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Kidsgrove Sports Centre

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

I start by welcoming the Minister to his place. He was actually a former neighbouring MP when I was living in Stratford-upon-Avon in my childhood bedroom at the age of 29 or 30 years old, so it is a great honour to have the chance to talk to him today. I am also grateful to hon. Members across the House for joining the debate. Kidsgrove sports centre is something that my hon. Friend the Minister has heard many things about since getting to his place. I am looking forward to providing a fuller education about why this important community asset must be refurbished and saved.

Kidsgrove sports centre is an essential community asset. The centre was a place for people of all walks of life to congregate for one common purpose—to focus on their physical and mental wellbeing. Initially, the centre was a place for one’s own wellbeing; it then bloomed as connections were formed and faces became familiar. It became a hub for people in the community to interact with one another and, consequently, care for one another.

Kidsgrove sports centre was opened in 1976. From the beginning, the push to bring sport facilities to Kidsgrove was community-led. The centre was built to fill the huge demand for local sporting facilities. That demand has increased, not decreased, yet nearly 45 years later, a gap has once again emerged following the closure of the centre. Kidsgrove sports centre was last refurbished in 1991, 25 years after the initial build. That refurbishment carried the centre through to 2011, when a storm caused the roof to cave in and the wet site was closed. A full refurbishment will likely extend the life span of the centre by another 25 years at a third of the cost of a new build. Discussions pertaining to a potential new-build sports facility were launched in earnest in 2012 although, regrettably, nothing came to fruition. During the course of these discussions, the friction that arose between local government figures and the wider community came to a head in 2017, when it was announced that Kidsgrove sports centre was to be closed, much to the shock and surprise of the public.

I am so grateful to my hon. Friend and next-door neighbour. He is speaking up for a community asset that my constituents in Staffordshire Moorlands value and use as well, but does he agree that the time has come to put aside differences and just get on with getting this right and finding a way to reopen Kidsgrove sports centre?

I am grateful to my neighbour and right hon. Friend. The one thing that the people of North Staffordshire have been aware of is the absolute commitment to cross-border working, as we have seen with the Stoke to Leek line, which my right hon. Friend has relentlessly campaigned for—I joined that campaign— but also obviously with the sports centre, which will serve her constituents as well as mine.

The tensions between local government institutions and figures continued until very recently when Councillor Simon Tagg became leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and unleashed a fresh appetite for the re-establishment of sporting facilities in North Staffordshire. I would like to take this moment, as seems apt, to offer my unreserved thanks to Councillor Tagg for recentring the focus on the wellbeing of the community and for his tireless efforts to drive this forward. On a similar note, Councillor Gill Burnett of Staffordshire County Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, who is also a trustee of the Kidsgrove Sports Centre Community Group, has been closely involved in a campaign to reopen the centre.

The dedication of those public servants and many others, alongside the commitment of the community to see swimming and sports brought back to Kidsgrove, is a source of inspiration. I vowed during the election campaign to do everything in my power to bring this issue to Government and lobby for the funding the people of Stoke-on-Trent, North Kidsgrove and Talke need and deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing this debate. He paid me a fulsome tribute earlier, so let me pay him one now. It is a shame that I cannot represent the whole of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but it is good to know that the people of Kidsgrove and Talke have my hon. Friend sticking up for them in this place. I congratulate him, Councillor Tagg, Councillor Burnett and of course, the local community on what they are doing. It will not only benefit Kidsgrove but benefit my constituents in Crackley, Red Street, Audley and beyond.

I thank my honourable Friend and neighbour. I could not agree with him more that this has huge implications. Having recently moved into Talke and therefore into the Newcastle borough, which has caused some controversy with my Stoke-on-Trent constituents, I can absolutely understand the wider implications of the sports centre. As he knows, there are many people who do not necessarily want to travel into the town of Newcastle but are able more easily to access the town of Kidsgrove, where they could use the sports centre.

Following the sudden announcement of the closure, a public meeting was called and attended by hundreds of members of the public. That laid the foundations for the establishment of the Kidsgrove Sports Centre Community Group. Before I proceed to outline the fantastic work and unrivalled dedication displayed by the group, I would like to take a moment to praise it. It is often the tenacity and unpaid labour of community volunteers that make the most powerful impact, and Kidsgrove is fortunate to have a dedicated team of community champions fighting tooth and nail to facilitate the return of sporting facilities in our local community.

Shortly after the contentious closure in 2017, which was authorised by the then Labour-run borough council after it refused to buy the sports centre for £1 from Staffordshire County Council, the Kidsgrove Sports Centre Community Group was formed. It is spearheaded by Mark Clews, alongside Dave Rigby and Ray Williams, and I am lucky to have such members in the community I serve. They deserve acknowledgement in this Chamber for their tireless efforts. The group has pressed continuously for the centre to be reopened, and it has worked so closely with the council that it is now the designated charitable incorporated organisation. That is to say that if the funding comes from central Government, local government and other stakeholders, the community group could very well assume management of the centre when it reopens. I say “when”, because if I have learned anything in my time working with the group, it is that its passion and tenacity cannot be rivalled. The sports centre was, and can again be, at the heart of the community. I am glad to say that significant efforts have been made to reinstate the facility, but I would like to focus for a moment on the difference it has made to the community.

I feel like I am missing out here because I am not a neighbour, but as my constituency is in Cheshire and my hon. Friend’s is in Staffordshire, I am almost a neighbour. I hope he will agree that over the last few weeks the impact of covid-19 has had a terrible effect on sports clubs up and down the country. Their ability to operate and to raise funds has disappeared, yet their costs have been maintained. I was delighted today to see the Government’s discretionary grant scheme being used to support clubs in my constituency, with Warrington Rugby Union Club and Grappenhall Sports Club getting £10,000 grants so that they can continue to do their work in the community. Does he agree that these organisations are crucial not only for their sporting benefit but for the community interaction and social benefit that these types of organisations give?

I thank my hon. Friend, and even though he may not be a neighbour, his tireless work in getting Chester zoo protected has pleased many a constituent of mine. I want to pass on my big thanks to him for that.

I absolutely agree that what happens at these sports centres is not just on the physical side; it is also about the mental health aspects. As someone who has spoken openly in my local paper about my own struggles with my mental health, I know that socialisation is absolutely vital. These sporting facilities in Warrington and in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are important in that regard.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech. From my personal experience in Bury, I know that the retention of sporting facilities can have a massive impact on the wider community. Following the loss of Bury football club, the impact on the camaraderie in the community and on the economy that has flowed from that has been a disaster for my area. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have had many a wonderful conversation with him regarding Bury football club, and if there is a lesson to be learned about what has happened there, it is that it is now even more important that we protect these facilities, especially because covid-19 has affected many league 1 and league 2 clubs. I am proud to have Port Vale football club in my constituency, for which the fabulous Carol and Kevin Shanahan have done amazing community work. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I commend him for all the work he is doing for the people of Bury.

Among the constituents who have written in to me, Jayne, who is diabetic, used the early bird swim programme to keep her health in check. She has said:

“The removal of the facility removes much of my own means to self-help to manage my condition. I can’t wait for it to reopen.”

Karen, who has been a regular at the centre since 1995 —this is not my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley)—has described the impact of the closure:

“It has just left a hole in the community, and once it is up and running again we shall be returning as at the moment we have to travel. Sadly, there is nothing to do in Kidsgrove now.”

Claire has described how the closure has directly affected her family:

“My four children have no access to swimming and sports now as I do not drive, and travel costs can add up for five of us. The community feels let down and forgotten and there’s nothing for kids to do. Many adults use the centre too, and now they feel more isolated.”

As the negative implications of this closure have affected so many lives, it would be impossible for me to utilise every testimony. The impact of this closure has affected the people I represent in three distinct ways. First, the severe lack of recreational activities in the area has created a void in community cohesion and interaction. Secondly, the impact on public health, especially of those with pre-existing conditions, has been drastic, with 63% of Kidsgrove and Talke now deemed inactive. Finally, the closure has penalised those who cannot afford the money or the time to make concessions and travel further afield to exercise.

The issue faced by the sports centre is not the stickiness of party politics, though it has certainly seen its fair share of that. The sports centre needs the Government to commit to help fund its renovation and to unlock funds from Sport England so that in summer 2021 the people of Kidsgrove will once again have access to exercise facilities. Having spoken to Sport England this morning, I know that £100,000 has already been allocated in principle, but only £150,000 at most can be given from its asset fund. Although it may have other pots, such as the social investment and strategic facilities funds, they have been repurposed due to the damage that covid-19 has done to the leisure sector. Any of the £195 million that Sport England announced in April would be absolutely welcome, but Kidsgrove sports centre requires a cocktail of funding. Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has stood up, as has Sport England. Now, I need the Government to do the same.

In east Berkshire, Bracknell is very proud to have a flagship ice rink and ski slope. It is important to the community and is used by many people locally and more widely. I have heard recently that there are fiscal pressures on that particular facility, and I am worried that it may close. I do not want that to happen, and I am going to champion my constituents and ensure that it does not. I am confident that, with support from the community, perhaps from the local council and from local businesses, we can generate the funding we need for this facility to develop and thrive in the future. Does my hon. Friend think that this is a legitimate use of public money and that these facilities, important as they are, should be supported by both local and central Government funding?

My hon. Friend will know from the many conversations we have had that I am certainly a non-state-interventionist Conservative, but there are times when the Government must intervene. Kidsgrove has a dry ski slope as well, and I completely understand how important it is to protect such sporting facilities, because once they are gone, they do not come back. I am sure the people of Bracknell will be absolutely delighted to hear that my hon. Friend will champion the ice rink and ski slope. Why should they not be enfranchised to have something that they can be proud of and access in their local area, especially as summer holidays are unlikely to be going ahead as normal? That could be the only source of relaxation for people in Bracknell.

To be frank with the Minister, my constituents are frustrated. Although I remain committed to being a critical friend of the Government, I understand why my constituents are frustrated. Kidsgrove has long been neglected. Around one in 10 children aged four to five in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent are obese. If that is not shocking enough, the number doubles to one in five by the time they are 11. Around two in three adults in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent have excess weight—I include myself in those figures—while one in four are obese, with rates higher than the national average. Obesity has been reported as an issue that the Prime Minister wishes to tackle head on since falling ill with the coronavirus. I know that it is also close to the heart of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. May I first commend him for his energy, interest and commitment and for very quickly learning the ropes for how to do things in this House? May I also say how nice it is to see eight new Members present, which augurs well for the future?

As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity, I am really concerned about the restrictions on children exercising and getting to clubs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that funding is given to sports clubs that are community led and driven? For that very reason, I fully support him in his battle for his constituency, and indeed all other hon. Members who are battling as well.

I do not think any Member can have an Adjournment debate without the honour of being intervened on by the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree with him. He tirelessly champions his work on obesity. If we do not tackle this issue, there will be health implications and pressures on our NHS, as well as the mental health aspects. We also need to be aware of the bad education that leads on for generations. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need community-led, community-run sports clubs that are funded partly by central Government and partly from elsewhere to best serve our constituents.

To restore the heart of Kidsgrove, the project must secure funding for the sports centre to be renovated and modernised to meet the highest health and safety standards, as well as current and future leisure needs. The cost of renovation is significantly lower than that of a rebuild. I endorse unreservedly the expansion of sports provisions, but I cannot say that, when the Jubilee 2 centre was built at a high cost to taxpayers across the county, I did not understand the annoyance and frustration of the residents of Kidsgrove. It should now be Kidsgrove’s turn to see investment.

The cost of a fully functional renovation has been projected to be £5.5 million, and the council has already committed £3.1 million towards the project. However, we are all aware of the cost of covid-19 for local councils, and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council is no different. Government funding of £1.3 million has been secured, and that has reduced the immediate pressure on council finances, but that sum is sufficient only to cover the council’s lost income and additional costs for the first three months of the year. The council will be required to draw down all of its revenue reserves, in addition to taking action to restrict all non-essential expenditure, at a time when our communities are looking to the council to lead our local recovery efforts.

It is great to hear what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Up in County Durham we have problems with obesity levels similar to those in Stoke, Newcastle and Staffordshire in general. Does my hon. Friend agree that councils like Durham should not be building brand-new council headquarters at a cost of more than £40 million, and should instead invest that money in sports facilities for young people in towns such as Crook in my constituency, as well as in the Durham Dales ladies’ hockey club in Wolsingham?

My hon. Friend speaks with absolute conviction: the people of Durham are being failed. It is self-indulgent for councils to go ahead and build nice, big, shiny brand-new buildings. Members from the west midlands will have seen the west midlands police and crime commissioner wasting taxpayers’ money on shiny objects rather than investing in front-line policing, so I completely endorse what my hon. Friend said. The people of Crook deserve what they need, and I hope the council will listen to my hon. Friend, who speaks with conviction on all issues.

I plead with the Minister to help us in Kidsgrove and Talke. We will require Government support, alongside that from Sport England and the local council, to open up this valuable community asset, helping to create jobs and improve physical and mental health. I am not asking for large sums, but any financial support that my hon. Friend the Minister can give would show that Kidsgrove is no longer forgotten in this House. Reopening the swimming pool in the existing sports centre represents the quickest and lowest-cost option for providing a sports and swimming vision in Kidsgrove. This is not about profitability, although there are solid grounds to suggest that the sports centre would become self-sufficient; this is about health, happiness and community. When we find ourselves able to live freely and safely again, it will become more important than ever to participate in communal activities and keep ourselves healthy, physically and mentally—to join a Zumba class as the kids take their after-school swimming lessons, and to laugh and come together. This could, and should, become a key recovery project in the wake of covid-19.

I know that the Government are committed to encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle and levelling-up across the United Kingdom, and I fully accept that, as we brace for economic recovery, the public purse strings will be pulled that bit tighter. However, it has been demonstrated time and again that investment in leisure and recreational pursuits eases the strain on our national health service and our valued emergency services, as well as reducing crime rates and improving mental health. The people of Kidsgrove ought not to be financially penalised for wanting to keep fit—indeed, encouraging people to keep fit is a pillar of the Government’s strategy —so I implore the Government to do the undeniably correct thing and invest in my constituents, as we promised in December.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate and bringing this important issue to my and the Department’s attention. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it with him today. I thank and praise him for the persistent and constructive way in which he has brought it to my attention, pretty much from day one since he was elected. I applaud that persistence, and the way that he has engaged with Sport England and other bodies. I am also very impressed by the west midlands representation in the Chamber this evening.

Lying behind the question of the specific centre in Kidsgrove, at the heart of my hon. Friend’s constituency, is an important point: high-quality sport and physical activity facilities should be locally accessible and available to everyone, including the hardest to reach in society, no matter where they come from or where they live. As he is aware, Sport England is my Department’s arm’s length body, with the responsibility for distributing funding for grassroots sport, including for facilities and planning. Unfortunately, DCMS does not hold the budget for such applications, so I am afraid that there is no separate pot of money that I can delve into and allocate myself, but he is absolutely doing the right things in the approach he is taking. I understand that he is in regular contact with Sport England colleagues, and indeed held a meeting today with senior members of staff there, with a further meeting scheduled for later this month, so he is taking absolutely the right approach to reach what I hope will be a satisfactory conclusion.

We all know the unique power of sport and recognise the way it can transform people’s lives for the better. The benefits of sport go far beyond the physical upside, and these broader outcomes are at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. At the core of the Government’s Sporting Future strategy is a desire to create a healthier, happier and more productive nation. Supporting people to be more active in the way that suits them best is a crucial part of that.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on grassroots sport. In order to understand how the sector has been affected, I have been engaging directly with a wide range of sports sector organisations, including through the fortnightly sport working group meetings, where we discuss the impact of coronavirus right across the sector. In addition to the significant economic packages announced by the Chancellor, Sport England has made £210 million of Exchequer and lottery funding available to help community sports organisations to deal with the impact of covid-19. Government guidance on the pandemic, including sport-specific guidance, is available online, providing advice to organisations and facilities that have been affected.

One of the biggest factors affecting people’s desire and ability to get involved in sport and physical activity is the facilities they can access. Our Sporting Future strategy was clear that facilities should be a priority and that they must place people at the heart of their design. Good-quality, inclusive and welcoming environments in the right locations are so important in encouraging people to get back and stay active. To support this, Sport England is investing up to £40 million in large-scale facilities up to 2021 through its strategic facilities fund. Its communities assets fund also provides grants of up to £150,000 to organisations and communities to support spaces and facilities in their local areas.

I am pleased to note that Sport England has previously invested in my hon. Friend’s local area, including providing funding for the Dimensions sport and leisure centre in neighbouring Tunstall and the indoor cricket facility over at Clayton. These are two great examples of how Sport England funding has contributed to the provision of support to enable communities to be more active.

It is clear that facilities work only when they are properly planned, used and maintained. This means being really clear on which people we think would benefit most from using them. We all know that some of the hardest-to-reach groups in society are exactly the people who will benefit most from getting more active. This is another key message in our strategy. We want to see a strong focus on the whole sport and physical activity sector—on how we can reach people who have not traditionally thought that sport or activity is for them. Again, this kind of thinking should be at the heart of facility development, ensuring that the principles of accessibility and inclusivity are at the centre of planning from the start. We must avoid building facilities that do not have the support of local organisations and that have not been tested with the community. I understand that the Kidsgrove centre has the strong support of the local community, alongside the charitable community group that is co-ordinating the work to reopen it, and I commend this approach. I want to see more and better facilities across the country that will help people to get active, but I want them to be properly thought through and planned.

It is important, now more than ever, that we harness the positive power of sport to enable us to cope with, and recover from, the challenges covid-19 has brought us. As we begin to recover from the huge impact of coronavirus on all our lives over the past few months, sport and sports facilities will have a key role to play. I want to see communities supported to ensure that everybody, no matter what their ability or their background, feels able to get active and live healthy, happy and fuller lives.

I urge my hon. Friend to continue his conversations with Sport England, relevant local authorities and active partnerships, together with any other interested local parties, to identify a way forward. I know that Sport England colleagues stand ready to continue to support this project and to engage with those involved in it. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate—far more than I had expected when I originally heard about it. The points that have been raised today are well made. I hope that progress on this matter will be forthcoming. I am passionate that sport should be for everyone and that sport is at the heart of a happy and healthy nation. My hon. Friend should be applauded for his passion and his persistence in this matter and I look forward to continuing the dialogue with him so we can come to a positive outcome.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.