What is happening to Liverpool’s leisure centres?

Sport is a religion in this city. Red and blue dominate the footballing landscape – admittedly more the former these days – while Olympic heroes have been born and raised on the banks of the River Mersey.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Bianca Walkden, and Natasha Jonas have all flown the flag for Team GB and Liverpool in the last decade alone. Swimming also has a proud tradition in the city and garnered international glory, with Austin Rawlinson competing in the Paris Olympics 100 years ago.

Amazing feats of athletic ability have the power to inspire generations and thousands of us over the years have stood in a sports hall to try our hand at boxing, run laps or shoot hoops at one of Liverpool’s leisure centres. In his autobiography, Steven Gerrard said the long-closed Vernon Sangster sports centre in Stanley Park was a vital stepping stone in his progression to become Liverpool and England captain years later.

Over the last few years. however, Liverpool’s leisure offering has taken a bit of a beating. Documents made public showing how Liverpool Council spends its money revealed how thousands have had to be spent on running repairs at Wavertree Tennis Centre to fix the gutters.

This was due to the 30-year-old fixtures giving way and “starting to fail resulting in water ingress into the indoor playing courts causing damage to the building fabric.” Across the car park, more than £120,000 was spent on replacing a roof light over the main pool at the Liverpool Aquatic Centre which was blown off in high winds last winter.

Peter Lloyd in Tuebrook has been shut for around five years with delay after delay impacting its proposed reopening. Now, two of the city’s oldest Lifestyles sites – Park Road and Everton Park – could be offloaded as council officials admitted they can’t afford to invest in all their venues anymore.

So what is happening to sport and leisure in our city?

Last November, Cllr Harry Doyle, Liverpool Council cabinet member for health, wellbeing and culture, admitted the authority can no longer afford to run all of its eight indoor facilities amid continuing financial pressures. A review was approved back in October 2020 in a bid to establish how the strain on public purse strings could be eased. 

A number of locations are in a poor condition and said to be “reaching the end of their operational life.” This includes Everton Park – which dates back to its roots as a Victorian wash house in 1884 – and Park Road in Toxteth.

As a result, the council is considering relinquishing responsibility for the locations through a community asset transfer (CAT).

In March 2023, Liverpool Council agreed to implement a budget saving for leisure centres of £250,000 and a further £1.8m up to 2026. It is projected the service has an overspend of £3.4m per year.

A community asset transfer involves the location potentially being taken on by a third party to continue operations outside of local authority ownership. Among those campaigning to keep the Park Road site open is the Granby Somali Women’s Group, who explained how important it is to the community.

They told the LDRS, “We have single sex sessions for females and accessibility around the pool. A large number of people use the centre, not just in L8, but the wider area.

“The numbers went down everywhere during covid but the decline was only 10% at Park Road. It’s usually fully booked with people queuing out the door for yoga sessions and other classes.

“It’s an asset to other areas as well, there are issues locally with obesity and the findings of the state of health report. As a charity, we’re looking for sustainability ourselves, the centre needs modernisation.”

Speaking to the LDRS about the CAT process, Cllr Doyle said meaningful conversations were ongoing about a possible change of hands but stressed it wasn’t as simple as selling off the family silver. He said: “The interest is really there and the process will go on for six weeks. Any organisation in that time can come back and feed back within that period.

“It’s not like we’re saying to JD Gym “we’ll sell you this sports centre” it’s very different. We’re looking at a community asset transfer hopefully which means only certain organisations can do that, for community use and benefit, it’s completely different.”

A freedom of information request submitted by Everton campaigner Kevin Robinson-Hale revealed in the last eight years, around £6m has been spent maintaining seven of the city’s leisure facilities. During the same period, almost £3m was generated from Everton Park alone.

Cllr Doyle said as leisure was not a statutory requirement the council has to deliver, it placed the service in a difficult position. He said, “Ultimately what I want is a service that people can be proud of and centres that people can be proud of, walk into and feel that it’s a welcoming environment, the equipment works as it should and they can go to a class. The thing I love about the service is those community-run classes.

“That’s the end goal, unfortunately at this moment in time, with 14 years of cuts, but before that as well, there’s been a lack of investment in the service and that goes over different shades of council colours. It’s been difficult since 2010 with the scale of the cuts to the council but I am proud, although in some cases it leaves something to be desired, we still have got doors to those centres open.

“Over 400 pools have closed since 2010, mainly in the north where we’re disproportionately hit, the fact is we’ve kept them open is a positive absolutely, things are obviously still hard but I want to make sure the service is fit for purpose. The council’s only got a finite amount of resources, we can’t afford capital wise to afford in all these centres.”

Given the age of Park Road, the Labour member said there could be scope for a heritage bid for Toxteth site, something “that we can’t do as a council”.

He added, “There are pockets where investment can be achieved by the council, we just can’t do it all. We can talk about the streets, children’s services, they are statutory services, leisure is not. I disagree with that.”

Pressed on the amount being spent to perform running repairs on the leisure sites, Cllr Doyle said they could not be “run down any further” and the council needed to “we get our house in order, bring them up to scratch and hopefully have brighter days ahead.”

He added, “When these services were first built, they were built based on the idea the communities didn’t have those services available to them – Tuebrook is a great example of that. If you look at Park Road and Everton Park, the difference between the three of them is those two are close to the city centre, and there’s been an uprising in private operators.

“Where the services are thriving, it’s because they’re serving a community and there’s a purpose for them. I think there’s a purpose for Everton Park and Park Road, but they need to be brought up to scratch, they need a lot of love and at the moment, I don’t think the council can do that.”

Mentioning Tuebrook and leisure in the same breath usually brings about two words: Peter Lloyd. 

Since before the onset of the pandemic, the centre on Bankfield Road has sat dormant after renovation works were hit with delay after delay. Almost three years and countless apologies since a date was first suggested, Liverpool Council has confirmed another proposed opening for the Lifestyles site.

It is now hoped the £2.2m investment to bring the sports and leisure venue back to life will be complete for July this year. It is estimated that closure of the site has lost the local authority £1m a year in potential revenue.

Cllr Billy Lake has campaigned tirelessly for the site to reopen and explained the impact of Peter Lloyd sitting dormant for so long. He said, “They’re absolutely vital, they’ve had an effect on people’s health and wellbeing. 

“Our children haven’t had swimming facilities for the past five years. My grandchildren are 12 now and haven’t been able to go to their own pool. 

“Peter Lloyd is very popular, well used and one of the most profitable sites in the city. I think it was cynically allowed to fall into disrepair.

“There is a genuine love for that centre in the area and it is missed badly. I get asked about it on a daily basis but I’m trying to temper people’s expectations.

“In the last five years, they’ve dug up Lime Street, got it wrong, dug it up again. They’ve dug up the Strand. 

“All the while Peter Lloyd has remained closed. It’s an interminable delay.”

Reflecting on progress in Tuebrook, Cllr Doyle said, “Peter Lloyd’s coming along really nicely. The contractor for the final phase is on site and it’s going to plan, and there’s quite a few nice things planned for the internals. 

“Obviously, it’s not a brand new centre but definitely updated and nicer for residents to use. We’re also making the changing rooms more accessible too.

“There’s a completion date – which isn’t an opening date – but it’s probably been the most frustrating thing for me, personally. I make no bones about it, at points I’ve felt let down.

“Peter Lloyd serves as a good case study for the council in terms of management of capital projects and the whole procurement exercise. The positive from it is, a lot of good has come from it in terms of learning, things are better and that’s what we’ve seen in the final phase.

“There are times when I’ve thought ‘my goodness’ but I’m passionate about the service, I believe in the service, I never want to give up on it but it has been frustrating.”

Image credit: Marcelo Uva

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