Big review launched into council-run sports facilities in Ipswich
A major review of Ipswich’s sports facilities has been launched - which could see facilities closed, changed or new services added.
Ipswich Borough Council has appointed independent firm Sports, Leisure and Culture Consultancy (SLC) to carry out a six-week survey of sports facilities across the town.
A public survey has been launched which aims to establish what facilities people in the town look for, with conversations also taking place with gym users, staff, other sports providers and youngsters.
While borough council chiefs said it was too early to determine what the outcome of that review may be, they confirmed that nothing was off the table – including potential closures or new facilities.
However they said no closures would take place without a full public consultation.
Helen Pluck, chief operating officer of Ipswich Borough Council, said: “There are no plans at the moment to change anything.
“We want to understand people’s needs first and then consider what needs to be done to better meet those needs, and then we will see.
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“No decision of that type, whatever the outcome, will be made without any type of formal consultation.”
Opinion: How realistic are cuts?
Ipswich Borough Council is in a difficult position.
On the one hand it is facing a large maintenance bill which will only increase as its buildings age – a bill which will be paid for by the taxpayer.
On the other hand, people expect the council to provide these kinds of facilities and people will rightly question what their tax is paying for as it goes up each year and services close.
It’s a catch 22 – is it more responsible to reduce that maintenance spend now or to plough on with offering those services regardless?
But let’s be under no illusion – cuts are a very real threat here.
As much as there is talk of changing provision – and that could mean establishing new facilities specifically for people starting to begin their fitness journey or more alternative provision such as climbing walls – there is a chance that some services could be axed.
In reality, the swimming pools are likely to be safe, as few other private operators run only pools. Those that do are attached to other gyms, and anyone just looking to complete a few strokes on occasion are unlikely to want to pay full membership fees to health clubs or gyms.
Given the number of gyms now on offer across the town, it is much more likely that the council’s sports centres and gyms could change.
It’s an increasingly crowded market, and one which the council will struggle to operate in on a commercial basis given that it answers to the public and not shareholders.
Of course, all of this is just speculation at this stage, but the fact that the findings will be published in time for the budget and that running costs have been mentioned suggests that finances are as much behind this as anything.
But the council should be applauded for launching a thorough survey, and that public engagement will be important for people – both in feeling that their voices have been heard and confidence in its decision should closures be a measure that is pursued.
And if an unpopular decision has to be taken later down the line, that engagement will prove to be key.
The council currently runs the Fore Street and Crown Pools swimming pools, as well as the Waterfront Gym, Ransomes Sport Pavilion and the Gainsborough, Northgate and Whitton sports centres. It’s annual subsidy lies at around £1.5m for those facilities, with a part of the review aiming to establish whether that figure can be reduced.
Crown Pools and the three sports centres were all built in the early 1980s but have had minor refurbishments since then.
Mrs Pluck said: “The market has changed a lot since then and as buildings get older they cost more to run.
“I want to know what local people want from sport and leisure provision in general in the town so we can make some good decisions later on.
“There are a lot of players in this and it’s really important we get it right.
“The level of investment back then in the ‘80s was remarkable, and it is really important we don’t destroy that legacy.”
Mrs Pluck said Ipswich was one of the most saturated areas for gyms in the UK, while other forms of sport facilities such as trampoline parks and pop-up aqua parks had become more popular in recent years.
The results of the survey are set to be presented to the council this summer, before a plan and proposals are published later this year or when the budget setting process starts for 2020/21.
The council has confirmed the review does not pose a threat to the free iCards being given to youngsters again this summer, or to the renovation plans at Broomhill Lido.
SLC’s website claims to have delivered more than £74million in transformational savings across more than 150 projects nationwide to date.