An image of a brand new leisure facility in Ebbw Vale. The leisure centre looks modern and takes the form of a rhomboid, predominantly in grey with glass in a similar shape on the right hand side set in a yellow frame.

An image of a brand new leisure facility in Ebbw Vale. The leisure centre looks modern and takes the form of a rhomboid, predominantly in grey with glass in a similar shape on the right hand side set in a yellow frame.

Committee calls for “immediate support” to help leisure centres and libraries

Published 16/10/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

With local public services stretched and the demands on core statutory services, especially education and social care, absorbing ever greater resources, what future is there for local authority leisure and library services? That’s the question the Senedd’s Local Government and Housing Committee asked earlier this year.

The Committee heard first-hand of the significant impact on communities when leisure and library services are reduced or withdrawn entirely, which, according to one stakeholder, poses a “real threat to the health and well-being of our communities”.

The Committee’s report called for “immediate support” to help leisure centres and libraries “navigate the current crisis”, but also for a long-term strategy to ensure their future sustainability. However, with budgets likely to be stretched further over the coming years, the delivery of local authority leisure and library services will inevitably change.

Libraries “limping along” without a clear strategy for the future

The current statutory framework provides some limited protection for public libraries, placing duties on local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. But those working in the sector told the Committee that provisions in the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 have not “prevented the erosion of funding” or indeed, stopped libraries from closing.

The Committee recognised that a library service today is “very different to what it was in 1964 when the Act was passed”, and emphasised the merits of exploring ways to strengthen legislation to “protect libraries from closure”. Responding to the Committee’s report, the Welsh Government didn’t commit to a full review of the provisions in the Act and how they apply to modern day library services. However, it agreed to explore the Committee’s recommendation further.

In addition to some statutory protections for libraries, there is also a well-established policy framework to support it. The Welsh Public Library Standards set out the Welsh Government’s expectations in terms of local authority library provision. Awen Cultural Trust felt that the Standards have “provided a framework whereby local authorities can be measured on their efforts and on their intentions around library services”, protecting and improving library services in the process.

However, the sector is currently working to an outdated set of Standards, which were last updated in 2017. CILIP Cymru told the Committee that libraries are “currently limping along”, while local government representatives stated there was a “lack of clear strategy” at Welsh Government level. The Committee called for work on the new Standards to proceed as a “matter of urgency”.

The Welsh Government responded that:

Work on the 7th Welsh Public Library Framework is about to commence, and it will be implemented from 1 April 2025.

Consequential funding would be a “lifeline” for the leisure sector

Unlike library provision, there is no statutory or policy framework for public leisure services in Wales. These are in their truest sense, ‘discretionary’. As such, public leisure services have seen the biggest transformation over the past decade, with councils increasingly looking to outsource leisure services to ‘leisure trusts’. Further background information on trusts can be found in an article we published earlier this year.

There were some hesitant calls from stakeholders to explore options for legislating to protect leisure services. Although, in general, it was considered a “strong response” to meet the challenges in the sector, most stakeholders were clear that funding is the key factor. UNISON Cymru noted that:

if councils had sufficient funding… we wouldn't be necessarily looking to see whether we need to legislate to bring councils into order around this.

Indeed, local authority representatives were unambiguous that funding and a long-term strategy to improve the leisure estate, rather than legislation, was key to its future sustainability. This was a view shared by the Committee. Among its recommendations, the Committee called on the Welsh Government to allocate £3.5 million in consequential funding as a result of a UK Government fund in England to support swimming pools. This sum, while small, would provide the leisure sector with a “lifeline” said Swim Wales.

The Welsh Government rejected this call from the Committee, however, stating that:

It is an important principle of devolution that consequential funding is not ringfenced for similar purposes in devolved governments. Welsh Ministers are continuing to assess and consider where the greatest impact will be when making funding decisions in line with Welsh circumstances and priorities.

It added that Sport Wales has received £16m of capital funding for the next two years to upgrade sport facilities, including swimming pools, with energy saving measures.

Measuring the social value of library and leisure services

The evidence the Committee received was clear that the loss of local facilities could have a “detrimental impact, not just on individual users, but on the vast array of user groups” in the community. Local leisure and library services can also be considered a “key preventative measure and investment for our health and care”.

One of the issues that became apparent from stakeholder evidence is that local authorities place insufficient emphasis on social value when determining how best to deliver leisure and library services. The Committee called for the Welsh Government to work with local government to “consider what social value outcomes they want to achieve” from these services. This would facilitate better understanding of the social value return on local authority investment in those services, and enable them to design and deliver services accordingly.

For this to happen, up-to date and robust Wales-specific social value data is required. The Welsh Government accepted the premise of the Committee’s recommendation, noting that investing in research is a theme within the as yet unpublished draft Culture Strategy. It also said that there’s an:

increased appetite from the Library Sector and other cultural sectors to collate evidence of social value and return on investment. For libraries, this will be explored with the development of the 7th Framework.

What the future holds

Local authorities acknowledge that the “central role” of leisure and library services can, at times, be “poorly recognised” and “undervalued” by both councils and Welsh Government. ‘Discretionary’ services inevitably see the largest cuts in funding when budgets are tight, and with councils facing further financial pressures in the near future, many people will hope that their local library and leisure centre will be protected for future generations.

The Committee’s report will be debated in the Senedd on Wednesday 18 October. You can watch it live on Senedd TV.

Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament