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Sport and Leisure (North Wiltshire)

Volume 454: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2006

I feel no awkwardness at all in moving from a matter of great and grave national and international concern—the trafficking of human beings—to a matter that is of great and grave concern to my constituents. People might think, at a glance, that North Wiltshire has sport and leisure coming out of its ears and that we have no worries in that respect, but I want to take the opportunity to raise with the Minister and the wider public a matter that is of grave concern locally.

We have six leisure centres in North Wiltshire, in Chippenham, Corsham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett, Calne and Cricklade, but it was announced last week that three of them—those in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—are to close. In my 10 years as a Member of Parliament, I have had experience of a number of issues that have caused huge public outrage and concern. One thinks of the proposed closure of RAF Lyneham, with the loss of up to 10,000 jobs, the proposed closure of up to seven of the community hospitals in our area, the challenge faced by the Post Office at the moment, and a variety of other issues, but in my 10 years as an MP none has come close to causing the outrage that I have experienced in the last couple of weeks in response to the proposed closure of the leisure centres.

Before I talk about the leisure centres in detail, I should say that of course the Government have no direct responsibility for such matters, but I thought that it might be useful as background to touch on some of the things—very helpful things, they are—that the Government have said in recent years about the importance of sport and leisure in our society today.

First and most obvious is the Government’s response to the problem of obesity, particularly among the young. The appalling figures are that 69 per cent. of men and 59 per cent. of women today in Great Britain are overweight or obese and that 28 per cent. of children aged between two and 10 are overweight or obese. Do we know why? The reasons are fast food, TV and computer games, and sitting at home rather than getting out and about and playing sport. It was particularly worrying to see a report this morning that the national health service is considering stapling children’s stomachs in the hope that they will manage to combat obesity. I was glad to see in the media coverage of the issue that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said that the stomach stapling procedure would be used only in the most extreme cases in which children could not otherwise be persuaded to get their weight down, but NICE also said that obesity in this country is now more damaging to health than smoking, heavy drinking or poverty. That is amazing.

NICE goes on to say that city planners, employers and schools must take steps to help people to exercise regularly. That would include measures such as creating more bike paths, pedestrianised areas, subsidising gym memberships and offering healthier food choices. NICE goes out of its way to reiterate what the Government have said on a number of occasions, most notably in the 2004 health White Paper, which is that exercise of one sort or another is one of the most essential prerequisites of a healthy modern society. In the White Paper fetchingly called “Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier”, one key theme was

“sustaining an ethos of fairness and equity”

in relation to sport and achieving

“good health for everyone in England.”

The Home Secretary, who was at that time for a relatively brief period, I seem to remember, Secretary of State for Health, said in the preface to the White Paper:

“Existing health inequalities show that opting for a healthy lifestyle is easier for some people than others.”

Well, where could that be more true than in North Wiltshire? One half of my constituency now has three functioning leisure centres, although in a television interview that I did on Sunday with a Liberal Democrat spokesman from the council, it appeared that she was undermining even those three and opened up the possibility that they, too, might be closed. In one half of my constituency, we still have provision of leisure centres, but in the other half, the eastern half towards the town of Swindon—I am pleased to see the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) here this afternoon—all three centres are being closed down. How could there be less equality than that?

The second reason to provide leisure centres and sport is—again, the Government set it out in the White Paper—to increase the choice and availability of opportunities for young people to engage in positive activities in their spare time. If we want to get children off the streets and doing useful things, for heaven’s sake let us get them into sport centres, rather than giving out antisocial behaviour orders.

The White Paper goes on to say that leisure centres are a central part of sustainable communities. We are seeing that throughout the nation at the moment, particularly in rural areas. With the reduction in post offices, village schools and pubs and all the rest of it, we are seeing the reduction overall of communities. The health centres and the leisure centres that we have in North Wiltshire will be some of the last things to go.

I think that everyone present in the Chamber this afternoon and, indeed, everyone throughout the House would broadly agree that sport for youngsters is a vital social good and something that we as a nation, as a society, ought to be ready to provide.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I can confirm his impression of the outrage that has been caused among my constituents in Cricklade, a lovely market town that the hon. Gentleman will inherit as part of his constituency should he be re-elected at the next election. May I say how much I sympathise with the concerns that he is expressing? Does he agree that there are two particular obligations on a local authority in such circumstances? First, it should consult its constituents properly and adequately, which has not happened in this case. Secondly, if a local authority is going to damage the prospects for the physical well-being of people in area and take away opportunities for young people to have something to do and somewhere to go, it should at least produce concrete proposals for alternatives.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Incidentally, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is responsible for Calne, the third centre to be closing, very much regrets that he cannot be at the debate today. He supports both what I have said and what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the worst things about the closures is that there was no consultation of any kind whatever. These events came as an absolute bolt out of the blue to the people of Wootton Bassett and Cricklade—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for looking after Cricklade for me in the meantime. The people of the three towns were outraged by the speed of the decision and the fact that there was no consultation and no alternative plan in place. There was no public relations spin. At one stage, we thought that the centres were going to close by Christmas—we were simply told, “That’s it. Closed by Christmas.” I am glad to say that we have now extended the life of the centres through to 31 March. That three-month extension gives us time to put in place plans for replacements, but the speed of the decision about the closures was unacceptable and, I think, to a degree incompetent.

In that context, I want to declare a slight interest, namely that the people of Wootton Bassett have asked me to chair the pressure group seeking to save the leisure centre. I am pleased to do that, and it was my reason for calling for the debate this afternoon. I warned the Minister’s office in advance that that was the case, so I hope that I have not caught him entirely off-guard. A very powerful campaign is being fought locally to try to save the centres. Before I talk about how we can do that, perhaps I may touch briefly on some of the history.

In its 2006 report on North Wiltshire district council, the National Audit Office stated that

“the Council has very few measures and targets to show the progress it is making in providing leisure opportunities for all...The absence of a clear policy framework or strategy for its current leisure provision makes it unclear how the Council will meet the future needs of its community”.

The NAO said that the council was not providing the leisure opportunities that it should be. That should hardly come as a surprise to us.

What is the reason for the closures? It is lack of funding. North Wiltshire district council took over the provision of leisure centres in 2000 and strangled the baby at birth by cutting its funding and ever since then the thing has struggled to survive. A most interesting letter from one of the managers of a centre recently came to light; he wrote it two or three years ago. He said that the district council was strangling provision and that the services simply could not continue to be provided on the current funding. North Wiltshire district council, run by the Liberal Democrats, took no notice of that whatever.

An interesting point about the funding, just before I leave the issue, is that the annual running costs for the building are some £600,000. The income is some £400,000, so a loss is being made of some £200,000. Why is it losing £200,000? It is spending £1 million on management fees, that is why. We must examine carefully what has happened in the past and think carefully about how to do something about it in the future. The first opportunity that people locally will have to do precisely that will be on 3 May next year, when the district council elections take place. If the Liberal Democrats who run North Wiltshire district council think that people will turn a blind eye to the incompetence in the past five years that resulted in that closure, they may well get a surprise when they wake up on Friday 4 May. I am sure that the people will make sure, at the ballot box, that they pay the price for their incompetence.

A very worthwhile group of people got together to discuss the future of the leisure centres, and we are considering, broadly speaking, four possible options. The first is to try to persuade the district council, or its arm’s length trust, North Wiltshire Leisure, to take them back and prop them up. That is probably unlikely but at least it is a possibility. The second option is to get some kind of community group to run the leisure centres. I know that the people of Cricklade are going down that track, so it is certainly a possibility.

The third option, and probably the one that we most favour, is to bring in some kind of partnership. There are several partnerships around England in which private, profit-making companies partner the district council. I very much hope that the council will enter discussions with some urgency, particularly with a company called DC Leisure that is already in partnership with West Wiltshire district council and supports leisure centres there. The council has done nothing for five years, so I hope that it will get its act together and enter discussions with some companies to find a way to keep the leisure centres alive.

I will not trespass on the House’s time for much longer. I am very impressed with the hon. Gentleman’s powerful case. Does he agree that North Wiltshire district council could learn from Highworth rec in my constituency, which has created a whole new market with gym facilities for disabled people? It is one of the few such examples in the whole of Wiltshire. Perhaps the council could learn from the new opportunities that have been created by that excellent facility, which I recommend that the hon. Gentleman visit.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I may have a dodgy knee but I am not disabled. However, I will certainly take an early opportunity to visit Highworth. He gives a good example of the sort of thing that we can now do. The days when the Government or local government ran leisure centres and hoped that they would somehow break even are long gone. We have to find ways of making such places pay for themselves. This week, I spoke to the managing director of a company that runs some 200 centres nationally, and he told me that they all break even or make a profit. We do not need to have leisure centres making losses, but we will have that if they are run in the wrong way—the old-fashioned quasi-socialist way—because they have no incentive to make a profit.

Before the Minister replies, and I am keen to give him plenty of time to do so, I want to explore a fourth avenue with him: national funding. Two sources of national funding are particularly relevant, the first of which is the Big Lottery Fund, which recently gave contributions to several local leisure centres. The second is Sport England, which gave £600,000 to Devizes leisure centre and kept it open by that means. It also gave £2.65 million to Wincanton sports centre, which is not very far away, thus enabling it, too, to stay open. I hope that the Government will, if nothing else, commit themselves to working with the pressure group to establish whether we can find some form of Government funding to keep those outstandingly important centres open. I hope also that they will call on the district and county councils to work with us to do so.

We are all becoming less fit these days—I speak entirely for myself and mean nothing personal to you, Sir Nicholas—and it is vital that we find ways to tackle that national problem. One of the best ways of doing that is by providing sport and leisure facilities for our young people. The easiest and best way of doing that—one can see this in towns such as Wootton Bassett, Cricklade and Calne—is by having a large sports centre with a swimming pool and facilities for all the other sports and leisure activities associated with it. The facilities should be available to those who cannot afford to pay much at an affordable, or cheap, price, and at a more expensive price for people such as me who can afford to pay. That is fine; I do not mind paying a bit more to play squash or another sport in the centre. By that means, we can provide sport and leisure for all across the area. If North Wiltshire district council and the people attached to it have their way, one half of my constituency will be deprived of those important facilities.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) on his contributions.

As the Prime Minister said in the House earlier this year, investment in community facilities such as swimming pools and leisure centres should be a priority for us all. The Government are committed to increasing sports participation and access to good-quality sporting provision, which are essential for people to live healthier lives in the 21st century and to participate in sport. The concern about this issue has been reflected in the debate.

I will set out the national picture before turning to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman about his constituency. One of the Government’s public service agreement targets is to increase priority groups’ participation in sport by 3 per cent. by 2008. One serious obstacle that prevents people from taking part in sport is the lack of good-quality sports facilities. That applies equally to all sections of the community. Our aim is that by 2008, most people should be no more than 20 minutes away from a good quality, multi-sports environment in a school, sports club or leisure centre. We hope that that can be achieved and maintained in Wiltshire. The Government are supporting that ambition with record investment in our sports facilities infrastructure through a number of programmes.

The scale of the challenge is immense. There is a clear deficit in funding for sports facilities and existing facility stock is in a failing condition. In the majority of cases, that is the result of many years of poor strategic planning and long-term underinvestment, which we seek to reverse. The average age of local authority facilities is about 25 years. Some £550 million needs to be spent to bring the national stock of sports centres up to a good and acceptable standard. That is if any upgrading does not take into account modern trends in sports participation and current demand.

Those needs were recognised in the key report “Public sports and recreation services” published by the Audit Commission earlier this year. The important message in the report is that local authorities need to plan more strategically for sports provision. They need to assess local needs and to develop more and better partnership arrangements across a broad spectrum. That message is particularly relevant to the situation in North Wiltshire that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have raised.

Nationally, the Government are taking several positive steps to address the issue. Since 1997, the Government and lottery distribution bodies have invested more than £3 billion in physical activity and sport, and local authorities will invest around £1 billion in sports services, facilities and development in the next three years. By the end of this year, the Government and the national lottery distributing bodies will have committed more than £1 billion to facilities alone since 2001 through targeted initiatives to develop new and refurbish existing sports facilities.

In total, more than 4,000 new and refurbished sports facilities are being supported by funding programmes such as Active England, new opportunities funds for physical education and sport and community club development programmes. Across the country, that investment is starting to make its mark, and for the second year running more playing fields have been created than lost and more pools have opened than have closed.

However, a strategic approach is needed, and new investment must be accompanied by better planning and real consideration given to the sustainability of facilities. So, in addition to our record investment, we are challenging local authorities to put sports provision at the heart of what they do and provide the facilities that their communities demand. For the first time ever, we are monitoring local authority performance in sports provision through the comprehensive performance assessment.

All of that is extremely laudable, and I am delighted to hear about the £1 billion being invested. However, does the Minister agree that is wrong that the three centres in North Wiltshire are being closed? Will he indicate the means by which some of that £1 billion might come our way?

I will come to those precise points, because there are specific local issues to address, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

We are committed to supporting local authorities in their efforts. The Secretary of State has asked Sport England to establish a sports facilities advisory service to work with local authorities to help them improve the quality and sustainability of the sports facilities services that they offer. That service is being piloted in each region. Sport England has also developed a range of strategic planning tools to assist local authorities with their strategic planning for sports facilities. They include modelling tools and demand estimators for assessing the particular needs of communities. People will also able to benchmark their services in comparison with others.

Let us consider the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raises about North Wiltshire. First, it is important to acknowledge the many positive things about sport within the authority. For example, the latest sports participation figures, released only last week, show that 24 per cent. of adults in the authority area take part in sport at least three times a week. That figure is above the national average of 21 per cent. and in the top quartile of all local authorities. Of course, that is being done with the existing facilities.

I am grateful to the Minister for rehearsing everything that the Government have done to encourage sporting facilities in the country. Does he agree with me, and, I am sure, with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, that the remarkable figures just quoted on sports participation will be damaged if the closures go ahead?

I must say to my hon. Friend that it is hard to see how the figures could be maintained if the current plans go ahead as intended.

Some 82 per cent. of pupils in the authority’s area are doing two hours of high-quality physical education and school sport in a typical week. That figure is above the national average of 80 per cent. Some 43 per cent. of pupils are taking part in inter-school competition.

Those figures have been supported by significant public investment in recent years. Sport England has contributed more than £4 million to projects in the local authority area, including giving more than £1 million towards Malmesbury sports hall. A further £2 million was allocated to Wiltshire local education authority for community sports facilities as part of the new opportunities for PE and sport programme.

Those achievements make the unexpected closure of facilities all the more disappointing. I understand that the local authority has, on average, more facilities provision per head of population than the rest of the south-west region. The closures at Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne would mean that provision would be below the average.

I sympathise wholeheartedly with the local community, which is rightly asking tough questions about the way the facilities have been managed. I understand that the council is in discussions with users and stakeholders at two of the centres—Cricklade and Calne—with a view to keeping them open. I am informed that the council is seeking to establish short-term management arrangements, and that a number of options are being considered. It is key that the local authority take the opportunity to undertake a full review of its sports provision and plan strategically for the future to ensure that all community needs are catered for.

The Audit Commission report that I mentioned earlier provides information on the advantages and disadvantages of the main procurement and management options for local leisure facilities, including using the private and voluntary sectors. A medium to long-term resolution will need to include discussions with all stakeholders, including the county council.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire will be aware of Government investment through the building schools for the future—or BSF—programme. It offers LEAs more than £6.5 billion available over 2005 to 2008 to start on ambitious plans to rebuild. It is important that the BSF plans in North Wiltshire fit in with sports provision going forward. In addition, we have asked Sport England to consider the problems in North Wiltshire as part of the facilities improvement work it is undertaking with local authorities, which I mentioned earlier. I understand that Sport England has had early discussions with the local authority, including on the possibility of funding for professional expertise to assist it. I urge the council to continue that dialogue, as I think it could be quite meaningful. I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport informed of progress.

To sum up by returning to the national picture, it is clear that there are some very positive messages about sports provision in this country, although we are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. It is important that the local authorities plan and make provision to meet the needs that their public have outlined. I have great sympathy with the issues that have been raised today, and it is my sincere hope that by working with Sport England, and through the BSF programme and other existing provision in the North Wiltshire area, local councillors will be able to stand by their people and say that they are making the commitment to promote sports participation, deal with the issue of obesity and provide local communities with the leisure services that they deserve in the years ahead.

We thank the Minister for that reply. We have finished four minutes early, and that will mean extra time for the next debate.