Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Viewpoint: Leisure centres must get into shape

When running Belfast's 11 leisure centres for five years, from 2002-7, cost £53m, and the income from them was only £12m, drastic action is called for.

No one seriously expects them to make a profit — any of them — per year have a right to expect economies to be made.

The only certainty is that if nothing is done to reduce the rates burden, the situation can only get worse.

Rises in the price of oil and electricity will send the deficit soaring, at a time when even the comfortably-off — let alone those on the poverty line — are cutting back on non-essentials.

The problem goes back to the bad old days when direct rule ministers decided that investment in leisure centres would take people's minds off the Troubles and maybe provide an alternative for anyone tempted into paramilitarism.

They poured millions into large-scale projects on either side of several peacelines — and then left the expensive running costs to the city council. The cross-community deals that left Belfast with far more leisure centres than any comparable UK city are still being done, but it is time to call a halt.

The siege mentalities that led to facilities being duplicated in unionist and nationalist communities are fading — though too slowly — and the losses being made are simply unsustainable.

The answer may be to call in the experts, with more experience of running successful leisure centres, and get them to assess the situation, independent of party politics.

Councillors always find it difficult to support the removal of a loss-making facility, but the professionals can advise not only on closures, but on what works and what doesn't. There is bound to be opposition, on all sides, to the proposal that a public-private partnership could take over responsibility for running the city's leisure centres.

Private finance initiatives have been a mixed blessing, but here they may be essential to getting the council to face unwelcome facts and put the surviving centres on a better financial footing.

The irony is that at a time when people are being urged to take better care of their health, the municipal leisure centre is continuing to lose its attraction, as well as lose huge sums of ratepayers' money.

Private fitness clubs are booming, because they have more of the latest equipment, and are sited where they can draw on the whole community, not just a section of it.

The drive for healthier lifestyles must continue, but the council cannot continue to fund it indefinitely, in leisure centres designed for one community or another.

Peacelines have to be crossed, the sooner the better, and only the best-used, best-run facilities should survive.

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