By Lucy Ashton
The decision by West Dunbartonshire Council to move leisure services under the wing of an “arm’s length” company has backfired.
Public use of the centres has plummeted by an estimated 40 per cent during the pandemic and officials believe it will take several years before visitor numbers return to what they were pre-Covid.
West Dunbartonshire Leisure Trust bosses have been trying to encourage customers to return to leisure facilities after they closed their doors for nine months.
The trust, which manages sport and events on behalf of the council, has been trying to entice residents back with offers, including a Christmas membership deal.
John Anderson,the TRust manager, said use of the facilities, which include the Meadow Centre in Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Swimming Pool, was down by 40 percent during the first six months of reopening.
He told members of a council corporate services committee meeting that it will probably take around three years before numbers reach what they were pre-pandemic.
Updating councillors, he said: “It’s been a period of time none of us can imagine, but with the support and assistance of the council and workforce, we have safely and successfully reopened our services, not just once but on two occasions.
“We have anticipated it will take us three years to get back to where we were pre-Covid.
“We will reshape our approach. We are moving towards more of a digital and online approach which has been successful.
“We had targeted this year to achieve 70 percent of our income pre-Covid and we are seeing a growth in usage.
“For the first six months we are just under 40 percent down on our usage from where we were in 2019/20.”
In total, there has been an 87 percent reduction in attendances from last year due to facility closures.
Labour leader Martin Rooney said: “They are ambitious targets to go for 70 percent pre-Covid. I really hope it is successful. I hope the trust gets pack up to 100 percent.”
The trust has been involved in the council’s Covid response, supporting three vaccination centres and providing initial support staff to assist.
SNP council leader Jonathan McColl praised staff, most of whom were furloughed, for helping out in the community where they could, commenting: “People have had to do things that they have never done before and had to do quickly.
“Everybody has been so nimble here to fully do what was needed to be done.
“A huge number of our leisure trust staff members stepped up to the mark and went out and volunteered their own time freely, getting food packages and medicines out to vulnerable people.
“I am very thankful for everything that the leisure trust has done for this area.”
During the meeting, West Dunbartonshire Council agreed to renew their partnership with the trust for another five years.
Since overseeing the local authority’s sport and leisure, community and sports development sites in 2012, the number of visits and engagements have increased from 950,000 to 1.5 million per year.
Councillor Rooney said: “There was a lot of scepticism about transferring the West Dunbartonshire sports facilities to the leisure trust when it first came up.
“We went ahead with it on the understanding that we could see how it goes and we knew that we could reverse the decision if we didn’t think it was working.
“But we were proved completely right to do it because not only has it saved money, it has invested in the services and it has also allowed quite a lot of innovation within the trust and they have stepped up to the mark in the way we asked them to.”