Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Should council leisure facilities survive?

Councils are under no legal obligation to provide leisure facilities; they are a 'discretionary' service. There is also a rule of thumb that public sector intervention in the economy is only justified to do something necessary that the private sector isn't doing.

In the case of council leisure facilities - municipal golf courses, fitness centres, gyms and swimming pools - we need to look at whether these meet the test above.

The private sector is very good at providing golf courses, fitness centres and gyms, and charges and barriers to entry are set at a level that provides various degrees of exclusivity. The only justification for paying for these out of our taxes is a social distributionist one; that poorer people can't afford David Lloyd club membership fees, but should have the right to use the same exercise bicycles or tee-off for the same hole at the taxpayer's expense.

Swimming pools are a little different. There's no money in running a commercial swimming pool, and the private sector simply doesn't do it. All private sector swimming pools are part of a larger commercial fitness / health 'offer' and cross-subsidised from profitable activities. 'Dry' leisure makes money, 'wet' leisure doesn't.

It comes down to whether you think teaching children to swim and allowing adults to practice the skill is worth paying tax for. Personally, I do. But I'd make a bonfire of the municipal golf courses and our cringe-making local 'leisure and lifestyle centres'.


Young Mr. Brown said...

Using tax money to subsidise leisure seems to me to be the ultimate misuse of public funds. Why should I pay for other people to play? I don't expect other people to subsidise my leisure.

A lot of spending in this area seems is for the benefit of children and young people - and I don't doubt that there has to be some element of PE and games in education. But the fact that it is "for the children" or even "to keep young people off the streets" should not justify using tax-payers money to pay for leisure activity.

(And personally, I really find it difficult to justify using tax revenue to teach children to swim. My parents paid to ensure that I learned to swim, but I must confess to not being very grateful. I hated swimming lessons and have never been a keen swimmer.)

Bucko said...

We used to have an excellent leisure centre in Darwen (If a little dated). You had to pay for everything you used and there were a wide range of facilities.

For reasons unknown, they knocked it all down and build a hideous modern building with a GREEN facade in its place.

Now a lot of the facilities have gone and a lot of what remains is "free" to use.

Under the previous system, those who used it paid for it and it was much better. Under the new system, everyone pays and it is pants.

Hopefully it will go back to pay as you play, but I'm sure there will be a lot of dummies being thrown around Darwen when it happens.

English Pensioner said...

We could also adopt the German system whereby those who paid for the facilities, ie the local ratepayers, had passes giving them reduced price entry. A number of times when we were holidaying B&B in Germany we were offered vouchers for the local facilities as we were helping to pay for them through the local tax.
We don't have any public swimming baths where I live, if we want to use any we need to go to the next town and use facilities there which we have not contributed towards. Nice for us, but somewhat unfair to the locals.

Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise said...

Around here (Wiltshire) the municipal facilities are woeful and actually expensive for walk-in members of the public.

The council spectacularly screwed up on the development of a new elf and sport centre (the canny land vendor (a varmer) kept a ye olde ransome strip that the council didn't spot until they tried to get contractors on site!)

Municipal maintenance costs are otherworldly / awesome and we've the recent nearby example of eyewatering cost over runs + fiscal incompetence by the LibDems in Bath over the very nice (+expensive) Bath Thermal Spa.

It would seem that most councils can't manage shit - let alone do it cost effectively.

I think there's a good case for splitting out the municipal leisure elements into a "not for profit" with every council tax payer as a voting shareholder and discount pass holder. After all many old council housing depts. assets were transferred into "not for profit" at cost price and administered pretty much without any public oversight by the same goons as had run them when it were the council.....