Anger at hikes to leisure pricing in Northumberland

Leisure provider Active Northumberland is facing a growing backlash over major changes to its pricing, which came into effect this week.

The swimming pool at Willowburn Sports and Leisure Centre, in Alnwick.
The swimming pool at Willowburn Sports and Leisure Centre, in Alnwick.

The arm’s-length company, which runs Northumberland’s 14 leisure centres on behalf of the county council, described the changes as a way of simplifying charges and making the system fairer.

But it has been met with criticism as many have found their charges increasing, leading to numerous complaints to county councillors and MPs.

Ashington Leisure Centre

Active Northumberland said this week that it hopes its members ‘can understand the very difficult decisions we have had to make’.

Backlash over new pricing at leisure centres

Higher prices for swim-only memberships and for those who use the older or smaller facilities are among the key issues cited within changes to what people pay to use their local leisure centre.

Couple that with the loss of concessions for older people, unless they are in receipt of benefits, and it’s easy to see why the new price structure, brought into force by Active Northumberland from Tuesday, is so controversial.

Ashington Leisure Centre

At the heart of it is a desire for equality across the county and a simpler system now that all 14 of Northumberland’s leisure centres are managed by the arm’s length company.

This means that there are now just two options for membership, which both cover gym, swim and classes at all 14 sites; either £32 a month based on a 12-month contract or £40 for a three-month tie-in.

Children’s reduced prices will be extended up to age 18 and swimming will be free for under fours, but concessions will only apply to low-income users on a range of benefits and only on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Therefore, a number of people will be seeing an increase in what they pay – if they choose to continue their membership.

For example, on our Facebook page, Kath Woollen said: ‘Far too expensive when just on a pension!’

Alan Dacre added: ‘Just become too expensive for me, was nice of them to give me seven days notice of the price hike. Suppose I will be voting with my feet, like everyone else, there are much cheaper alternatives in the Alnwick area.’

The changes have also led to residents making complaints to county councillors and other politicians.

Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “My postbag has been full of people expressing concern at this decision – Active Northumberland’s aim was to promote an active lifestyle – it cannot do that if people can no longer afford to use the facilities on offer.

“My concern is that pricing people out means we will lose these facilities altogether when people simply cannot afford to use them anymore.

“There seems to have been little or no consultation with customers, who are rightly very angry about these enforced changes.”

The lack of consultation is also of concern to Alnwick ward member, Gordon Castle.

Coun Castle said: “One accepts that some restructuring of charges and possibly some increases would be necessary, but Active Northumberland operates on behalf of the county council and members who are taking flak were taken unaware about this.

“I’m uneasy about how this will affect the very families and people that we are trying to encourage to exercise and take part in sporting activity.

“I share the concerns that have been expressed by many county councillors. We must have a look and see if there are grounds for reviewing it.”

What does Active Northumberland say?

When Active Northumberland took over from four leisure providers in October 2014, we inherited a range of pricing structures. The decision was made to honour existing memberships for a period of time to allow us to develop a new pricing structure.

Some members were still paying exactly what they paid 20 years ago alongside other members who were paying three or four times more, but receiving the same service, hence the need to implement a fair and consistent pricing policy for all.

The cost of providing leisure facilities has increased over the past two years, however, our prices have remained static. In order to ensure leisure centres remain sustainable in the future and to minimise the level of financial support needed, Active Northumberland must operate a more commercial model.

The most expensive part of running a leisure centre is providing a modern swimming facility as this needs specialist equipment, heating, cleaning, staff and training. We believe that the monthly price of £32 per month remains very good value and is competitively priced compared to other similar facilities within the region. For £32 a month, for a 12-month contract, members can gain access to 14 leisure centres, 10 swimming pools and over 450 weekly fitness classes.

Our new pricing policy is based on users’ ability to pay, not where they live, work or on their age. We have been able to introduce concessions for low-income customers, including OAPs who are in receipt of benefits, and we have also extended children’s reduced prices up to the age of 18. We have also been able to reduce prices in some areas for certain activities, for example, fitness classes in some areas have dropped from £6.70 to the new county-wide price of £5.60.

Our members are very important to us and we value their support, we hope they can understand the very difficult decisions we have had to make. Now is the time to ensure people across the county pay the same great value price to help continue the £40million improvements being made to leisure centres and to help create a sustainable service for the future.

Active Northumberland will still be offering a GP referral service. For some time now, Active Northumberland has offered reduced membership packages to people who have been referred via the GP referral process. The cost of this reduced membership was not included in any funding from the NHS or public health. We receive funding for the GP assessments, but it does not cover the cost of providing leisure facilities. Referred customers will now be reviewed by specialist staff and directed to specific health improvement classes with qualified instructors as paying members, as well as joining in free activities such as health walks and doorstep walks.