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Cultural Centres and Sporting Facilities: North West Durham

Volume 688: debated on Monday 1 February 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

It is a pleasure to be here with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In January 2020, after 18 months of work, Durham County Council—Labour-led for 102 years—produced its plan “Leisure Transformation”. Well, they say, hide it in the title if you can. All North West Durham gets from that £63 million is “refreshing the existing offer” at two leisure centres—no new services or facilities, but perhaps a bit of corporate signage.

Ninety-five per cent. of my constituents who responded to my survey on the issue say that the situation is totally unacceptable. It is a particular slap in the face for the people of Crook, who in 2011 had their swimming pool closed and demolished within weeks. Their town is not even mentioned in the 38-page executive summary that was presented to the Labour council cabinet. It is also a slap in the face for Consett. Five years ago, it had a new leisure centre built, but it is now closed, due not to covid but to terrible contracting and oversight by Durham County Council.

I would like to read a couple of the comments that people made on my survey. One said:

“If Crook Leisure Centre ever gets a pool, do whatever you can stop DCC from taking it over—I work at another DCC leisure centre, and their management is absolutely appalling.”

Another said:

“what is unacceptable is that 5 years after”

the leisure centre in Consett opened

“it should need to be closed for structural repair, this highlights a lack of due diligence”

in the entire process.

As the Secretary of State said in the House last week, Labour-run Durham County Council is in the process of building a £50 million new county hall on a floodplain. Even during the pandemic, Councillor Tinsley of Willington led a committee that approved a 3,500 square feet roof terrace to be added to it.

My constituents are fed up of being ignored by a Labour council and some faux-independent hangers on. They just want a reasonable cut of the cake when it comes to local leisure facilities. Often in spite of the council, my communities really come together when it comes to local leisure and sport. Aside from the pandemic, which has been a huge issue locally and has really knocked the sector for six, in general it has been thriving. We have four great football clubs: Willington, Tow Law, Crook and Consett. The juniors at Consett and Crook are going from strength to strength.

I have a fantastic local rugby union club, which I have visited on a couple of occasions, including one of its rather boozy social events. Up in the dale, we have some superb facilities and teams, including Durham Dales Hockey, which is desperately in search of a pitch. I will make a pitch for one to the Minister at another time. We also have some superb cycling and walking locally across the north Pennines, in the beautiful area of outstanding natural beauty. We have some great gyms that provide a huge local services, and many other things.

Covid has knocked so many of those facilities and sports clubs for six. I appreciate some of the support that the Minister has given, but they are essential to people’s mental health and wellbeing, so I really encourage him if at all possible to put that sort of activity right at the forefront of reopening. The truth is that many of those community clubs might get a few crumbs from the council’s table, but they are not really getting a look in when it comes to proper capital support.

People in North West Durham feel left behind not just in leisure, but in cultural spending. For the county as a whole, the closure of the Durham Light Infantry Museum was a real hammer blow. There is some support from the council, which runs the Empire theatre in Consett—currently closed not due to the pandemic, but because it needs massive repair work—and some excellent investment is going in, but we need to ensure that this cultural hub can drive the town centre regeneration that so many of us want to see.

Central government and the lottery have stepped up during the pandemic. The heritage emergency fund has supported Ushaw College, the Durham Wildlife Trust, and the Weardale museum. Unusually for me, I will praise the national lottery rather than call it into question, because it did provide some excellent support for those community organisations. The cultural recovery fund has delivered over £1 million for our local music education hub, our local cultural entertainment centre based at Stanhope and, again, Ushaw College, which I visited just a few weeks ago to see its fantastic light display.

Again, culture is driven and sustained largely by local groups and local people. I visited Jack Drum Arts with Baroness Barran, and it does get some council support, but compared with what is going to other parts of the county, particularly the City of Durham and some of the projects the council see as the flagships, it really is pennies on the dollar.

Over in Leadgate we have some really good community projects, such as the Roxy. I have already written to the Secretary of State about it, and I urge the Minister to visit as well. Some fantastic work is going on there to turn things around and bring it to public view though the community investment company. It is a superb facility, which David has basically been working on by himself and raising money for locally, and I would really like some extra support. I had a recent meeting about it with one of the Minister’s colleagues, but what is happening on the ground needs to be seen to get a feeling for it because, again, it is not really getting support from the council. Down at Crook, a local group is trying to revive the Empire Electric Palace, but the council is not stepping up to support it. The open-air swimming pool in Stanhope, which has faced real difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic, is another local institution that I will be fighting for over the coming years.

I have some asks of the Minister. When central Government cash is being distributed, wherever possible please put it in the hands of local communities and local organisations rather than in the hands of the council. The cultural recovery fund has been excellent in my area, but I urge the Minister to consider extending it if possible. The fantastic Weardale Adventure Centre is probably the largest local employer at the top end of Weardale, but it cannot currently apply for cultural recovery fund money and it would really benefit from support—the team there is fantastic, and I have visited several times. Anything that the Minister could do to ensure that support can be accessed by more institutions would be really appreciated. I would love a visit from the Secretary of State or from the Minister just to see some of the great local community work that is going on both in local community sports and in the local community groups that are trying to revive the local area.

For too long, North West Durham has been left out on a limb. If the county council is spending £50 million on a new county hall with a roof terrace and £63 million on local leisure with none of it coming to my area, we have to look elsewhere for support, and that is what I am calling for today. Please ensure that funding goes straight through to local community groups in the towns and villages of North West Durham.

Finally, my constituents are a proud people who are fizzing with creativity, which can be seen in some of the great work of the Glass & Art Gallery on Medomsley Road in Consett, which is just up the road from my office. The lady there has worked on stained glass windows for churches across the globe. Some great young artists are doing fantastic outdoor painting and works, including on some of the shopfronts and at the Duke of Wellington pub, which is just down the road the other way from my office. There is real local enthusiasm, and local champions are pushing things from kids’ sports and activities all the way through to the Weardale museum.

It is clear that the sectors of leisure and culture have been hit by covid, but it is those sectors that, crucially for communities such as mine, will really help to drive us out of it, particularly for the hospitality sector, which relies on the footfall from those people. Minister, please hear our pleas. Please ensure that that funding goes straight through wherever possible, and do not allow us to be constantly hamstrung by a county council more interested in itself than in local people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for securing the debate. Sport and physical activity are more important than ever as we continue to fight against covid-19. I appreciate the passion with which he advocates for the provision of sport and leisure facilities in his constituency and, indeed, the broader issues that he raises about cultural investment in his constituency.

My hon. Friend’s constituents are lucky to have him championing their cause. We have spoken many times about the issues and, indeed, the opportunities within the remit of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in his constituency—from sport, to heritage, culture, tourism and, indeed, gambling. I would be delighted to take him up on his offer to visit his part of the world in the near future and see at first hand some of the entities, institutions and people he proudly mentioned.

As hon. Members will be aware, on 4 January the Prime Minister announced the third national lockdown and asked people to stay at home to control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives. As a result, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including swimming pools and leisure centres, have unfortunately had to close. Sport and physical activity are crucial to our mental and physical health. They are a powerful defence against the covid-19 pandemic, and we will need to raise levels of fitness among the population as we prepare to return to our normal lives, now that the vaccination programme has begun. Our local authority leisure and sports facilities will play a key role in enhancing our national health.

My hon. Friend focused particularly on the provision of swimming facilities. Of course, swimming is a wonderful way to exercise and a popular choice for many people to be active, including of course in County Durham. In Parliament, we are fortunate to have a very active all-party parliamentary group on swimming, which I have had the pleasure to meet on several occasions since the pandemic began. Swimming has a wide variety of benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety, improving health and wellbeing, building endurance and muscle strength, and improving cardiovascular fitness.

Furthermore, we all know that learning to swim saves lives, which differentiates it from many other sports, important as they are. Saving lives is a really important part of why swimming is so important. That is why swimming pools were one of the first sports facilities to be reopened following the initial lockdown, and were able to stay open in local tiers 1 to 3. The report “The Importance of Pools Post-lockdown”, published by Swim England back in May last year, highlighted how a 25-metre pool on its own can generate about £7 million of social value in the community and save the NHS and social care systems more than £1.2 million.

It is therefore no surprise that my hon. Friend is advocating for a swimming pool in his constituency. Before the lockdown, around 14 million adults in England went swimming each year, with more than 1 million children learning to swim outside of school through Swim England’s “Learn to Swim” programme, so it is a pleasure to hear him champion swimming in his constituency and, I understand, express disappointment in the current levels of provision there.

Support for sports facilities in north-west Durham has been taken up with Sport England directly. It is the arm’s length body with responsibility for activity levels and sport for DCMS, and I know that it would welcome further discussions with the council and my hon. Friend to develop a more robust assessment of the area’s strategic leisure needs. This will not be a standing start: since 2016, Sport England has invested over £425,000 of lottery and Exchequer funding in the North West Durham constituency, and since 1995, over £4 million. This includes £313,000 to Consett YMCA and over £80,000 to the Crook community leisure centre to support multi-sports facilities and to increase participation.

On the arts and culture side, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, through the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund there have been several awards to date in North West Durham—he mentioned some of them—totalling over £1 million in funding and including such entities as the Durham and Darlington music education hub, the Association for Cultural Enterprises, and the St Cuthbert’s Society. That funding goes directly, as he requested, rather than via the local authorities.

More broadly, to support the return of grassroots sports, including swimming pools, once restrictions can be reduced, the Government have provided unprecedented support for businesses through tax reliefs, cash grants, employee wage support and a whole variety of other measures. We developed a £100 million support fund for local authority leisure centres. This national leisure recovery fund seeks to support eligible public sector leisure centres to reopen to the public, giving the sport and physical activity sector the best chance of recovery to a position of sustainable operations over the medium term. A total of £100 million is available as a biddable fund to eligible local authorities in England, and it will be allocated in a single funding round. My officials are currently in the process of assessing bids for the fund, and funding decisions will be communicated shortly.

This is all on top of the funding that Sport England has provided, which has comprised over £220 million to directly support the sport and physical activity sector, with £35 million set aside as a community emergency fund for our very important sports clubs and exercise centres. On 26 January, Sport England published its 10-year strategy, “Uniting the Movement”, and it also committed an extra £50 million to help grassroots sports clubs and organisations affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government, both with direct grants and through their ALBs, are doing what they can to help local councils and institutions to sustain their sporting and cultural offerings. My hon. Friend makes a compelling case for his constituents to get their fair share—or fair cut of the cake, as he described it—of any local and central Government investment. I hope that his local council is listening to his pleas, because he seems to be expressing some frustrations with its resource allocation decisions of late—frustrations that some of his constituents apparently share.

In terms of sport provision, as Sports Minister, I hope that councils always endeavour to provide access to facilities for as many people in their area as possible. One of the key drivers of increasing activity levels is of course easy access to sport and leisure facilities, and we rely on councils for that. Indeed, I praise councils for prioritising leisure facility provision, but it is not just a matter of how much they spend on sport and leisure, but where they spend it. This is a debate to be had locally rather than for me to dictate here in the Chamber today. I hope that my hon. Friend can and will have constructive discussions with his local council. No doubt this will be a political issue in the upcoming local elections, where I am confident that the local Conservative team will have a particularly compelling manifesto for his constituents to consider.

The past year has been like no other, but I really appreciate the collaboration we have had with all DCMS stakeholders at national and local level. I am determined that the sports and cultural sectors emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and others in achieving just that.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.