Dismayed protesters have demanded that council chiefs 'think again' about contentious plans to shut at least two leisure centres.

Dozens of locals demonstrated outside Gateshead Civic Centre on Tuesday morning, waving placards and chanting that they would “fight back” against the devastating closures.

The Gateshead Leisure Centre in Saltwell, Dunston Leisure Centre, and potentially the sports hall at Birtley Leisure Centre have been deemed to be at greatest risk under major budget cuts from council finance chiefs.

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Campaigners gathered outside the local authority headquarters and pleaded with councillors to find a way to save the facilities, warning that their loss would be catastrophic for the physical and mental health of the thousands of people who use them.

It comes after the council, MPs, sports clubs, and residents issued a call last week for the Government to step in with funding to save the community hubs.

Wendy Arkle, who joined Tuesday’s protest alongside friends she attends pilates classes at Gateshead Leisure Centre with, claimed the centre had been “mismanaged for decades”.

She added: “The leisure centre covers people from nought to 90 – there are babies there learning to swim and we have a lady in our class who is nearly 90.

"It is so important for people’s physical health and their mental health too, during Covid we missed it so much.”

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Retired foster carer Judith O’Halleron, aged 69, aired fears about the impact on Gateshead’s most vulnerable children if they lose access to their local swimming pool and soft play.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “It is hard enough to be a foster carer and it is really difficult for children in care.

"Foster carers depend on the leisure centre. These young kids have to be kept safe and it is us as adults now who have to take control of that.”

Eddie Bellis has been a regular at the leisure centre for 43 years and believes its closure would have a more damaging long-term impact than the current budget crisis the council is facing.

The 61-year-old said: “I am worried about how this is going to affect not just people’s physical wellbeing but, more importantly, their mental wellbeing.

"We have all had it drummed into us for the last couple of years how we must look after our mental health and exercise is an important part of doing that.

“Down the line, this is going to cost the council more because of the mental health impact.”

The demonstration came on the day that the local authority’s public consultation on the closures ends, before a final decision on the fate of the borough’s leisure centres is made in January.

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The Northern Echo: Proposals to close leisure centre have angered residents Proposals to close leisure centre have angered residents (Image: Local Democracy Service)

It also coincided with the council’s cabinet being presented with plans to cut £14.5m from other areas of the council’s budget next year – including almost 70 job losses and reductions to frontline services including street cleaning and weed control.

At the cabinet meeting, Save Leisure Gateshead campaign group member Layla Barclay asked the Labour-run authority about the impact that the closures and the resulting drop in footfall would have on Gateshead’s creative industries and small businesses.

Council leader Martin Gannon responded that every one of the cutbacks being proposed, including the leisure centres, would have a “profound and damaging impact” that would be “disastrous for Gateshead”.

The council has had its budget slashed by £179m since 2010 and is facing a financial black hole of £55m over the next five years.

Complaining that the authority had been  “hamstrung and hobbled systematically by the reductions in support from central government”, Coun Gannon added: “If we lose leisure facilities run by the local authority in Gateshead then it will have a negative impact on the physical health, the mental health, and the economic wellbeing not just of the creative industries, but the wider economy and community as well. It is bound to.”

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The Northern Echo: The council is facing calls to find an alternative plan The council is facing calls to find an alternative plan (Image: Local Democracy Service)

Campaigners have insisted that the council could find other ways to save the at-risk facilities, including bids to the Levelling Up Fund.

Questioned by local resident Jacqueline Ward on why the council had chosen to bid for funding to support the development of a new arena complex on the Gateshead Quayside rather than to invest its leisure services, Coun Gannon replied that the Quays scheme was selected because it could be “economically transformational” for the town and insisted it was not a vanity project.

He and the council’s director of public health, Alice Wiseman, also responded to criticism of the leisure services’ membership fees – saying that upping charges would make the centres unaffordable for more struggling families, while cutting them would not generate sufficient income from extra footfall.

Consultation closes tonight, December 20, and people can give their views by clicking here.