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UK gyms, pools and leisure centres on financial ‘cliff edge’ without support

Gyms, pools and leisure centres are facing a “huge cliff edge” and urgently need more government support as the impact of the third lockdown starts to bite, a parliamentary committee has been told.

Leading figures in the sector also warned MPs the “devastating effect” of leisure facilities being permanently shut risked a return to the Victorian ages – with children from working class and diverse backgrounds finding it harder to become Team GB Olympians.

Rebecca Passmore, the managing director of PureGym – which has more than 1.1 million members – said that while the fitness sector had benefited from the furlough scheme, another 60-90 days of lockdown would put many businesses at risk.

“Gyms have had no income for 34 of the last 54 weeks,” she told MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. “We have had no revenue coming in. We haven’t been able to do click-and-collect or takeaways. It’s clearly taking its toll on operators. Balance sheets are being pushed to their limits.”

That message was echoed by Rich Emerson, the chief executive of the Climbing Academy, who warned MPs: “I think there is a real risk to the whole industry. We’ve seen incomes stopped, our costs remain, we’ve seen our balance sheets eroded and our cash go out the door.”

Emerson urged the government to apply the same VAT rules to the physical active sector as it does the hospitality industry, which has had to pay the government only 5% of the 20% VAT it has collected in lockdown.

Meanwhile Passmore called on the government to extend the rent holiday and to also legislate so that the burden of rent was shared between landlord and tenants during the lockdown.

“There’s this huge cliff edge that’s coming without any legislation,” she said. “I just don’t see how the rules are fair for operators like ourselves and more importantly the smaller, independent owners. They’re going to have to remortgage and, worse still, hand back properties that they’ve pumped their life savings into.

“We have tried to have a dialogue with landlords, but at present only 15% of them have actually come to the table with anything meaningful. Deferrals are not meaningful. What we’re asking for is a landlord and operator share of social responsibility.

“I fear that the sector as a whole is going to suffer from an economic long Covid. Ultimately, we will see over a prolonged period of time operators go out of business, the public will have less places to be able to exercise and improve their physical and mental wellbeing.”

That message was backed by the chief executive of ukactive, Huw Edwards, who represents more than 4,000 gyms and leisure centres. He said it was vital the government came up with a plan for three phases – survival, recovery, and development – across 2021. He also warned the loss of potential around physical activity would have an impact on the future successes of the nation in terms of elite performance.

“The people who represent us on the national stage have come from a local pool, a gym, a leisure centre, a local football team,” he told MPs. “And unless we want to go back to Victorian ages and just be represented by a very narrow part of society, we need to preserve these facilities in order to support our elite sport going forward.”

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