Despite the imminent election, which usually leads to a halt on policy statements, Shropshire Council yesterday issued a draft leisure strategy. There is good news for Ludlow and for Bishop’s Castle, whose leisure centres will continue to be supported by Shropshire Council, along with those in Shrewsbury, Oswestry, Bridgnorth and Market Drayton.
Plans to close leisure centres or offload them onto communities have been controversial from the outset. In the south of the county, residents have campaigned to save leisure facilities in Church Stretton and Bishop’s Castle.
In Ludlow, we learnt some time ago that Shropshire Council would continue to support the South Shropshire Leisure Centre, despite initial moves by the council to transfer it to Ludlow Town Council. It never made sense for the town council to run the leisure centre. That would have placed the financial burden on Ludlow ratepayers alone, despite the facility serving people living across a very wide area. (The same incidentally applies to the library, which is not currently on the transfer list).
The strategy published yesterday recommends leisure hubs at six locations:
- Shrewsbury, Oswestry, Ludlow, Bridgnorth, Market Drayton, Bishop’s Castle.
These will be supplemented by four community leisure centres:
- Church Stretton, Whitchurch, Cleobury Mortimer, Ellesmere.
Leisure is a non-statutory activity. The council can shut all the leisure centres if it wishes. But this will conflict with its responsibilities for public health. The council recognises this in a press statement on the leisure strategy:
“Shropshire will be a county where healthier, active lifestyles are encouraged, supported and facilitated for everyone.”
Under the strategy 89% of Shropshire residents will be able to access leisure centres within one of these ten locations within a 20-minute drive time.
From a Ludlow perspective, the main issue with this strategy is the council’s dire financial position. Reserves and one off funding pots are being used to keep services going under the strain of government cuts. Changes in funding over the next few years may lead to a reappraisal of what the council can support.
As always, we need to remain vigilant to ensure that Ludlow retains the services its population needs and pay for.
. The council is currently in the pre-election period, also known as purdah. This definition is from Wikipedia: “The time period prevents central and local government from making announcements about any new or controversial government initiatives (such as modernisation initiatives or administrative and legislative changes) which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election.” I think the leisure strategy is both new and controversial. The Local Government Association guide “Understanding Purdah” advises council officers: “Unless it is a statutory duty, don’t start any new consultations or publish report findings from consultation exercises, which could be politically sensitive.” That guidance has not been followed. It is a question for lawyers whether the council has broken the law. I am just a layman. But it seems to me that Shropshire Council is outside the spirit of the law.
. Local authorities interpret these responsibilities in different ways. Newcastle council, for example, has allocated £1m a year of anti-obesity funds from its public health budget for the city’s parks.