Leisure centres might be struggling nationally, but memberships in South Hams and West Devon are back to pre-covid levels, with more than 6,000 people enjoying regular exercise at six locations.

The number of members at Meadowlands in Tavistock and Quayside in Kingsbridge has grown, whilst Ivybridge is roughly the same as in December 2019. Dartmouth, Parklands in Okehampton and Totnes are around 87 per cent.

West Devon Borough Council’s overview and scrutiny committee was told that nationally many leisure centres had not bounced back from the pandemic after being closed for long periods.

In 2021 many district councils were predicting that their leisure centres would go out of business, because of the impacts of covid, and this has since been followed by a cost of living crisis.

A £60-million lifeline was thrown to local authorities last summer, giving them the opportunity to apply to Sport England for help with increased energy costs and investment in energy saving schemes for swimming pools.

The company that runs leisure centres on behalf of South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council, Fusion, said their use in the past three years had been good and swimming school memberships were also rising. In West Devon, the Meadowlands cafe is attracting new customers and a new cafe at Parklands, which had been without a facility since covid lockdowns, had just opened.

In an annual report to the council, Fusion’s regional manager Rob Taylor said following time and money spent on repairs and a development programme for staff the company would now be focusing on marketing.

This year it will invest in changing rooms and cleanliness standards. A domed window at Meadowlands will be spruced up.

He said that apprenticeships, promoting staff into management roles and the offer of training to degree and masters levels had been successful in retaining staff and is something he is “really proud of”.

Fusion will be looking at discounts and loyalty schemes for community groups, and encouraging more partnerships with health providers. A cardiac rehabilitation scheme had been successful and funding has been secured for an exercise programme for people living with Parkinson’s disease, funded by Parkinson’s UK, but exercise referrals had not grown as much as expected.

A new sporting academy website had been launched for athletes and the company has secured £5,000 from Devon County Council to support swimming lessons for children with special needs. However energy costs have risen by 300 per cent and national minimum wage increases equate to a 12 per cent page rise.

Mr Taylor said leisure centre fees would be increasing in April but they would be kept “affordable”. He said car parking charges were often seen as a deterrent to admission.

Cllr Ursula Mann (Ind, Tavistock North) said that it was difficult to get young children changed and have a swimming lesson within an hour, so parents end up paying for a two hours in the Meadowlands car park, which is run by the borough council. Councillors agreed to look at the pricing and timing of the car park.

Fusion is trying to attract more schools to use the centres, particularly Meadowlands, after it lost some block bookings when the pool was shut for a month for repairs.It will be holding ‘meet the manager’ days and other events to find out what people want from the leisure centres. New agreements are being negotiated with Kingsbridge College and Okehampton College and links would be built with the Promise School in Okehampton for children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH), said Mr Taylor. Decarbonisation plans for the centres are also being investigated.

Councillors said they would like to see Parklands repainted as it is “grim” and better advertised from the outside as a warm, welcoming place.They said there had been vast improvements to the leisure centres over the past few years and the enthusiasm and creativity of staff is good to see.