Better leisure centres being bailed out across UK, says GLL chief

The operator of the Olympic aquatic centre and hundreds of other leisure centres across the UK is being bailed out by cash-strapped local authorities in every area it operates as it struggles with the latest lockdown, the Guardian can reveal.

GLL, which trades under the name Better, runs 230 pools, and sports halls in councils areas including Belfast, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Bath, Cumbria and Cornwall and several London boroughs.

Its chief executive, Mark Sesnan, warns that the lockdown has come at the worst time possible for a business built on new year’s fitness resolutions. He also fears the government help will not be enough to stop pools and sport centres closing for good.

Various local bailouts have been secured in more than 40 of these areas, involving either direct grants, or deferred payments or loans, he said. And negotiations are still underway in the remaining areas, including Croydon council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt last month.

Despite these bailouts and the importance of personal fitness highlighted by the pandemic, the business faces “disaster” because the third lockdown was imposed at its most lucrative time of year. It has been forced to close all of its leisure services including outdoor pools despite evidence to suggest swimming in chlorinated pools is safe from Covid infection.

GLL was formed in 1993 to run Greenwich council’s leisure and has since grown to become the biggest social leisure provider in the country.

But it has revealed that the pandemic has cost it £170m in lost revenue, forcing it to spend £20m in reserves. It has also had to take out a £20m loan, cut more than 500 jobs with more under threat, and become dependent on local bailouts and the government’s furlough scheme.

Its predicament has led to questions about its business model and calls for the services it runs to be brought back under council control in some areas including Belfast and Swindon.

Chief executive, Mark Sesnan, has defended the company’s record and insists it does have a bright future once the latest lockdown is eased. He said: “We’ve moved from being a relatively strong financial business to one that does rely on support for local authorities. The biggest issue is that some councils are very cash strapped themselves and have more pressing priorities.”

He admitted that its business planning is predicated on the furlough scheme, which has helped 10,500 GLL employees, continuing at least until Easter.

The government’s promise of £9,000 for each leisure centre won’t be enough, he warned. He pointed out its largest generate £1,000-a-day income, but are currently bringing in nothing. He said: “GLL welcomes and needs any and all financial support, but to be meaningful the amount needs to be based on real business losses, not arbitrary handouts.”

Unite the union which represents many of GLL’s staff, says the pandemic has “exposed” GLL’s over reliance on public money and staff on casual contracts. Regional officer, Onay Kasab, said: “The pandemic has exposed GLL in several ways. Their business model relies on local government funding and with austerity it is not a model that can continue. It is not cheaper to outsource, because it ends up costing more money in the long term. The company is clearly in danger of going down, yet council taxpayers money continues to be thrown at it.”

Sesnan, a former union shop steward, admitted that more than half the staff are on “flexible” contracts. But he insisted the company is trying to help as many staff as possible.

He admitted that GLL’s 50 most inefficient pools and gyms could be forced to close, but these do not include the former Olympic facilities in east London.

The most vulnerable pools and sports centres are the ones that did not open relaxations of lockdown rules, including some in Cornwall, Cumbria, Newcastle, Preston, and a number of London boroughs. The government has insisted its leisure rescue package will not pay for services that remained closed.

Sesnan said: “Swimming pools are not easy buildings to hibernate, you can’t just lock the doors and walk away.” And even with paying customers, some subsidy is required. He said. “A swim costs £10 to put on, but nobody pays any more than £5 for it. So whichever way you stack it up some has to pay for that other fiver.”

But despite the difficulties he insists the organisation can survive. “GLL isn’t going down. who have kept themselves fit have had a much better chance of surviving the virus, than people who haven’t. It’s a low-cost way of preventing things like this in the future. There needs to be a new partnership between the health and fitness going forward. So the future is good.”

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