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Urgent funding needed for library and leisure service in Wales

a boy laying on the floor of a library reading a book
(Photo by Envato Elements licence)

Urgent funding is required for overlooked and undervalued library and leisure services across Wales which are being stretched to breaking point, the Senedd heard.

During a debate on a local government committee report, chair John Griffiths told MSs that leisure centres and libraries enrich people’s lives and add social value.

But the Labour MS warned councils have found it increasingly challenging to maintain services due to budget cuts as well as global financial and health crises. He said: “The importance of library and leisure services to our communities, and the wider social benefits they provide, cannot be underestimated and overstated. They deserve meaningful investment as a matter of urgency.”

Mr Griffiths, who has represented Newport East since 1999, welcomed the Welsh Government’s commitment to reviewing the Welsh public library standards. However, he raised concerns that the new public library framework will not be implemented until 2025 – five years after the standards expired.

The committee was also concerned to hear that the cost-of-living crisis is impacting participation in sport, with the cost of swimming lessons doubling.

Joel James, for the Conservatives, focused his contribution on recommendations which were rejected in the Welsh Government’s formal response to the report.

Welsh ministers rejected calls for targeted funding for venues and organisations that face closure but have a sustainable future beyond an immediate crisis.

“We should be very aware that there’s a wider economic fallout when venues close,” said Mr James, who represents South Wales Central.

The Welsh Government also resisted calls for an update on progress with a strategy to encourage primary schools to provide free swimming lessons due to financial pressures.

North Wales Conservative MS Sam Rowlands raised concerns that a recommendation to allocate £3.5m of consequential funding from Westminster to swimming pools was rejected.

His Labour counterpart Carolyn Thomas was concerned to hear from Swim Wales that only 52% of children moving to high school have the life-saving skill. She added: “A decade of austerity, with cuts in local authority budgets, and rising energy costs, has caused leisure centres and libraries to be fragile.”

Plaid Cymru’s Peredur Owen Griffiths warned that leisure services are being “stretched to breaking point, which will have a devastating impact on the health and wellbeing agenda”.

The South Wales East MS highlighted the fight to save Pontllanfraith Leisure Centre – “a prized leisure facility and community asset”.

In response to the debate on Wednesday October 18, Dawn Bowden said each council received at least a 6.5% increase in this year’s settlement and it is for them to decide how to use that money. She told MSs that the £3.5m in consequential funding would amount to no more than about £10,000 for each swimming pool: “That is actually less than what is needed for many, for one month’s fuel bills.”

The deputy minister argued it is an important principle of devolution that consequential funding from Westminster is not necessarily ring-fenced for the same purpose. She said: “We took a strategic decision that this would not be effective and our efforts would be better spent on supporting pools and leisure centres to manage energy efficiency.”

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Urgent funding needed for library and leisure service in Wales