BREAKING: Sevenoaks district leisure centres in dire financial positions!

Sencio Community Leisure which runs and manages facilities on behalf of Sevenoaks District Council (SDC), including Sevenoaks Leisure Centre, Edenbridge Leisure Centre, Lullingstone Park Golf Course and Swanley’s White Oak Leisure Centre, has said that, without adequate support, its financial position is “dire” and unsustainable.

Last week, at a meeting of the People & Places Advisory Committee, SDC refused a £120,000 loan application needed by Sencio to help with utility costs of more than £140,000 since lockdown, a period during which the leisure operator – which was set-up purely to serve local communities – has generated no revenue while, at the same time, having to maintain buildings owned by SDC so they are fit for purpose when it is safe to reopen.

At the same meeting it is believed that a loan for double the amount sought by Sencio was approved for The Stag Theatre in Sevenoaks pending a loan acceptance from Sevenoaks Town Council. 

Alan Peal, Chairman of Sencio Community Leisure, said: “The situation for leisure trusts such as Sencio is now deeply worrying and simply not sustainable. The costs of maintaining the buildings we manage to a standard required for when we are able to reopen – together with utility costs of around £140,000 since lockdown and no income – have reduced our financial position to one that can only be called ‘dire’.

“Sencio was set-up as a not-for-profit organisation and exists for the benefit of the communities we serve. For many customers we’re a lifeline when recovering from accident, illness or injury, or for the increasing number of people experiencing loneliness and isolation.

“Some are predicting a tsunami of depression as we come out of this pandemic and local leisure provision won’t simply be a ‘nice to have’, it’ll be an essential – and a costly one elsewhere to the public purse if not adequately supported now and in the immediate months ahead.”

The warning from Sencio comes as leisure trusts across the country struggle to remain in business. Last week the operator serving Peterborough City Council announced it would be bringing its contract to an end and, in effect, handed back the keys.

“We’re already hearing of leisure trusts elsewhere in the country who, without support, are having to make sad and irrevocable decisions. We will do everything within our power to avoid going down that route, but the reality is the situation is now one that may well be taken out of our hands,” adds Alan Peal.

Sencio has been carrying out daily checks on the buildings and swimming pools to ensure it will be safe for customers to return when allowed to reopen.

Social media tussle
Sevenoaks & Swanley Liberal Democrates (S&SLD) took to Twitter asking the leader of SDC, Cllr. Peter Fleming: “What happens then if Sencio goes insolvent? It is requesting a loan to pay utility bills. Pretty clear what will happen if no loan is made”.

Cllr. Fleming responded by saying: “The decision is a decision for the Sencio board not the district council, no final decision on the loan has been made, however if the Sencio board decided they no longer wished to run the centres they would revert to the district council who would then look at their operation”.

S&SLD responded: “This is passing the buck. If Sencio can’t pay creditors, board has to declare insolvency. What then becomes of leisure centres in Sevenoaks and Edenbridge? And of money loaned to Sencio by SDC in the past for development of facilities?”

To which Cllr Fleming said: “Sencio is the leisure trust that currently runs all three leisure centres and a golf course, until they inform us they are no longer able to they will make decisions pertaining to the operation of leisure services within the district and in line with agreements in place”.

He added: “…no final decision on the loan request has been made, Sencio is an independent entity and I can’t speak for them or decisions they may make, and finally the council remains committed to the provision of leisure services and centres across the district”.

Speaking to Sevenoaks Sport & Wellbeing magazine
Cllr. Fleming also responded to a request for a comment on this breaking story from Sevenoaks Sport & Wellbeing and said: “Clearly this is a very difficult time for leisure operators nationally and presently there is no firm date as to when they will be able to open their doors again and what the leisure sector will look like when they can.

“We appreciate the difficulties experienced by Sencio as a result of the Coronvirus outbreak and are committed to ensuring the ongoing provision of leisure and wellbeing services across our District. The decision that will finally be made by the cabinet is not about closing the districts leisure centres, in fact we are building the first new centre in over 30 years at White Oak in Swanley, with a new operator,  we remain absolutely committed to affordable leisure services and the three leisure centres we own.

“Our People and Places Advisory Committee carefully considered the request for an additional £120,000 loan and the extra support we have provided up to now, including paying the annual £26,950 management fee up front and providing a six-month payment holiday on an existing £600,000 loan, equating to £44,000.

“The Committee recommended that we continue to offer further financial assistance to Sencio through continuing to defer loan repayments, but do not support the request for a further loan due to the amount of money already committed to Sencio, the current view on the ability for any financial assistance to be repaid and in the financial challenges that Covid-19 is likely to have on the Council’s own finances.

“A decision on Sencio’s request will be made by our Cabinet on 9 July.”

Meanwhile it is believed that Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council has been supporting its leisure operator (TMActive) with a substantial grant (not a loan) and has indicated it will help them further should they need them to.

Sencio desperately needs the support of the council who, at the end of the day, own and have responsibility for these buildings. If Sencio were to go into liquidation, would SDC potentially face financial responsibilities far in excess of the £120k loan required? Or would they simply find a new operator?

As you’ve heard, the future of Sencio is up for discussion at a meeting on July 9th and you have a chance to lobby for it by writing to your local councillors before then. Alternatively, you can write directly to the leader of the district council at cllr.fleming@sevenoaks.gov.uk.

We will be featuring this story and more in our leisure-centric July issue out next week.