‘Bailout’ for leisure centres could be lost

Town Hall may not see the repayment of GLL debts built up during pandemic

Friday, 11th June 2021 — By Helen Chapman

Sobell Centre IMG_2025

Sobell Centre was forced to close during lockdown

FINANCE chiefs at the Town Hall fear Islington will never see the money used to keep its leisure centre operators afloat during the lockdown.

The council has negotiated three deals with contractor GLL to ease the pressure on it while ­people could not use gyms and sports services.

GLL had asked for support as its income dramatically fell amid the restrictions.

But an audit committee meeting at the Town Hall heard that the council may not realistically see the repayment of debts built up during the pandemic which are owed to the council.

Councillors were told there was “no silver bullet” to solving a series of financial hurdles.

Overall costs in responding to the crisis for the council rose above £50million, but almost a fifth of that has not been covered by central government funding.

David Hodgkinson, corporate director of resources at the Town Hall, answered questions from councillors at the meeting last month and was asked about the breaks given to GLL.

“The turnover of leisure facilities was hit heavily and it may well be that doesn’t recover to levels of debt before [the pandemic] for some time,” he said.

“We may end up standing a lot of that. We will continue to press to get that money back, like all of our debts.

“We have got to be realistic about the current situation we are in, which looks to be getting clearer all the time with the pandemic and what the outcomes might be like.”

The Town Hall extended its “bailout” deal to GLL in March following a third government-ordered lockdown which saw the closure of swimming pools and gyms.

Under its deal with Islington, GLL runs eight centres in the borough that were forced to close last year due to the lockdown, including the Sobell Centre.

The council has said it will continue to support GLL while gyms will operate at a 30 per cent capacity and are not expected to reach normal levels of attendance until next year. The operator – also known as Better – has agreed similar deals with other local authorities where it has contracts.

Rent collection of £1.2m was put on hold last year after GLL approached the council for help.

Mr Hodgkinson said: “There isn’t a silver bullet to it all because it is a difficult time, but by increasing our focus on it and our support we really are making a difference.”

A spokesperson for GLL said: “As a not-for-profit charitable social enterprise, we are at the heart of the local community and playing a key part in the national pandemic recovery.

“Our partners at Islington Council have shown strong support for the important public leisure services that are so valued by residents in the borough and central to improving public health, as we slowly emerge from the current pandemic.”

They added: “Now that society is reopening under the government’s roadmap, we are very pleased with the return of customers through the doors – albeit with reduced capacities at present.

“Our aim is to maintain this recovery of the business that will allow us to recoup significant lost revenue, repay funding support and provide for future investment in the health and wellbeing of Islington residents.”

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