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New Forest District Council reports leisure centre membership down a fifth on pre-Covid levels

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MEMBERSHIP at the New Forest’s five public leisure centres are down by nearly a fifth on pre-Covid levels, it has emerged, as pledges of fresh investment were made by the new private management team.

Although there has been a fall since April 2020, the district council boasted of members rising more recently by 33% since July last year – when the facilities was taken over by private provider Freedom Lesiure.

Matt Wickham, Freedom Leisure chief operating officer, said: “We are extremely proud to be working in partnership with New Forest District Council to operate their five leisure centres.

Membership has risen by 33% since the facilities were taken over by Freedom Lesiure
Membership has risen by 33% since the facilities were taken over by Freedom Lesiure

“This partnership has enabled investment into all five centres with significant changes to Applemore and Totton and we are excited to welcome new and returning customers to the centres in the coming months.”

Before the controversial deal was signed, there were protests and petitions amid claims of “privatisation”, although the sites remain in public ownership.

NFDC said over 65,000 people were visiting the centres each month, while swimming lessons have seen a growth of 39% since July with over 4,500 children taking part in those lessons every week.

Since April 2020 swimming lessons have also gone up 6%, it added.

“These trends are comparable with what is happening across the wider leisure industry,” an NFDC spokesperson added.

Also, 339 people had been helped through the Active Lifestyles GP Referral programme, while Freedom Leisure has started an active communities programme to enhance links with local groups.

Cllr Geoff Blunden, NFDC cabinet member for partnering and wellbeing, said it was “encouraging to see such a positive start to our work with Freedom Leisure”.

He added: “Commitment to investing in our leisure centres will mean improved facilities which will offer residents more opportunities locally to engage in an active lifestyle.”

The operator has also begun the first parts of a planned £2.4m investment at the centres.

That will include the expansion of the soft play area at Ringwood, improvements to the reception areas at Applemore, Totton and Ringwood, upgrading the dry side changing rooms at Totton and a new fitness studio at Applemore.

Work has already begun on one of the biggest projects, a new soft play facility in the sports hall at Applemore, which will include a new café and seating area.

The play area is due to open later in May, with the café opening later in the year.

Freedom Leisure will replace gym equipment at Totton, New Milton, and Applemore this year, and at Ringwood and Lymington in 2023.

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