The UK leisure centre and gym portfolio is estimated to total 7,200 facilities, with approximately ten million members who pay a consistent fee, and another seven million who use these facilities on a more ad-hoc basis. That’s 27% of the entire population – a huge demand which, presently, is fed by the supply. However, there are multiple challenges that bring the future of leisure centres into question, making it more urgent to find solutions to future-proof this vital sector and strengthen its resilience for generations to come.
Available to all public leisure centres, the Spring budget’s £63 million funding will go some way to address these issues, but is unlikely to stretch far enough to secure the wider future the leisure sector.
Chris Mee explores some of the current challenges below.
Recovering from the pandemic
Covid-19 lockdowns had strong repercussions for fitness and leisure facilities, with users unable to visit them for months at a time. Since re-opening post-pandemic, however, demand for these facilities has increased significantly. The way people use their local leisure centre has also seen a shift. Consequently, there has been a growing number of gyms that open 24 hours a day, fitting in with people’s evermore busy schedules and allowing flexibility dependent on lifestyle and behaviour changes. At the same time, there are countless stories of swimming pool closures and reduced temperatures to save energy costs, with experts predicting over 100 pool closures in the first few months of this year alone.
Funding is key to help leisure centres recover from an incredibly difficult time – but there is more to be done for long-term survival, not least putting greater sustainability measures in place to account for the climate crisis (which has come to the top of the agenda in recent years) and spiralling energy costs.
Mitigating future risks to leisure centres
For too long, there has been minimal investment in these facilities, which are widely recognised as cornerstones of our society. The result is run-down, unloved buildings which, having navigated years of quick fixes, are often not fit-for-purpose. The result of 7000+ buildings in a state of disrepair with little funding is unpleasant for users, demanding for service providers, and not sustainable due to increased running costs borne from unsuitable fabric and upkeep.
Ukactive has called upon the government for more targeted support, warning that “failure to [act swiftly] will lead to facility closures on a national level across 2023, and these closures will damage further our national health, our NHS, and our economy”. They outline three key measures: reclassifying swimming pools as energy intensive and providing them with a higher discount on energy; setting out tangible support for the wider sector to minimise closures resulting from the energy crisis; and setting out a plan for growth in the sector.
Navigating the energy crisis
Energy bill support is a short-to-medium-term fix, but we need to address the vast portfolio of often sub-standard facilities for the long term, accepting that investment into more energy-efficient building stock is key to keeping the leisure and fitness sector afloat. We have first-hand knowledge of how the sector can successfully upgrade facilities for more sustainable outcomes. For instance, our team worked on Wokingham Leisure Centre at Carnival Hub, which opened in July 2022.
This has emerged as one of the UK’s most energy-efficient leisure centres, providing a 75% reduction in carbon compared to the previous build. HLM and the design team used a variety of features to achieve Wokingham Borough Council’s ambitions of low operating costs and carbon emissions. Air source heat pumps, solar panels, careful building fabric detailing, and sustainable drainage systems all contribute to the scheme’s overall performance, which has surpassed government targets. The implications of such an approach being rolled out across the rest of the UK’s fitness and leisure facilities are huge and can feed into wider carbon reduction targets.
Supporting public health & wellbeing
It is important to remember that it’s not just about the value that greater efficiency brings in monetary terms, but the far-reaching and diverse value that it brings more indirectly.
First and foremost is the substantial contribution to public health and fitness, with almost a third of the population counted as users. Fitter and healthier communities then reduce the strain on the NHS due to a smaller need for additional health services. The last couple of years have increased public awareness of not only the importance of the NHS, but also created a greater focus on individual health. The link between physical and mental health has been made more prominent, and it’s important to recognize that the role of leisure centres covers both; with mental wellbeing enhanced through physical activity, interactions with others, and having access to vital spaces to unwind.
For this reason, leisure centres are considered by many as central to their community, something which Wokingham Borough Council has taken to the next level. The leisure centre itself sits within the wider Hub, which includes a community library and dual-purpose hall as well as a café. The council is keen to have the multi-use spaces utilised for wider-ranging community activities rather than a purely physical fitness function, including cultural performances. The fact that the scheme is incredibly energy efficient complements this vision for the centre, increasing the viability of longer opening hours to better serve the community’s needs.
The true value is the community health and wellbeing that the overall scheme promotes – the lower cost of running allows for this to continue and for the hub to remain at the heart of the community. The potential to replicate this approach more widely and reap the benefits to the sector, communities, and the NHS is invaluable.
And with over 7,000 facilities across the UK, it’s difficult to put a price on that.