Pandemic cost to leisure services in Stafford revealed

Leisure and culture services in Stafford Borough suffered a £4 million income hit during the last year after venues were forced to close during national lockdowns.

Stafford Leisure Centre. Photo: Google Maps
Stafford Leisure Centre. Photo: Google Maps

Stafford and Stone’s leisure centres were closed for eight months, while the Gatehouse Theatre, Ancient High House, Stafford Castle Visitor Centre and Izaak Walton’s Cottage were shut to the public for the entire financial year, Freedom Leisure’s annual report revealed.

The not for profit leisure trust took over the running of leisure and cultural services on behalf of Stafford Borough Council in December 2017.

And the council’s Resources Scrutiny Committee heard on August 17, that the third year of the contract had been like no other, with services facing enforced closures, cancellation of several events and more than two thirds of staff put on furlough during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kevan Murray, area manager for Freedom Leisure, told the meeting: “Last year was a particularly difficult year. In a nutshell we were closed for a lot of the year, we’ve had no events or activities going on for the entire year.

“Rowley Park was only closed for a couple of months and was back up and running in June, it was the same with Stafford Castle. The leisure centres have only managed four months of trading each.

“The 10k and half marathon events have been cancelled and rescheduled. We did manage to run the half marathon in the last financial year (2019/20) but that was the last event we held.

“Memberships were reduced to a drastic 51 per cent of pre-Covid numbers, so when we were able to reopen, we only reopened with half our members which was a difficult issue to mitigate. For the Learn to Swim children’s swimming programme we reopened with 74 per cent of pre-Covid member base.

“We’ve probably lost somewhere in the region of £4 million turnover – it’s a drastic amount of income we have lost. We have managed to secure £1.5 million funding and that includes the national furlough scheme, Arts Council funding, National Leisure Recovery Fund and various other smaller pots.”

Participation in activities fell to just 12 per cent of the previous years’ level, Mr Murray added. And staffing levels went from 330 to a low of 97 – although around 200 staff are now back at work.

Leisure centre memberships are increasing from the 51 per cent low too, a report presented to the meeting said. Latest figures revealed annual membership at Stafford was 75 per cent of pre-Covid levels and 81 per cent at Stone compared to the pre-pandemic period.

Demand for Learn to Swim sessions at both centres has exceeded the levels seen before the pandemic, Mr Murray told the meeting.

Freedom Leisure has also had to deal with demand for ticket refunds for theatre shows that had to be cancelled.

Councillor Jack Kemp asked: “How have you managed requests for refunds from residents for tickets they bought at the Gatehouse? Early in the pandemic there were a lot of complaints about people not getting any feedback at all from Freedom Leisure.”

Mr Murray responded: “That was quite a difficult one to manage. At the time we were planning for a three to four-week lockdown, being as optimistic as we could be.

“As things unfolded and it got extended we started to reschedule shows for when we thought we could open again. After three or four months it became apparent we couldn’t reschedule shows and we started bringing teams of staff back on a bimonthly basis to offer refunds or credits.

“We have refunded £133,000 worth of Gatehouse tickets. There was a further £7,677 in donations off the back of that, which was incredible, and we’re really grateful for that.

“At the time it maybe felt slow and we were receiving a lot of feedback. We were trying to be efficient with staffing. Every time we brought back staff from furlough we weren’t able to claim for that.

“It was a frustrating period – I get why people were frustrated. Hopefully it has been worth the wait. If anyone is still owed a refund the box office is open full time as it was before.”

The Gatehouse Theatre underwent a number of renovations during its closure.

The report said: “At the start of lockdown in March 2020 we immediately began making plans to redevelop and update the whole of the downstairs areas of the theatre.

“In October 2020 we submitted a grant application to the DCMS Culture Recovery Fund for £249,901 to help support the huge loss of income caused through the pandemic and to also help us to rebuild and re-imagine the theatre post lockdown. We were delighted to receive the news that we had been successful in our grant application and so began our plans to give The Gatehouse the facelift it had needed for so many years and to make the venue Covid-safe.

“In March 2021 we made a second grant application for £124,950 to the Culture Recovery Fund to help us further develop and expand our ambitious plans. The success of the these grant applications and the support of Stafford Borough Council has allowed us to develop our old box office into new administration offices, the old theatre bar into a new light and spacious box office complete with digital screens for marketing and advertising and new seating areas and furniture.

“Alongside these developments we have also opened up all of the low ceilings downstairs to allow more light and air into the building. We have also redeveloped the old Churchill Room into a new theatre bar area that links up the whole of the downstairs areas to The MET Studio for our audiences to ease and improve the flow of people around the building.”

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