A despondent Alistair Robertson admitted “he has failed” in his job of persuading the council to plough cash into Aberdeen’s gyms and swimming pools.
The managing director of Sport Aberdeen lifted the lid on the decision to close Bucksburn Swimming Pool during a packed public meeting on Tuesday night.
The leisure boss said it came after a decade of despairing efforts trying to convince various local leaders to follow his “vision” to improve fitness across the city.
Matters came to a head last week when a £700,000 cut spelled the end for both the Bucksburn institution and Beach Leisure Centre.
Opening up at the public meeting, Mr Robertson revealed:
- How Sport Aberdeen is now expecting to “hemmorhage” members – at a time when they “can’t afford to lose anybody”.
- That he had wanted to warn of the threat to the pool months in advance, but was told not to.
- And how Bucksburn Swimming Pool could have closed years ago if not for £90,000 boiler repairs.
Aberdeen leisure landscape has ‘never looked worse’
Mr Robertson threw himself in at the deep end as he addressed hundreds of residents upset by the impending closure of the cherished facility.
He said he was “saddened by the demise of a popular pool” as he addressed the Beacon Centre gathering.
And the industry stalwart of 35 years confessed: “It’s fair to say that the landscape of leisure in Aberdeen has never looked worse.”
Bucksburn meeting hears of Alistair Robertson’s battle to boost leisure
Mr Robertson recounted how he arrived in the city in 2012 after a long career in Edinburgh.
A few months in, he reached a damning conclusion – which he relayed to then-council chief executive Valerie Watts.
Mr Robertson says he bluntly told her: “I’m staggered that a city of Aberdeen’s standing has such a terrible leisure provision.”
He explained he needed £100 million to upgrade venues across the city, undoing years of historic under-funding.
But this was, he told the meeting, “seen as something of an issue”.
‘I’ve not been able to do what I hoped…’
Mr Robertson had wanted to work together with the council on a 10-year plan to give Aberdeen “the leisure estate it needs”.
After a pause, he continued: “I have failed, ladies and gentlemen, to persuade the council to go with the vision I had.
“That was to give the city the leisure offering it needs…
“And we are now in a time when it’s difficult to see how we come out of this current level of provision, with the prospect of it not being replaced.”
Mr Robertson hailed some improvement projects, but said he had “not been able to do anywhere near as much as he had hoped”.
He added: “We appealed to successive leaderships of the council about the long-term value of investing in leisure.
“And we’ve not been able to persuade them to put in the tens of millions necessary to avoid scenarios like this.”
The Sport Aberdeen boss acknowledged this would not come as any consolation to the scores of Bucksburn pool users.
“I know there’s a cost of something, and a value of something,” he said.
“And I know that no matter what the cost is, the value of having a pool here would be greater to the community.”
What crucial blows led to Bucksburn Swimming Pool decision?
The first warning about Aberdeen’s ailing leisure estate came last June when the beloved swimming pool at the Beach Leisure Centre was closed in the face of mounting energy costs.
By September, Mr Robertson was making no bones about the grim predicament.
He told us a cost-of-living double whammy of cancelled memberships and soaring bills was a challenge “worse than Covid”.
In December, more closure warnings were issued as pleas for the leisure sector to be included in the UK Government’s energy relief scheme fell on deaf ears.
Around that same time, Aberdeen City Council accountants began examining the authority’s spending…
It was against this backdrop that Mr Robertson began a series of mid-winter meetings with council leaders – clearly warning them about the consequences of a funding cut.
Why were people kept in the dark?
With the threat looming on the horizon, the charity chief told the Beacon Centre that he “expressed a strong will” to share the news with members.
This, he explained, would “give everybody the best chance to find alternative venues” should the axe fall on Sport Aberdeen.
But he was assured that the cash could yet be forthcoming, and Sport Aberdeen would perhaps be spared on budget day.
He told the audience he was “only informed on the day” that the catastrophic cutback was etched in stone.
At a board meeting hours later, the decision to close the two centres was made official.
Why were Bucksburn Swimming Pool and Beach Leisure Centre axed?
One pitfall facing Bucksburn Swimming Pool, Mr Robertson explained, was its lack of accompanying services.
Mr Robertson cited the example of Get Active @ Northfield, which has a gym to subsidise the cost of running the pool.
He said the Bucksburn Swimming Pool, and Beach Leisure Centre, are its two most expensive venues when it comes to utility bills.
And those costs look set to double in the next year – bringing the charity’s overall energy costs to £1.5 million.
All this, Mr Robertson claimed, would leave the Bucksburn venue operating at a £200,000 loss over the next year.
How pool was brought to the brink before
In addition to that, the 30-year-old machinery is “coming to the end of its life” and in need of repairs costing £400,000.
The managing director added: “Just before Covid, we spent £90,000 on new boilers.
“If we didn’t spend that then, the pool would have shut immediately.”
The cash came after an emergency funding bid was submitted to the local authority.
The recent reduction in funding from the council, bringing the 2023-24 investment down from £5.2 million to £4.5 million, has proven the final straw.
“We have a duty as a charity to balance our books and set a budget,” Mr Robertson noted.
“Our duty is to scrutinise carefully every aspect of what we do, and how we do it.
“The costs we are anticipating are not sustainable.”
How will Bucksburn Swimming Pool closure hit Sport Aberdeen memberships?
One man in the crowd on Tuesday night asked if Sport Aberdeen anticipated an impact on memberships – with many cancelling rather than going to other venues.
Mr Robertson said he was “acutely aware” that his organisation is poised to “hemmorhage members” from Bucksburn and the Beach Leisure Centre.
He added: “It’s very concerning. We can’t afford to lose anybody.
“But sadly we know we will lose members who don’t have any realistic alternative.”
Do you think the council made a mistake by cutting Sport Aberdeen funding? Let us know in our comments section below
‘I feel passionate about this city’
Aberdeen’s administration councillors argued that last week’s cuts were made to ensure that “every penny is being spent to residents’ benefit” at a time when the council’s power bills are surging by £5 million.
But Mr Robertson stressed the role such fitness venues can play in society, as he issued a final plea for their future to be prioritised.
He said: “We are the health service, and the NHS is the treatment service.
“There needs to be more money to keep services and facilities going.”
He added, however, that he was grateful for the “generous” £4.5 million the body will still receive from the council this year.
Mr Robertson concluded: “I feel passionate about this city, which I didn’t expect when I moved here, and we need to look at how we get leisure right for the next 30 years.
“It takes ambition and aspiration.
“I just hoped, in 2012, I would have been able to do more than I have.”
Read more here about the meeting: