The fight goes on to save five Cornish leisure centres from closure

Saltash Leisure Centre is one of five Cornish leisure centres, currently under the threat of imminent closure. Centres at Saltash, Wadebridge, Falmouth, Launceston, and the hydrotherapy pool at St Austell, could all face closure as early as March 2022.

In Saltash, the news that residents may lose their leisure centre incensed many local people. For them, it is more than just a place to exercise, it is an invaluable community hub where they meet daily. This is especially so for the town’s older people, several who now live alone and have no family close by.  

Pat Meade, 82, lives just a few minutes walk from the centre, and sadly now lives alone, since her husband of 61 years passed away after a short illness earlier this year. Pat has been swimming at the Saltash centre for over 15 years; her husband Trevor spent much of that time collecting her after her early swim, so she wouldn’t need to walk home with wet hair. He would wait patiently in the pool’s reception area, and could often be seen chatting with other pool users coming and going.

Pat’s morning swim is now her chance to catch up with friends she has made at the pool, as well as keeping her active. She told me: “I’d be completely lost without it, I really would. Since I’ve been on my own, this place is what’s kept me going. Seeing people and having a little gossip every day – it’s been a lifesaver, especially since it was shut for such a long time during lockdown, and we couldn’t swim. Coming here gives me a reason to get up each morning.”    

The closure of the Saltash Leisure Centre would force its users to add an hour-long trip by car, to Liskeard or Plymouth to use facilities there. Using public transport could take even longer as many of SLC’s older users don’t own a car, and local public transport is expensive and infrequent. The extra time travelling and factors like having to wait around with wet hair, could put many people off. It is also unclear whether other centres within the locality would have enough capacity to cope with the extra users forced upon them. 

Cornwall County Council originally handed the centres over in March 2017, to be run by GLL (Greenwich Leisure Limited). They are a not-for-profit run organisation, managing over 270 centres across the UK, under the title Better. GLL took over the management of the sites on a 25-year contract, and since then received substantial financial support from Cornwall Council, including a £3.4million loan at the beginning of the pandemic, followed by a £600,000 re-opening grant. 

However, in September this year, GLL made the announcement that they could no longer continue to run the sites, as it was not financially viable. GLL said “Covid 19 has had a significant impact on its income over the last 18 months, creating losses of approximately £4.5m.” They then requested a £439,000 subsidy per annum from Cornwall Council, in order to keep the centres open, and stated “if the subsidy is not forthcoming, we will be forced to close the centres, or devolve them to be run by someone else.” 

The next issue giving cause for concern, is the life span of these centres. Latest news reports state that the centres are nearing the end of their life expectancy. This is mentioned in the depths of the Cornwall Leisure Strategy and confirms that ‘thirteen GLL operated Cornish leisure centres will reach the end of their useful life before 2042,’ and that ‘rebuilding them would cost an estimated £108m.’ Could this be another reason GLL are trying to back out of their contract, which officially runs until 2042? 

Since September, the five affected Cornish local communities have taken steps to try everything within their power to prevent the closures from happening, and to raise local resident’s awareness of the issue. Each town created their own Facebook group to spread the message throughout the county, and all set out on their own campaigns to try to reverse GLL’s decision. Word of mouth has been buzzing in the town’s gossip hotspots over the past three months, with everyone unanimously against the proposal.

The local community feel so strongly about the closure of their centres that they took to the streets to make themselves heard. On Saturday 30th October, over 200 people in Saltash all united to take a peaceful protest march through the town and across the Tamar bridge. They carried colourful homemade banners, the old and young walked side by side, and interviews were given to local news stations covering the story.

Lisa Heydon, 62, travels to Saltash from Callington to swim almost every morningBefore the start of the protest she spoke to BBC Spotlight, “apart from the exercise, swimming up and down and thinking things through, it’s meeting up with people. It should be a community centre, rather than just a leisure centre; it’s for people’s health and well-being.” Lisa felt so upset at the prospect of losing the pool she became one of the key peopleheavily involved in promoting the Save our Centre campaign, from its inception. 

Bev Whitmill is also a regular swimmer at the Saltash Leisure Centre who has been involved in the campaign, and lives within 5 minutes walking distance. She said, “if we lose this centre, it would be really, really devastating, this place is SO important to us.” 

Another significant factor many Cornish residents are concerned with, is the potential lack of provision for school swimming lessons, and how this would affect their own children learning to swim. 

While these decisions are being made by faceless councils, the mandatory stipulation that children must be able to swim 25 metres upon leaving primary education at age 11 appears to have been overlooked. This is dictated in the school curriculum, but may not be possible to fulfil, and could be unfeasible in Cornwall, if the closures go ahead. 

There are currently four schools in Saltash, using the centre’s pool but on a wider scale there are a further ten who regularly attend this location for their swimming lessons, travelling in by bus from small outlying villages. It would be inconvenient for these children to travel to other sites further away for multiple reasons: the extra time it would take, it would reduce their classroom hours, the coordination and cost of their transportation and the capacity to squeeze 14 schools into another centre’s schedule could be problematic. All the Cornish sites under threat, are in an equally similar position when faced with their school swimming lesson timetable. 

Cornwall is surrounded by sea, and the local lifeguards who complete their statutory training at local pools have also expressed their concerns, saying “it is imperative that our children learn to swim, to avoid any more fatalities on the county’s beaches. Cornwall being a popular tourist spot, surrounded by beaches makes it really crucial that our children learn to swim proficiently.” 

One thing is clear, all five towns are united in their belief that by closing the leisure centres it will adversely affect the health of their communities, which will in the long-term cost the NHS more money. These pools and gyms are also extensively used by patients who have been referred by their GPs for rehabilitation, after an illness, accident, or surgery. They feel they are another group of centre users who are being overlooked and not given any consideration in the plan, especially when accessibility is such a key factor for them.  

In addition, there are many other groups who will be severely affected, should the closures proceed. They include swimming clubs, aqua aerobics classes, sessions dedicated for disabled people and those with learning difficulties, mother and baby sessions, beach lifeguard training, birthday pool parties. These group sessions are scheduled around the hundreds of children who come to the facility for their private after-school swimming lessons, as well as those curriculum lessons taken during the school day.  

I interviewed local couple Diana and John Raynor about their thoughts, relating to the proposed pool closure.  

 

After GLL’s initial announcement back in September, a consultation survey was devised by Cornwall council for the purpose of letting local people voice their opinions on the matter. The document was met with disapproval by many, and was highly criticised by the public. Wadebridge town council released a public statement with their response to the questions raised in the consultation and stated, “questions have been devised to garner a response to support a decision already made.” 

The convoluted and lengthy political process addressing the closures, began in early October when Saltash town council held their first meeting to discuss the issue. Over 50 people from the local community attended, including councillors, obviously concerned at how the closure would affect their constituents and families.  

This was followed a few weeks later by a public consultation Zoom meeting, also attended by a representative on behalf of GLL to respond to questions raised by residents and town councillors, attending online. During the meeting, GLL’s spokesperson stated that “closures are obviously not our desired outcome.” He implied that “if membership figures were to reach over 1000, it would be enough for the Saltash centre to become a viable financial entity and would prevent the need for its closure.” Use it or lose it is the message GLL are sending out. The meeting concluded that information collected from the surveys should be presented to Cornwall Council to discuss, at their County Council meeting at Truro County Hall in November. 

A further two Council meetings have since taken place, with committee members requesting a delay, to allow extra time for further information to be presented to enable the cabinet to make a fully informed decision. This specifically included precise details of offers on the table, received from 9 parties who showed an interest in taking over the sites.  

A final Cabinet meeting was arranged for the 15th of December, with the intention of reaching a decision on whether to accept GLL’s request to withdraw from their contractual obligation of the management of the five centres, or to reject it. However, the most recent news reports at the beginning of this week mentioned that the council were still discussing the possibility of providing an interim payment subsidy, to allow more time in which to resolve the situation. This could possibly have been because so many of the councillors were extremely vocal in expressing their view that any decision should not be rushed, without every aspect of the potential consequences being taken into full consideration. 

Finally, today 15th December, at the early stage of the Cabinet meeting to reach a final decision, Councillor Richard Pears (Cornwall Council’s Portfolio Holder for Customers), disclosed that he had been in talks with GLL until last night, and that they formally confirmed their intention to continue running the Saltash Leisure Centre. 

Launceston has also been given a short reprieve as Cornwall Council confirmed that they would “provide funding from reserves” to enable GLL to keep running the Launceston centre until January 2023 when their existing lease expires. The building will then be handed back over to the Coronation Trust

I spoke again with Diana Raynor earlier today, and asked for her reaction when she heard the news that Saltash Leisure Centre had escaped closure. She told me, “We are so relieved, happy, and grateful our campaign has worked, and our leisure centre has been granted a reprieve. We really do hope that the other four centres are also saved, and that in the future, leisure centres will become an essential service.” 

At this stage, neither GLL or Cornwall Council have clarified any details regarding the other three sites under threat. So, the future for these much loved community leisure centres, unfortunately, for now, remains unclear. 

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