Council leisure cuts could make obesity worse, doctor warns

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Media captionDr Nadim Haboubi says obesity needs to be tackled from all directions

Cuts to council leisure services will have a "depressing, alarming and disastrous" impact on the fight against obesity, a leading specialist doctor has warned.

Dr Nadim Haboubi said councils should be spending more on leisure to fight an "obesity crisis".

The Welsh government said reductions to council funding had been unavoidable.

Leisure services are particularly vulnerable because councils have no legal obligation to provide them.

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) has been asked to comment.

'More active'

Wales has high levels of obesity with the Welsh Health Survey 2012 reporting that 57% of adults were overweight or obese.

"We already have an obesity crisis in Wales," said Dr Haboubi, chairman of National Obesity Forum Wales.

"It is sad that [the cuts are] going ahead, when we should be doing the exact opposite,"

"In America there has been an increase in the number of leisure centres increasing their opening hours to 24 hours a day and Wales is the worst part of the western world apart from the US," he added.

"The single most important cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle and the more active you are, the less likely you are to be obese."

Different councils have adopted different approaches when it comes to leisure savings.

Authorities such as Bridgend and Torfaen have already decided to outsource some services.

Cardiff opted to increase fees for sports pitches in 2013.

Newport has invited clubs to take over the running of the facilities they use.

But cuts and changes to leisure services are controversial and can be unpopular as two Welsh councils have found out.

Wrexham council's executive decides on Tuesday whether to put back the closure of Plas Madoc Leisure centre from June to October to allow a community group more time to consider a takeover.

There have been demonstrations against the planned closure.

Fee fears

Carmarthenshire council voted last week to freeze planned rises to sports pitch fees, pending a review, in the face of protests.

The council needs to make savings of £30m over three years and had warned the £260,000 it spends on pitch and changing room maintenance was unsustainable.

The original plans would have seen the charge for the use of an adult football pitch rise from £73 in April 2014 to a potential £235 by 2016.

Those plans had alarmed Dafen Welfare AFC in Llanelli, which has over 200 junior and senior members.

Club chairman Keri Evans said: "The prices have been frozen, but who knows? This cloud is still hanging over us at the moment."

Image caption Members of Belle Vue Park Bowling Club have opted to take over its running

If fees were to go up by the amount originally planned Mr Evans is pessimistic about the club's future.

"We would not be able to function," he said.

"We are trying to raise funds left, right and centre at the moment to improve facilities here, so if the plug were pulled you would be looking at 100 children from Dafen alone walking the streets and not doing anything."

Newport council has decided to offer clubs the chance to take control of their own affairs.

It needs to make £25m of savings over four years.

It proposed that Belle Vue Park Bowls club took charge of two bowling greens and a pavilion currently run by the council.

Belle Vue accepted but, according to secretary Tony Allen, it was a difficult decision for the 48-member club to make.

"We're using the first season in 2014 as a suck-it-and-see approach but we feel we can make it [work]. Our biggest hope is that Belle Vue continues to have bowling greens and clubs and increased membership," he said.

"But it is a calculated gamble. Our biggest fear is that Belle Vue will end up with no bowling greens and no clubs."

Belle Vue has been quoted £11,000 per year for green maintenance and overheads from a private contractor and has requested help from the council for its first year.

But while there is certainly apprehension over the future there is also pragmatism, recognising that budgets in this day and age are tight.

"There was animosity to begin with but, having looked at the reports and figures, we can see there is a very serious problem," said Tony Allen.

In Llanelli, Keri Evans accepts that cuts have to be made, but worries that cutting leisure will store up problems.

"This is the future of the nation," he said.

"If you take that away from us what have we got left?"

A Welsh government spokesperson said: "Significant UK government reductions to the overall Welsh budget mean a reduction to local government funding was unavoidable.

"In protecting the local government settlement over the past three years, we made it clear this was to enable authorities to invest in the transformational activity needed to be able to maintain local services in the tougher financial climate to come.

"Decisions on how the UK government cuts affect local authority services are for local authorities to assess in light of the needs of their own communities.

"It is good to see how some local authorities have responded to the cuts with innovative means of protecting services, such as in Torfaen, where the council is supporting volunteers to run the Woodland Road Sports and Social Centre.

"We remain committed to reducing obesity in Wales by encouraging and supporting individuals and families to make positive choices, including having a healthier diet and being more physically active."

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