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Decision to charge full price membership fees for reduced access to council leisure centres sparks debate

Swimmers at the Stonehaven Open Air Pool in Aberdeenshire, which has reopened after lockdown restrictions were eased.
Swimmers at the Stonehaven Open Air Pool in Aberdeenshire, which has reopened after lockdown restrictions were eased.

Membership numbers are said to be holding up in council-run leisure centres across Aberdeen, Shire, Moray and Highland.

Bosses have continued charging full price for memberships despite reduced access with capacity curtailed in line with social distancing guidelines.

They say customers can freeze their payments if they do not want to attend, and that those using the facility have raised “no complaints” about paying the full rate membership for reduced access.

Only Aberdeenshire Council has temporarily lowered its prices to give customers “better value for money”.

SNP members Richard Lochhead for Moray and Jackie Dunbar for Aberdeen Donside say membership fee discounts would “only mean greater losses” for leisure centres.

Richard Lochhead with his fitness card at Lossiemouth Swimming Pool when he signed up in 2019.

Mr Lochhead adds: “This has been a hugely challenging time for leisure facilities and I know that the teams at Moray’s sports centres have been working hard to deliver the best service they can and at the same time ensuring the safety of users.”

“Most Fit Life members will have welcomed the decision of the council to stop taking payments during the closures.

“I recognise that the revenue raised through the membership scheme is essential to support these facilities.”

However, Highland’s Labour, Green and Conservative MSPs argue customers would get a fairer deal if rebates could be given at this time to customers who need it.

“Many members will have lost their jobs or will have seen significant drops in their income during the pandemic and it would be fair, with the reduction in services, to reduce the cost, “said Green MSP Ariane Burgess.

She added: “We’ve learned during the pandemic that physical activity contributes significantly to good mental health, so it is good to see that High Life Highland is doing what it can to keep its recreational facilities open to members.”

Conservative MSP Edward Mountain would also “welcome an option for reduced prices”.

Edward Mountain NHS Highland
Edward Mountain MSP.                                                                                         Picture Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

He stressed there will be “a section of the public who are willing to continue to contribute at the pre-pandemic levels and we should encourage this”.

Labour’s Rhoda Grant says lowering the prices would offer the customer “better value for money” while access is more limited.

She said: “Exercise and fitness should be accessible to everyone. It is vital for our physical health but also our mental health, particularly as we are all living in a time of great stress and mental health across the country has taken a hit.

“I would encourage High Life Highland to look at their membership package for those who still are paying full price for reduced services.

“Scottish Government must also allocate all of their Covid funding consequentials, ensuring that councils in Scotland get their fair share to enable them to support their communities.”

Rhoda Grant MSP Scottish Labour                                                                                                           Picture Fraser Bremner

They responded claiming “our powers to go further to support the recovery are limited and our calls to the UK Government for additional measures to be included in the Fiscal Framework have so far gone unheeded”.

A spokeswoman for Moray Council said: “We’ve not reduced prices but froze memberships during closures so no member was charged while centres were closed due to pandemic restrictions.”

She added: “Following the first re-opening we retained 75% of our members. Feedback is consistent that Fit Life membership remains excellent value for money.

“As well as swimming, fitness rooms and fitness classes, leisure members also have access to swimming lessons, active schools and sports development sessions for their entire household – all included in the membership cost.”

A spokeswoman for Sport Aberdeen, says: “We are thrilled to have reopened the majority of our venues, offering opportunities from swimming, gym and fitness classes, to tennis, ice skating and stand up paddleboarding.

“Members do have the option to freeze their membership at this time if they wish.”

She adds: “The response from the community has been fantastic and the feedback we have received from members since their return to our venues has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We saw a record number of new membership sign-ups in May which is not only testament to the hard work of everyone behind the scenes, making sure everyone has access to safe and clean facilities, but to the ongoing support of our community.”

Douglas Wilby, director of sport and leisure for High Life Highland said their membership base has “performed well during the pandemic”.

Mr Wilby adds: “We are continuing to see growth every week as members continue to return.

Douglas Wilby, director of sport and leisure at High Life Highland                              Picture Sandy McCook

“We believe our highlife membership offers the best value for money in Scotland for family memberships.

“Customers not yet ready to return or those unable to take advantage of our altered opening hours continue to be able to freeze their memberships.”

He adds: “We have received no complaints regarding opening hours and feedback from our customers is that their experiences of measures in place to accommodate the previous and ongoing Scottish Government restrictions have been positive.”

A spokesperson for Live Life Aberdeenshire said: “Our direct debit membership scheme has been suspended since the start of lockdown, as we recognised that members could not obtain the same value given reduced capacity in our venues.”

He adds: “In November, we reduced the price of 30-day passes for gyms, swimming and fitness classes, bringing prices into line with the direct debit membership scheme and offering better value in response to customer feedback.

“We are also reviewing promotions and plan to offer further incentives in future.

“We also offered group exercise classes at less than half price throughout May to welcome our customers back.

“We are currently developing a new membership scheme to take account of the ongoing reduced capacity and opening hours of facilities and hope to announce details soon.”