Derbyshire council to give more money to charity to avoid closing four leisure centres

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A Derbyshire council is set to give more money to the charity running its leisure centres to avoid it having to close four sites at all but peak times and cut staff hours.

The move has been prompted due to an “extraordinary” surge in the charity’s utility costs, which have risen by £221,000 in four years (£322,200 in 2019 to £543,200 in 2023).

Derbyshire Dales District Council is poised to give Freedom Leisure, which runs its centres in Ashbourne, Bakewell, Matlock and Wirksworth, further funding on the back of several other financial injections.

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A report from council officers says Freedom Leisure contacted the council in June last year saying it would need £405,000 to cover its energy costs or face three years of deficits: £190,200 in the current financial year, £109,300 in the next financial year and £105,700 the year after.

Arc Leisure Centre in Matlock is one of the facilities run by Freedom Leisure for the council. Photo: Google EarthArc Leisure Centre in Matlock is one of the facilities run by Freedom Leisure for the council. Photo: Google Earth
Arc Leisure Centre in Matlock is one of the facilities run by Freedom Leisure for the council. Photo: Google Earth

However, the council and charity then bid for Government funding offered to leisure centres and received £30,000 to support increased costs at Bakewell swimming pool.

This and other savings made by the charity mean this funding gap has reduced to £151,400 over three years, with £85,600 in the current financial year, £34,100 in the next year and £31,700 the year after.

A council meeting next week is due to see councillors approve the first batch of funding.

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Council officers detail in a report for that meeting says the authority, instead of giving funding, could agree to cost curbing methods.

These include “significant” reductions in operations; a “drastic” decrease in operating hours which could include sites only opening at peak times; reducing staffing and employment hours at all four sites; and reducing maintenance of the facilities.

The council outsourced the management of its leisure centres five years ago in August 2018 and pays Freedom an annual payment to do so – which was £177,000 in 2022, £90,000 this year and will be £90,000 each of the next four years.

Freedom says in a report to be discussed at the meeting: “Freedom Leisure will continue in the coming years, to mitigate the challenges of the recovery from the utility crisis, but also other external factors including the cost of living challenge, by taking the action required as identified within this plan.

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“Our current position and forecast suggest that to deliver the full partnership offering to the community of the Derbyshire Dales we require financial support for the year of 2023 – 2024.

“With this level of support we will be able to continue to operate the full service level and positively improve lives through leisure in the Derbyshire Dales community.”

It says: “Without appropriate support and mitigation, the sustainability of the service is at risk.”

The charity outlines its executive leadership took 10 per cent salary cuts in 2022 and it cut a number of roles, including seven area managers and three regional swim support managers, in a bid to save costs.

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Meanwhile vacant roles in the Dales for a fitness lead, cleaner, receptionist and a sales advisor have all been removed, with the charity saying this saved £93,000 but will impact on the service if they are not filled in future.

Its contract totals £3.2 million over the 10 years of the contract, which is now at its halfway point, with the council sharing half of the extra costs faced by the business.

The council gave the charity £712,171 to support Freedom Leisure through the pandemic and periods in which leisure centres were either forced to close or had drastically reduced footfall due to social distancing and public health and safety.

It approved a further £204,000 in November 2022, with the charity claiming facilities would need to be cut back, hours reduced, staff made redundant or facilities be fully closed if the Government did not provide support.

One of the options pitched at the time was to immediately close swimming pools in Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock due to the surging cost of heating them.