Wigan gyms and leisure services hailed as “fantastic” despite being £1.8m overbudget

Leisure and health services in Wigan received huge praise from councillors despite being £1.8m over budget.
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The Be Well programme was brought back under Wigan Council’s control in 2021 – when it was spending £6m on an allocated budget of just £0.9m. But since then, officers have managed to “find efficiencies” of approximately £3.3m since 2021/22 with no reduction in service, a council report stated.

Councillors at a Confident Council Scrutiny Committee meeting described what they were seeing by the service as “fantastic” and “astounding” – highlighting it is not easy bringing a service ‘back in house’.

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The number of gym-goers has increased to 13,577 at the start of 2023 (almost back to pre-Covid levels), more children are learning to swim again and the Be Well app has seen more than 21,000 downloads, Wigan Town Hall was told.

These are all key factors that Lynsey Johnson, head of wellbeing at Wigan Council, said was paying dividends for improving health inequalities in the borough. She said gyms are unlike private sector options as health is at the core of what they do, with NHS referrals coming in to use the service to help rehabilitate from ailments such as cancer, heart disease, or musculoskeletal problems.

But the cost of living crisis and soaring energy bills has been an issue, with the cost of running gyms increasing. This is slowing down the pace at which officers can reduce the spending for Be Well and bring it within budget, the meeting heard.

“For leisure centres, especially those with swimming pools, the significant increase in utility costs over the last twelve months has created significant additional pressure on the budgets this year,” a report said. “At the end of quarter three expenditure on utilities has exceeded the budget by £0.2m and this is forecasted to continue to rise through quarter four.”

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Despite this, gyms have seen revenue increase due to more members joining. The council has also saved money on bills by installing solar panels on the roofs of Howe Bridge and Leigh Leisure Centres.

This has reduced the electricity consumption from the national grid to an equivalent value of £40,000, a report claims. Council officer Stuart Holden told the committee they are looking at other venues to install solar panels to make further savings.

Coun Mary Callaghan said: “I’m astounded by the information we have seen here tonight. The health and the wellbeing moving forward (for young people) is fantastic.

“I compare what my grandchildren have compared to my children. The very little ones are going swimming now and for our ward – Douglas – it will be fantastic for the area.

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“Looking at the enablement for older people and I had a fall recently and the treatment I’ve been offered to get the strength back in my leg compared to a year ago, I’m astounded, as I needed it as I am terrified of falling again.”

The leisure and health team has recently seen successes in projects coming through, augmented by the £20m of levelling-up funding for Haigh Hall’s renovation.

Additionally, a new cafe, playground and car park are being brought to Pennington Flash as part of a £2.7m project and a major investment to replace the equipment as part of a redesign of Norley Hall Adventure playground has been secured.

Coun Chris Ready, portfolio holder for communities and neighbourhoods, told the committee: “The car park at Pennington hadn’t been working for years so god knows how much money we lost there and there was a burger van selling food which isn’t the healthiest. Now that is being transformed for the people there. Really exciting times ahead now.

“We spoke about gym membership – our offer is far greater than other sites with the health offer aspect as well that private clubs can’t match. One guy I spoke to who had Covid really badly and said he wouldn’t have been where he was without the staff.

“I know he is improving and I hope he is in a better way now. It is far more than a pool and a gym now.

“Without your health everything is irrelevant. The people working in the back are doing an amazing job.”