A girl with a rare disability is one of many locals affected by plans to close four leisure centres in West Lothian.
West Lothian Leisure directors have ratified a proposal to shut Xcite Armadale, Xcite Broxburn Swimming Pool, Xcite Livingston and Howden Park Centre in Livingston in a bid to plug a £2.95m funding gap due to post-Covid cost pressures and the rising costs of running facilities.
Campaigners have warned the closures will ‘devastate’ local communities who rely on vital services for their health and wellbeing.
Six-year-old Ella Green has arthrogryposis, a rare joint condition which limits movement and she relies on a wheelchair to get around.
She attends Xcite Livingston once a week for physiotherapy during school term-time with her great aunt Jackie Winning, and up to three times a week during the holidays.
The pool allows Ella to stand upright in the water and strengthen her legs and she enjoys playing in the fountains.
When asked what her favourite part of going to the pool is, Ella replied: “I can walk.”
She told STV News she was “sad” hearing news of the potential closure.
“It helps Ella a great deal. It’s the only time she’s mobile, freely without KAFOS (knee-ankle-foot orthosis) in her legs,” Ms Winning added. “Swimming is a really good exercise for her legs.
“She can stand upright herself and move, walking with her toes touching the bottom of the swimming pool.”
But the family face travelling by car or bus to another pool if the leisure centre shuts.
Ms Winning said: “We can walk down here – no travelling, no worries. Anywhere else is a hassle and expensive.
“It’s detrimental that we’ll have to travel further afield.
“Even with the car, you still need to take the wheelchair.”
She added: “We have so many memories here. My Uncle Ronnie helped build this pool when I was even younger than Ella. Everyone I know went to the swimming.
“It’s a big loss to the whole community.”
Karyn Hamilton has been running dance classes at Howden Park since 2019 and said the news has “really upset” locals.
She told STV News: “It’s such a big impact. We all meet here and make friends.
“To us, this is a small community. It’s used for elderly to sit and have a chat and coffee.
“I’ve got ladies with anxiety and really bad mental health.
“There’s a theatre group who use it every week with nowhere else to go.
“This is really quite devastating to the whole community.
“It’s shocking. It shouldn’t be happening at all.”
Joyce Cameron was recommended Aquafit classes by her doctor at Xcite Broxburn to improve her fitness after suffering a heart attack.
She attends three to four times a week with other people suffering health issues – who now face travelling to another leisure centre a 15-minute drive away.
“I don’t drive and the state of the buses is absolutely abysmal,” she said.
“We’re very angry and we are not having this. If we have to take that building and sit in there until someone takes notice…
“I have a petition and I fully intend to make these councillors live in the real world.
“Our local councillors are not interested but we are. We deserve a service a damn sight better than what we’re getting, which we are paying the privilege for, by the way.”
The proposal has been submitted to West Lothian Council with a request for approval within a ‘reasonable’ timeframe.
Chiefs say it will address a £1.75m shortfall following the passing of council budgets in March, aimed at saving the authority almost £40m over five years and helping West Lothian Leisure to become self-funded.
Chiefs said Howden Park Centre has also been operating at a deficit with an “unaffordable” level of investment needed to refurbish the complex.
Ben Lamb, chief executive of West Lothian Leisure said: “The purpose of West Lothian Leisure is to provide health and wellbeing services for the region, we exist to help create a West Lothian where everyone can live a healthier, happier, longer life, so closing venues is not what we want to do.
“However, in the face of multiple economic pressures, closures are the only way to secure the future of the services we provide to the people of West Lothian.
“In preparing our plan, we have undertaken exhaustive research to protect much needed services, and ensure that people who use the sites earmarked for closure can still access alternative leisure facilities within a 15-minute drive.
“We have, and hope to create further, capacity at some of the other sites we provide services from. They can absorb new users, and in time we hope the community will become used to the changes.”
Mr Lamb acknowledged the news would be a “massive blow” to leisure staff but redeployment opportunities will be offered if the proposals are approved.
He added: “None of us wants to be in this position. We run one of the best leisure networks in the country and care deeply about the future of the services we provide.
“However, we must take decisive action to allow us to continue to provide those services and facilities which we know are valued in the community.
“The work we have done, and the resulting proposals are firmly within the spirit of our overarching aim – to continue to contribute to a West Lothian where everyone can live a healthier, happier, longer life.”
A council spokesperson said: “The West Lothian Leisure Board has requested the consent of the council to its proposed closure of a number of facilities within its portfolio, in order to balance its budget this financial year and, in turn, sustain its financial and operational future.
“The council will consider this request for consent in due course.
“The council has not reduced WLL Management fee this year (2023/24) but has agreed to support West Lothian Leisure (WLL) to become fully self-funded with no requirement for a management fee from the council.
“This is being done on a phased approach over the next five years to assist West Lothian Leisure carry out their service redesign.
“We do, however, also understand that WLL face significant cost pressures in the current financial year and they do require to make immediate and significant changes to their business model to address the existing deficit in their budget.
“We can confirm that the council will continue to support and fund the Learn2Swim programme for young people. The council will also continue to provide an annual £180,000 towards WLL’s maintenance costs.
“The economic climate over the next few years will continue to be extremely challenging for local public services.
“The council has significant and sustained budget pressures caused by increasing costs and insufficient levels of Scottish Government grant funding which is less than required for the council to deliver essential local services.
“Reductions in local government public spending have impacted council services for over 15 years and the council has made over £150m worth of savings since 2007/08 and the council faces a further budget gap of £39.4m over the next five years.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has increased the resources available to local government in 2023-24 by more than £793m, a real terms increase of £376m or 3%, compared to the 2022-23 Budget figures. It is the responsibility of local authorities to manage their own budgets and allocate the total financial resources available to them on the basis of local needs and priorities.
“In 2023-24, West Lothian Council will receive £405m to fund local services, which equates to an extra £17.2m to support vital day to day services or an additional 4.4% compared to 2022-23. In addition all councils will receive their fair share of the currently undistributed sum of £329.8m.
“We’ve been engaging with industry through our Bus Taskforce and have been clear that the support provided to transport operators needs to evolve to ensure it remains fit for purpose and is sustainable in the long term.
“We are committed, alongside operators and local authorities, to improving services to ensure everyone has accessible public transport, regardless of geographic location.”