'More Kids, More Active, More Often' - Campaigning for Affordable Leisure in Cardiff

Isla Horton got angry when a change to the pricing system at leisure centres in Cardiff threatened her daughter's opportunities to do the activities she loved.  Her local church is part of the Llandaff Area Deanery, a member institution of Citizens Cymru Wales.  Here Isla tells the story of her campaign for affordable leisure for her children and thousands of others in the capital, and how community organising helped her get around the table to negotiate with decision-makers. 

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Photo: Lily Horton outside Western Leisure Centre, Ely

Our daughter Lily is a fish.  Any puddle, drop of water and she’s in there, loving every minute.  I vividly remember standing on Barry beach in February in layer upon layer of coats and jumpers while she bounded through the waves.  Having a good local leisure centre close to our home where Lily could learn to swim and then life save has been a blessing for our family and she’s now a great swimmer thanks to this local service in the community. 

It’s been affordable too - for around £20 a month Lily could take both of these classes plus any other classes where there were spaces – dance, football, gym and so on.  Many of Lily’s friends from her school and  kids from across our local community in Ely did regular classes at their local leisure centre through their monthly Active card. 

When seven leisure centres changed hands from Cardiff Council to social enterprise ‘Better Leisure’ everyone received a letter to say that the monthly card terms would continue for the following year.  It came as a great surprise then a year later,  when a letter came through the door from Better, or GLL (Greenwich Leisure Ltd, the parent company) to say that new changes were being introduced to the junior monthly card.  From January 2018, parents would have to pay for each individual activity that their child took part in at Better’s leisure centres.  So for Lily, for exactly the same classes, the price was rising from £20 a month to £40 a month, something we as a family would struggle to afford.  Better had doubled the price, a month before Christmas, with no consultation.  I could not believe it.  I was so sure they’d made a mistake that I went down to my local leisure centre and spoke to the very friendly and helpful staff there who confirmed my worst fears.

I was so angry.  Angry for Lily and angry for every child across Cardiff that this would affect.  Speaking to a local councillor it turned out it was going to affect over 1,000 children in Cardiff.  As I thought about it I realised that from being active several times a week, taking part in swimming, football, gym and so on, a lot of kids would now only be able to afford one half hour lesson once a week.  At a time when we have a childhood obesity epidemic and we want to see kids being as active as possible, it seemed like a huge backward step for kids in my neighbourhood, particularly those from low income families or those with several kids – they were going to be completely priced out of taking part in sports they loved.

When you’re a parent you speak to other parents and I quickly realised there was a pool of anger about these changes.  A Facebook post I wrote about the changes was shared over 100 times.  But it’s not enough to just be angry.  I wanted to make a change.  A positive change for all the kids affected.  That was why it was great to be able to ask Citizens to help out at just the right time (my church is part of Llandaff Area Deanery, a member of Citizens Cymru Wales).  And what a difference they made.  I had tried speaking to my local councillor, had been interviewed by the local press and had even contacted the office of the Children’s Ambassador for Wales.  They had all listened politely and had made helpful suggestions but I wasn’t getting anywhere nearer to meeting Better’s management and putting my case to them.

Early in January I heard back from a BBC Wales’ current affairs programme who were interested in covering the story. I had no previous experience of dealing with the media so rang our local Community Organiser from Citizens Cymru Wales to ask his advice.  I can’t tell you how helpful it was to have someone help me channel my anger into effective action.  We sat down together and developed a strategy focused on what the parents and young people affected wanted to achieve. We were able to identify the decision-makers at Better, and the pressure generated by the BBC interview helped us secure a meeting with those senior managers.

We finally had the chance to raise our concerns with the powers-that-be face-to-face.  We brought together a group of parents and grandparents from Ely whose kids had all been affected by the changes to monthly membership cards to meet with Better’s managers. Sitting nervously in my living room we went through our agenda and carefully prepared what we would say to them.  When they finally met us, I think they were amazed!  I’m fairly sure they had expected us to rant and rave.  Instead, we put together an agenda that presented a coherent, thoughtful argument with some emotional punch – I can tell you it was extremely gratifying to watch their faces as we described in detail the effect the changes to their business  had had on our children. We asked them to work with us to change the junior monthly card so that it worked for local families - and so that they could live out their own mission to get 'more people, more active, more often'. 

We had a great first meeting with Better’s senior managers and we made some immediate headway when we asked them to clarify that that our kids could still use the swimming pool for free as many times as they liked if they had a junior active card.  Their letter to us before Christmas had implied that this would not be the case, but they had not realised this, so that is a big help.  We haven't got what we want - yet. The outsourcing of the leisure centres and the removal of a substantial council subsidy mean we’re not going to get them to take back the decision they’ve made. Instead we’re pressing them to make it affordable for children to be able to attend 3 activities a week (in line with NHS guidlelines) at their local Better leisure centre for a price that is affordable for local parents and sustainable for them as a business.   

With Citizens help we’re pressing on, not giving in, so Lily can be the fish she loves to be and our kids can run, jump, pass a ball and dance their socks off, just like they always should.

Isla Horton's church is part of the Llandaff Area Deanery, a member institution of Citizens Cymru Wales.  If you would like to get involved in the campaign, please contact jonathan.cox@citizenswales.org.uk.


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