A TV historian has condemned the “deep political failure” that led to the closure of the North East leisure centre that transformed his childhood.

David Olusoga met with campaigners trying to save Gateshead Leisure Centre yesterday (Monday, August 28) morning, after it was closed down by Gateshead Council last month due to budget cuts.

The A House Through Time presenter has been left horrified by the loss of the popular facility, which he grew up using and says has now become a “symbol of what austerity really means”, but has thrown his support behind the local efforts to get it reopened.

Seeing the centre in its boarded-up state for the first time as he returned to visit his hometown, Mr Olusoga said: “I am genuinely shocked, I am really saddened for my hometown. This is a disgrace.

The Northern Echo: Historian David Olusoga meeting members of the Save Leisure Gateshead campaign outside Gateshead

“This is one of the best facilities in the town of Gateshead, this is a place that transformed my life when I was growing up, it is somewhere that is enormously valuable to the people of this town and I cannot believe that we are in a position where this beautiful building is in the state that it is today.”

The 53-year-old has fond memories of attending karate, judo, and basketball sessions at the centre in the 1980s and has condemned the huge funding cuts imposed on local authorities since 2010.

Last week, a study from the BBC’s Shared Data Unit found that councils across the country face a £5bn shortfall that it is feared will threaten more basic services – with Gateshead having the largest projected deficit in the North East, at £45.9m up to 2025/26.

Civic centre chiefs in Gateshead say they have already lost £179m from their annual spending power in that time and could no longer afford to maintain all of the borough’s leisure centres, with Birtley’s swimming pool also now shut.

Local groups are bidding to take over the sites via community asset transfers, which it is hoped could see Gateshead Leisure Centre reopen in November under the management of a new organisation known as Gateshead Active.

After meeting members of the Save Leisure Gateshead campaign group and Gateshead Active, Mr Olusoga said: “We are a richer country than we were in the 80s when I was a kid, so we should be able to afford this more easily. The idea that this building should close is a travesty – it shows a deep political failure.”

The broadcaster added: “It is wonderful that this community group has formed and that these groups are coming together to try and save this place, but it should never have been necessary because we should not be in this position.

The Northern Echo: Historian David Olusoga meeting members of the Save Leisure Gateshead campaign outside Gateshead Leisure CentreHistorian David Olusoga meeting members of the Save Leisure Gateshead campaign outside Gateshead Leisure Centre (Image: DURHAM COUNTY COUNCIL)

"I wish them all the luck and I will give them all the support I can, but I think we need political help. 

“This is happening not just in Gateshead, it is happening around the country – the cutting back on budgets, the reductions, the cuts year after year.

"That has led to this crisis and this building is a symbol of what austerity really means and what these decisions made in Whitehall, by people who have never had to use a council facility in their lives, look like.”

The team trying to reopen the centre are seeking to raise £40,000 to help with the plans, with an online fundraiser currently having collected almost £6,000 in donations – crowdfunder.co.uk/p/reopen-gateshead-leisure-centre.

Urging locals to donate whatever time or money they can afford to support the campaign, Save Leisure Gateshead’s Layla Barclay said: “The community is not willing to accept a closed centre… we are not going to go away until it is reopened and successfully reopened.”

Former councillor Robert Waugh, who is part of the Gateshead Active asset transfer team, said their proposals were “still on track” to ensure the Alexandra Road centre does not stay boarded-up beyond the end of this year.

He added: “We have a lot of plans already submitted to the council and have about 10 meetings arranged in the next couple of weeks to go through the nitty-gritty detail of all that, then we will be working through the operational and end-stage planning of how we go from the building boarded up to back open, redecorated, and there for the community to use.

“The closer we get to that £40,000 goal, the easier it will be to achieve our target date of November. If we don’t achieve that then there might be some slippage on the date, we might go to December. But, either way, we definitely are hoping to reopen by the end of the year.”

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon said that talks with Gateshead Active had been “going very positively” and that he was now “absolutely” certain the centre will be brought back into use. 

He added that its temporary closure had been “essential” both because of the council’s dire financial situation and to allow Gateshead Active to carry out works within the centre before it can reopen, but warned that other council-run services could soon come under threat as the authority’s depleted resources have to be focused on rising demand for social care for the most vulnerable. 

The Labour councillor said: “Can I guarantee that other things will not continue to be cut? No I can’t. Unless government policy changes, unless central government is prepared to properly fund local government, that process will continue where local authorities have to prioritise… everything is important, but life and limb services will be prioritised and there will be less money available for other services.” 

A government spokesperson said: “Learning to swim is a vital life skill and we recognise the role our public pools play in supporting the health and fitness of the nation.

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“Local Authorities are responsible for swimming pools and leisure centres, but the Government recognises the current challenges. Councils in England will benefit from almost £60 billion to deliver vital frontline services with an average funding increase of 9.4 per cent over this financial year.

“The Government is also providing £60 million to support operating costs of leisure centres and swimming pools and help them improve energy efficiency.

“This is on top of the £100 million National Leisure Centre Recovery Fund which has secured the survival and reopening of more than 1,100 swimming pools since 2019, with over 100 new facilities also being opened.”