Leisure centres and libraries are under threat of closure unless immediate funding can be found, according to a Senedd Committee.
The Local Government and Housing Committee’s latest report finds that libraries and leisure centres are facing huge financial pressures – from inflation, rising energy bills and historic budget cuts – and that immediate, as well as long-term funding, is required urgently.
The report found that library and leisure services provide an enormous amount of benefit to people’s health and educational wellbeing, but that this is not always fully appreciated by the Welsh Government and local authorities.
Libraries leading the way
Libraries not only allow people to borrow books, but are also places where people can access a computer, gain work skills by improving their CV, and join community classes.
The Committee heard evidence that the ‘social value’ of libraries for providing these services meant that, for every £1 spent, they could deliver £8.75 worth of value in preventing many of the problems that cost society – and the public purse - in other ways.
A Libraries Taskforce is recommended by the Committee as a way of ensuring that the benefit of libraries becomes more widely known, and that libraries themselves could learn from each other about the best way to run services. At present, there is no national body to lead public library development in Wales.
Sink or swim?
As leisure centres were not included in the UK Government’s Energy Bills Discount Scheme, they have been at the mercy of increased energy costs, with heating swimming pools a particular drain on finances. Swim Wales told the Committee that, pre-pandemic, around 500,000 people in Wales were using swimming pools every week.
Due to the increased financial pressure facing leisure centres, the Committee urges the Welsh Government to provide additional funding.
This should help leisure centres with their spiraling energy bills and the money would come as a result of £63m in funding recently announced by the UK Government earmarked to be spent on swimming pools in England.
The Committee heard that only 50% of the 1,600 plus primary schools in Wales take part in school swimming lessons, which is not a mandatory requirement.
Swim Wales told the Committee that the average swimming lesson pre-COVID cost £6.50, but post-COVID this has ballooned to £12.50; which impacts on children from lower-income families and those living in more deprived areas particularly hard.
The Committee is calling for the Welsh Government to do more to ensure that all primary schools are able to offer free swimming lessons to pupils so that children do not miss out.
Road to Net-Zero
The report also finds that current efforts to make leisure centres and libraries more energy efficient don’t go far enough. Despite the Welsh Government providing some funding for buildings to be upgraded and made greener, the Committee was told that this money is not enough if they are to decarbonise their buildings by 2030.
The report urges the Welsh Government to develop a long-term strategy with substantial funding, as well as short-term solutions, to help leisure and library services towards decarbonisation.
John Griffiths MS, Chair of the Local Government and Housing Committee, said, “The situation facing many of our leisure and library services is concerning. Budget cuts are causing great difficulty, and this situation needs to be addressed before it gets worse.
“But we cannot pretend that this is a problem that can be solved quickly. Long term thinking - and funding - will be required if we want to keep these vital public services going.
“We know the huge amount of social value that libraries and leisure centres add to our communities. From computer classes to sports lessons, these places actually save money in the long-run by keeping us happier and healthier. The funding they receive should match their contribution to society.”