Lifeline for West Suffolk Leisure Centres

A seven figure loan facility has been agreed for the not-for profit social enterprise that runs leisure centres in West Suffolk’s five main towns.

The decision to offer the £1m loan was made at a meeting of West Suffolk Council’s Cabinet on Tuesday, and will be made from the council’s Growth Investment Fund.

Council Leader, John Griffiths, said‘ Well-being is fundamental to the fight back against COVID-19 and West Suffolk Council has made it a priority to ensure our residents have as many opportunities as possible to be physically active and mentally resilient. As our strategic leisure partner, Abbeycroft has a crucial role to play in this and the loan facility ensures they have the support they need , particularly given the current and future challenges we all face.”

Leisure Centres were closed on 20 March since when Abbeycroft Leisure has had no income but has continued to support their residents with online activities, maintain the premises and look after staff, as well as using its own reserves to operate and maintain the West Suffolk Council facilities. West Suffolk Council supported them during this phase with help accessing Government loans available to the leisure industry and by paying the annual management fee up front rather than quarterly.

Leisure operators nationally are facing huge challenges and a campaign is underway to lobby for ring fenced Government support to prevent widespread closure of facilities .

Cllr Griffiths continued,‘Without this support, West Suffolk could be faced with leisure centres closing or the Council taking responsibility for operating them, something that would be both a backward step and only add to the financial challenges we face. We set up the Growth Investment Fund in 2018 and there is a very strong case, in financial, economic and social terms, for using it to offer this loan facility.’

The Growth Investment Fund has a mission to ‘maximise the benefits for our communities and businesses, to support services and generate economic, social and financial return, all of which are satisfied in this instance in terms of the potential cost to the council, contribution to the local economy and impact on community wellbeing. The term of the loan facility is six years, interest free until March 2023, when it will be reviewed.

Warren Smyth, CEO of Abbeycroft Leisure said, ‘We would like to thank West Suffolk Council for its commitment and we are delighted to have its support in helping to bring customers through this uncertain time. Leisure Centres up and down the country face significant challenges and it is fantastic that we have been able to work with West Suffolk Council to ensure our communities can use these important assets to improve their health and wellbeing. We are looking forward to welcoming leisure centre users back in a phased and safe way from 27 July. However the impact COVID-19 has had on our capacity to operate safely, and on the journey customers will be making back to classes, club sports and the gym is obvious; and without this loan, the future would be bleak.’

Abbeycroft Leisure runs West Suffolk Leisure Centres in Brandon, Bury St Edmunds, Haverhill, Mildenhall and Newmarket. In 2019 West Suffolk Council invested £1.5m in an upgrade to Haverhill Leisure Centre. The £1.8m upgrade to Newmarket Leisure Centre has been completed while the centre was closed and a £1.8m business case for an upgrade at Brandon Leisure Centre will be considered later in the summer. A new leisure centre is currently in construction in Mildenhall, due to open in 2021, and the Council is also seeking to replace the main Bury Leisure Centre as part of the Western Way project