leisure centres have been earmarked for closure – Saltwell and Birtley. Robert Waugh, who lost his seat in Saltwell, is part of the community-led Gateshead Active group bidding to save the huge centre in Alexandra Road.

The group has put forward a business case and cash flow forecast for the site, which are currently being assessed by the council. Mr Waugh said he was “confident” in the plan and that the group is aiming to reopen the centre under its new management in September, if the council agrees to the asset transfer.

Gateshead Active’s plans include bringing the leisure centre’s café and Clip ‘n Climb back into use immediately. Birtley Swimming Club has been involved in similar talks over taking control of their at-risk pool in order to save it from closure.

The council has argued that its attempts since 2015 to make its leisure centres self-sustaining have failed and that they are expected to overspend their budget by around £2m this year, while also requiring £14.5m of maintenance over the next two decades.

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