SIGOMA chair makes case for leisure centres

Posted on January 26, 2023

Making the case for leisure centres

Austerity was always a short-sighted economic agenda and after more than a decade of cuts we are starting to see the impacts of these cuts catch up with us.

If funding for local government had kept pace with inflation since 2010 then the sector would be spending £14.5bn more per year. The simple fact is you can only cut vital services for so long without the future costs outweighing any savings you might have made.

A prime example of this is with life expectancy, particularly in the number of years people can expect to be healthy. Life expectancy increased rapidly in the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, but recently this growth has begun to stall. And this new trend isn’t uniform. Analysis from the King’s Fund found ‘the slowdown was greater among the most deprived groups’.

Over the same time period there have been significant cuts in general council spending as well as public health expenditure, and these cuts have not been distributed evenly.

Since 2010-11, cuts in core spending power per household for Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (SIGOMA) councils have been 30% higher than the English average, while public health funding cuts have also been skewed to the most deprived areas.

Compare analysis from the Health Foundation showing the public health per capita cuts in Blackpool (£42) and Surrey (£9) in the last seven years.

Joining the dots between these cuts and the impact on life expectancy has not been hard. A landmark study funded by the Medical Research Council concluded that ‘fiscal austerity is associated with worse multi-morbidity and health-related quality of life’. The Health Foundation found public health interventions were three to four times more cost-effective than those from the NHS.

These health inequalities, worsened by austerity, were laid bare during the Covid pandemic. The fall in life expectancy for males in the most deprived areas was 2.8 times more than the least deprived areas and the rate of death per capita was 15% higher in SIGOMA areas compared to the national average.

In my own local authority of Barnsley, we have seen the untimely deaths of 1,200 people from Covid. This is the second highest rate per population in the country, only behind Blackpool, the most deprived authority in the country.

Has this tragic loss of life meant that the Government has finally grasped the devastating impact of cuts to public health and under-investment in local services?

Sadly, there is little evidence of a change of approach. The most recent public health grant saw councils get a real-terms cut. The Health Foundation now estimates £1.5bn per year would be needed to restore the grant to historical real-terms per capita value.

Failure to match the inflationary pressure councils are experiencing at the recent local government finance settlement means that many are being forced into further cutbacks and service reductions over the next year. A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found 70% of local authorities are considering cutting back on their leisure services, with Swim England describing the exclusion of leisure facilities from the Energy Bills Discount Scheme as a ‘hammer blow’ to the sector.

Council-operated leisure facilities are a crucial and inexpensive way for residents to stay fit, particularly in more deprived areas where fewer residents will be able to afford private gym memberships. The fact that so many leisure centres are facing closure would further reduce the ability for people to live healthy lives.

Read the full article here.