Campaigners are stepping up efforts to save North East leisure facilities from closure as a senior doctor warned councillors they are experimenting with people’s health.
Proposals to close both Gateshead and Dunston leisure centres, as the local authority cannot afford to run them due to the worsening cost of living crisis, have been met with outrage by residents of the Tyneside communities.
Both buildings have undergone multi-million pound refurbishments in recent years and have swimming pools, gyms and squash courts among other services.
Dr Paul Evans, chairman Gateshead and South Tyneside Local Medical Committee, said: “Take a poor area with massive health inequalities. Remove the last remaining public exercise facilities from the poorest bits of said poor areas. Watch what happens to health.
“It’s an experiment that the people of Gateshead don’t deserve to be a part of. “As a GP working in the area for eight years, I've seen first-hand how access to affordable exercise facilities can both improve the quality of life and reduce unnecessary deaths.
“I believe with the closures we’ll see our population, that already gets ill and dies younger than those in more affluent areas, see further increases in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, long-term sickness and deaths.”
Gateshead Leisure Centre, which opened in 1941 as Shipcote Baths, has a soft play centre, a Clip’n’Climb, café facilities as well as indoor futsal and badminton courts.
In recent years the centre has brought people together through cross-community events including swimming galas, inter-schools cheerleading festivals and martial arts tournaments.
Marcus North, director of cricket at Durham Cricket Club, who lives nearby, said: “Without Gateshead Leisure Centre, approximately 50,000 people in our community including children, teenagers, adults and the elderly, will lose out on both the physical and mental health benefits, putting people’s wellbeing at risk and resulting in an extra financial burden to our health and welfare services.”
Campaigners from the Save Leisure Gateshead group has written to the council to demand that the consultation process is extended and that the community is actively involved in decision-making around the future of the leisure centre.
They want the council to work with the community to explore all avenues to make the Gateshead centre financially viable and keep it open.
Save Leisure Gateshead is concerned that the threat to the leisure centre has not been communicated effectively to many marginalised groups with different access needs, and many do not know what they could lose.
Campaigner Lizzy Haskins, local resident, said: “It’s imperative that we all pull together to save Gateshead Leisure Centre.
“The impact the closure will have on the local community is frankly terrifying - there are members who simply won‘t be able to access alternative ways to exercise for a multitude of reasons; some because they are unable to travel further afield, some because they can’t afford payments for private memberships.
“Those people will lose a vital lifeline.
“Where will our kids learn to swim when we already know that there isn’t capacity at other local centres to take on the extra footfall?
Consultation being carried out, which include the closure of the sports hall at Birtley Leisure Centre, until December 13 with a decision due in January.
Other publicly-owned leisure services that remain open in Blaydon and Heworth are set to be outsourced by the local authority.
Blaydon MP Liz Twist said: “This is really sad news for our local communities, since the leisure centre closures and review has been announced, I’ve been active in trying to get as many people as possible to engage in the consultation. “Both pools that are set to close are incredible assets to the community.
“They offer unique spaces that help bring competitions, people and finances to the local economy and I urge as many people as possible to engage in this consultation to help the council in understanding what these assets mean to people.”
Councillor Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council said the authority was unable to pay £2 million a year for leisure services for its residents.
He said: “We recognise that the closure of facilities is not what anyone wants to see, and we will continue to fight for Gateshead, and call upon Government to recognise the devastating impact cuts are having, particularly at a time when we should be working hard to sustain and protect community services for our residents.”
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Alice Wiseman, Gateshead’s Director of Public Health said the council does not underestimate the importance of exercise and is not putting forward the proposal lightly.
She said: “Closing some of our sites will ensure that the leisure centres that remain open can offer more reliable and sustainable services, continuing to provide school swimming lessons, for example.
“Whilst no one would voluntarily choose to close leisure centres, the harsh reality is that without additional Government funding, there is no alternative option.”
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