When Alison Critchley hears people complaining about young people hanging around on street corners, she gives a snort of derision. “What are they supposed to do if there’s nothing for them to do, and nowhere for them to go?”
Critchley grew up on the Shadsworth estate in Blackburn, when it was newly built in the 1950s. She remembers playing with friends, running around the surrounding fields, playing games of football. “When I was a child, all the kids would make a picnic and just play outside all the time,” she says.
But that was a long time ago. The surrounding green spaces have since been sold off – swallowed up by housing and industrial estates.
And Critchley, now 58, fears things are about to get even worse. Last year, the local swimming pool at Shadsworth leisure centre closed, the latest casualty of a cash-strapped council struggling to balance its budgets.
The centre first opened in 1974, but after 44 years the pool closed in February, with the rest of the facility shutting its doors permanently on January 1. The reason? Declining use and unaffordable running costs, according to the local Blackburn with Darwen council.
But Critchley is concerned about the impact on community health. “How can people possibly complain children are obese and end up sitting in front of computer games or hanging around on street corners when there is no alternative?” she asks.
On its own, of course, the closure of this one leisure centre is not worthy of a national news report. It is, at best, a local story affecting a relatively small number of people. But it is in paying closer attention to thousands of small financial decisions like this that we see the reality of government-led austerity, and the way it is quietly changing Britain.
In our HuffPost UK series, What It’s Like To Lose, we are exploring how these changes at a local level link up to paint a national portrait – from the closures of community libraries, or the centralisation of medical services, to the disappearance of affordable leisure facilities and post offices. As local authorities find themselves picking off the “low-hanging fruit”, we are examining what it means to the people who are now losing out.
“Since 2010, the council has seen 40% of its funding from central government cut”
Figures from Sport England reveal that a total of 366 swimming pools closed across the UK during 2016 and 2017. During the same two years, a total of 261 swimming pools were also built – a net closure of 105 pools in just two years.
Damian Talbot, Blackburn with Darwen council’s executive member for leisure, culture and young people, said the decision to close Shadsworth was not taken lightly. They worked hard to keep it open, but “mounting costs and significant cuts in funding” meant there was, he says, no alternative. “Since 2010, the council has seen 40% of its funding from central government cut.”
When the leisure centre first came under threat a few years ago, there was an outcry from residents. They marched to the town hall in protest and won a reprieve. The pool was transferred to a third party operator, but with running costs of more than £100,000 a year, it was unsustainable.
After that, council bosses faced the cost of running it – at £122,300 per year – despite a site income of only around £19,000. They decided to close it.
As with so many decisions at a local level, on paper this made the most sense. Residents still have access to leisure facilities: they can travel to the new multi-million pound leisure centre in Blackburn. But as with every closed door and mothballed service around the country, it made a small but important change to people’s lives. Now Shadsworth residents can no longer get to a facility that is within walking distance.
The estate is one of Blackburn’s most deprived areas, with high levels of poverty. In the words of Alison Critchley, “it seems that those who need things most are the ones who lose out first.”
She says she understands the tricky financial predicament the council is in. “I know if people used these things, they would not lose them. But there needs to be a balancing act. There is a need for a leisure centre in Shadsworth. Throughout the summer, there were so many activities for children there, including swimming and arts and crafts.
“Young people and families can’t just be left with nothing – but with the closure of the leisure centre, that’s what we are facing now.”
John Slater, leader of Blackburn with Darwen Council’s Conservative group, says he’s angry at the decision. “It won’t affect people who can afford gym membership, but will hit younger families who now might not be able to afford leisure and exercise. I think it is a very short-sighted decision and a golden opportunity missed.”
As well as a pool, Shadsworth had a sports hall, fitness gym, squash court and dance studio. It was home to clubs, including a judo group that produced national champions – brothers Nathan and Josh Burns, and Paul, Louis and Frank Vinneyey, who fought for Great Britain.
Joe Burns learned there, and then went on to teach it. “You had to be good or you’d get your backside kicked,” he says. “Once I got in, I loved it. When my instructor left, I went on to run the club.”
Burns made the difficult decision to move the club out in 2016. “The leisure centre kept reducing the staff and threatening to reduce hours. It got to the point where there was only one staff member so we couldn’t set up our equipment.
“We moved to the new sports centre in Blackburn, but people didn’t want to go there as they liked it at Shadsworth, where it had been running for years. People were a bit tribal and didn’t want to move to another area. It is a huge wrench. I understand austerity, but the judo club was never the same, as Shadsworth was a real fighting club. It is a real loss to the community.”
Judo champion and coach Paul Vinnyey says leisure centres across the country are often at the heart of the community. “They have a better atmosphere. But they are being ripped out and everything is being centralised. It all boils down to cost cutting.”
Perhaps part of the problem lies in how the centres are seen by local authorities. Charles Johnston, property director for Sport England, told HuffPost UK that ageing facilities should be repurposed, rather than entirely closed. “We have a real sympathy with local authorities facing cuts.However, we are trying to work with local authorities to help them see there are alternatives to closure which can have a far more positive effect. It is about re-investing in the right facilities for the current needs of the local population.”
One of the clearest problems with the closures is the impact on public health. Local residents can become less physically active, often costing the local authority more by putting pressure on health and social services.
Johnston believes ailing sites should become wellbeing hubs, soaking up over services, such as libraries. And he’s not alone in seeing them as an intrinsic part of a healthy community, fuelling social cohesion.
Steve Ward, CEO of ukactive, a not-for-profit body aiming to get more people moving more, says that research suggests physical inactivity causes up to 37,000 premature deaths a year in England and costs up to £20bn.
“The prospect of forking out for buses, or spending extra time travelling further afield is an extra pressure”
“Leisure centres have a crucial role to play so we are facing a race against time to reimagine them with councils, working hand-in-hand with the physical activity sector. If wellness hubs can be rolled out across the UK, they can become the preventative frontline of the NHS, easing the strain on health professionals and freeing up hospital beds,” Ward says.
A study by Swim England looking at the health benefits of swimming found that children who take part in swimming lessons regularly develop physical, cognitive and social skills quicker than those who don’t. The report also found evidence that swimmers live longer, and that regular swimming helps older people stay mentally and physically fit.
Local resident Alison Critchley says she believes the loss of the leisure centre will discourage people from keeping fit. “Facilities will no longer be readily available on people’s doorstep, and they won’t just be able to walk there from around the corner.”
For families who are struggling to make ends meet, the prospect of forking out for buses, or spending extra time travelling further afield is an extra pressure. “Unfortunately, [it will] make the difference between taking part in exercise and sports, and not.”
In a new series, HuffPost UK is examining how shrinking local budgets are affecting people’s daily lives. These are stories of what it’s like to lose, in a society that is quietly changing. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email email@example.com.