UK's Biggest Public Leisure Centre Operator Asks Councils For Money To Survive Lockdown

GLL, which runs 270 facilities across more than 40 local authority areas, has been forced to ask council partners for extra support to help with rent and wages.
The Local Government Association has warned that leisure providers are facing a crisis amid the pandemic.
The Local Government Association has warned that leisure providers are facing a crisis amid the pandemic.
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The UK’s biggest public leisure centre operator has been forced to ask local councils for increased support to help it survive the crisis caused by lockdown.

GLL – a charitable social enterprise which runs 270 leisure facilities under the “Better” brand, as well as 75 libraries and 10 children’s centres nationwide – has reached out to more than 40 local authority partners and asked them for financial help as income throughout the pandemic plummets to zero.

A spokesperson for the group denied any allegations that it was set to fall into administration, but confirmed that council partners across the UK had been approached for help.

Many of the local authorities GLL works with are based in the capital, but since its inception in 1993 the group has grown its portfolio to encompass councils nationwide, facilitating leisure centres and community hubs as far away from its roots as Cornwall, Belfast, Cardiff and Carlisle.

A spokesperson for GLL said: “As a trusted local authority partner with a strong financial and social business model, we are working closely with all our council partners and clients to mitigate the impact of the pandemic – including extensively supporting local authority community resilience projects across the UK.

“We refute any allegations that we may go into administration. GLL remains financially robust, but, whilst we have no customer income during lockdown we do need financial support from our partners; in addition to the government’s job retention scheme support.

“We have therefore, along with every other operator in the UK, asked for financial help from our local authority partners, to enable us to protect jobs and safeguard their public services, which will be in greater demand when we re-open.”

Tens-of-millions of people visit GLL centres each year, and the group employs more than 13,000 members of staff – a significant proportion of whom have now been furloughed.

Although the furlough scheme has proven a lifeline for companies like GLL, the group’s commitment to topping up staff wages to 100% from the 80% offered by the government has left it desperate for more cash.

As it stands, GLL has committed to paying staff full salary until the end of May – but beyond that the situation remains unclear.

The spokesperson added: “Our charitable social enterprise will pay our staff their full 100% salary in May. We want councils to support us to do this beyond May to prevent the burden of the pandemic falling on lower paid, frontline staff.”

In a press release earlier in May it was revealed that GLL had gone to local authority partners to ask for help topping up pay to 100% to ensure “the sustainability of the company and its important ongoing contribution to public health and wellbeing when it can fully open again.”

The Islington Gazette reports that while Islington Council had deferred some £1.2m of rent payments, and was also supporting GLL with an undisclosed sum to help the company sustain its facilities in the borough until the end of June, the council had said it wasn’t able to afford topping up furlough pay for staff.

HuffPost UK has contacted several local authorities outside of London, and the Mayor of London’s office, to see whether or not councils will support GLL, and – if so – how they will do so.

Newcastle City Council – which runs seven facilities in conjunction with GLL declined to comment specifically on the company’s situation.

A spokesperson said: “We know this is a difficult time for all leisure providers and are looking to see how we can support those in the city.”

Meanwhile, York City Council – which runs three leisure facilities across the city in conjunction with GLL – said it “will continue to work closely with GLL.”

Ian Floyd, the council’s interim head of paid services, said: “Throughout the city’s response to coronavirus we understand that the businesses we work with have had to adapt due to temporary closures, working differently and dealing with the financial demands this places on them.

“We are working with our partners across the city to ensure we support them to work safely, and we continue to follow government guidance regarding our ongoing service contracts.

“City of York Council supports GLL through our leisure services contract via monthly payments. This is usually paid in arrears. Following government guidance, the council have paid three months of the contract fee upfront, covering April to June 2020.

“We understand that GLL have furloughed the majority of staff at these venues and have confirmed they are continuing to pay 100% of their salaries until May. City of York Council will continue to work closely with GLL, to work through the contract implications of the Coronavirus response which closed all public leisure facilities in March.”

It might be the biggest, but it’s not just GLL which is struggling to survive.

On May 6 the Local Government Association (LGA) warned that leisure providers were falling through the gaps in the government’s support packages for struggling businesses amid the pandemic.

The LGA, which represents councils in England and Wales, has written to culture secretary Oliver Dowden calling for charitable enterprises such as GLL to be given access to a £750m grant package for the charity and social enterprise sector.

Local authorities are responsible for a third of swimming pools, 31% of grass pitches, 13% of sports halls; and almost of fifth of all health and fitness facilities.

With the average monthly leisure utility and energy bill costing £44,000 alone, the LGA also called on the government and utility companies to also agree a short-term reduction or waiving of standing charges for energy and water.

At the time of the release, councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said: “Councils are deeply concerned about the future of leisure trusts, who are charities, societies or community interest companies.

“Leisure facilities provide an affordable space for our communities to exercise and socialise with family and friends. They play a key role in improving our communities’ physical and mental wellbeing.

“If we do not act to save these vital community resources, it will cost us much more in the long-term both socially and economically. It is vital that government works with councils and leisure providers to identify any potential funding to avoid reaching a crisis point.”


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