A Board member of Leisureland has warned that competitive rates must be offered to the clubs which use the swimming pool once it reopens or otherwise risk losing what, financially, has been the lifeblood of the facility.
Indeed, Swim Ireland’s regional Club Support Officer for Connacht, Vincent Finn, who was elected to the Board of Leisureland as the swimming and water polo clubs representative last month, believes that with the date for Leisureland reopening gone back to December, it could possibly result in some of those clubs setting up permanent homes at privately-owned pools.
Originally, Leisureland, forced to close due to the damage caused by severe flooding last Winter, was scheduled to reopen in September – and later October – but various problems, including a disagreement with the insurance company over the re-tiling of the facility, was the reason behind the delay.
Mr. Finn noted this has caused further problems for the clubs which have already taken a massive financial hit after losing their revenue stream from teaching classes. “The [swimming] season starts on September 1 so you are still talking about a third of the season gone from a teaching point of view, from an income point of view and from a pool point of view once it reopens.
“So, it will be interesting to see whether clubs come back en masse to Leisureland or if they establish relationships where they are. We will see what happens. Despite what some people might think, the clubs are the lifeblood of Leisureland and they are the reason why Leisureland is still open.”
He explained Leisureland received a huge amount of its income from the local swimming and water polo clubs but he expressed his deep satisfaction at the exorbitant rates these clubs had been charged by Galway City Council over the past decade. He said it was time to address these charges.
“This will be something I will be standing up against because the fees charged in Leisureland are extremely high compared to any other pool in Ireland. I know this will cause trouble but I am putting it on record anyway.
“The standard pool rate throughout Ireland is between €15 and €18 per lane per hour, with some pools being even cheaper than that. The rate in Leisureland is €30 per lane per hour and it has been for the last 10 years.
“So, my job on the board is to find out, with rates at these levels, why Leisureland is losing money and yet other facilities of a similar nature don’t seem to have that problem while charging cheaper rates,” said Finn, alluding to the mounting losses incurred by Leisureland in recent years.
In late 2012, a Government audit found that the cost of the pool, gym and conference complex to the local authority the previous year was €683,000 – six times greater than the budget approved by the council at the start of the year. That was a 30% increase on the previous year’s deficit of €524,168.
Consequently, Mr. Finn said it was critical that Leisureland put a strategic plan in place to turn around the financial shortfalls but warned it would be detrimental to the existence of the swimming clubs – and by extension the facility itself – to ask them to pick up the tab. A balance must be struck.
“While clubs are in the water, Leisureland doesn’t lose money – Leisureland makes money – and that is very important. They have to understand that. Leisureland is also a very important infrastructure for the public, not just from a tourism point of view but from a leisure and a learning to swim point of view.”
From his work on the ground with clubs, the Support Officer highlighted that since the closing of Leisureland, the local clubs – Sharks, Laser and Galway – had found it extremely difficult to survive. “The loss of Leisureland has had a huge impact on the three clubs, Laser, Sharks and Galway,” he pointed out.
“The first thing was they lost their pool time; so, they had to scramble for pool time everywhere. In fairness to the Kingfisher – both NUIG and Renmore – they have been extremely good to all three clubs, particularly NUIG. I can’t say enough good words about what they have done.
“So, the clubs have managed to get pool time but it meant a lot of early mornings and more stress on the parents. However, it’s a double-edged sword because, while the clubs have managed to survive, they have had to do so without the income they generated from the teaching classes.”
He outlined all three clubs, which in total cater for 1,500 children, would have run teaching classes in Leisureland, from which they generated an income that they put back into paying for their pool time and coaches. “Now, many of the clubs are running raffles, quizzes and dog nights in order to raise the funds necessary to stay alive.”
Mr. Finn detailed that the closing of Leisureland also had another serious implication for the city’s three clubs. “About 90% of the swimmers the clubs have would come through their teaching programme and they would be taught in a certain way so when they got into competitive swimming, they would be ready for it.
“So, there would be a structured pathway which would teach them to swim properly and they wouldn’t progress from one stage to the next until they could achieve the standard that was required. That is not there now so there is going to be a void of a year where you don’t have swimmers at that level.”
At any rate, he hoped the affinity those clubs had with Leisureland would see their return – “Leisureland was their base and they almost feel homeless without it” – but he warned that the clubs should not be taken for granted.
In this respect, he was critical of the lack of consultation between Galway City Council and the clubs regarding Leisureland’s refurbishment and he has now called for transparency, particularly in relation to rates, going forward.
Joint move by Galway councils to Crown Square ruled out
A senior Department of Housing official floated the idea of Galway County Council workers moving to Galway City Council’s newly-acquired Crown Square office building if a merger of the two local authorities was to proceed.
However, he was told the proposed merger of Galway’s two councils was not being pursued “at this stage”, and that it “should not be a consideration” when deliberating on the City Council’s application to the Department for a €45.5m loan approval to buy the offices in Mervue, on the eastern side of the city.
The discussion was contained in internal communications between officials in the Department of Housing and Local Government who were discussing Galway City Council’s loan sanction application. It was released to the Connacht Tribune under Freedom of Information (FOI).
Gary McGuinn, the Department’s Assistant Principal Officer for Local Government Governance and Elected Members – in a comprehensive memo about the Council’s loan application – raised the prospect of what would happen if a merger between the two councils proceeded.
“Over the years there have been merger proposals for Galway City Council and Galway County Council. These proposals ultimately never advanced but I believe that there has been incrementally closer coordination between both executives.
“Galway is now something of a holdout given that mergers have taken place in Limerick and Waterford, while the boundary issue was settled in Cork by extending it to encompass the city suburbs and outlying districts.
“Both Galway City Council and Galway County Council have office premises in Galway city centre. On a purely speculative note, one could ponder what would happen to the new City Hall building that they want to borrow to fund if there is an eventual merger?
“Possibly it would become the HQ for a ‘Galway Metropolitan District’ structure within a single ‘City and County’ type local authority. As there is no such proposal at this time though it’s probably not something that can be asked about or planned for,” Mr McGuinn said to his colleague, Tim Nuttall, an official in the Department’s Local Government Finance section.
His views were forwarded to another section within the Department of Housing last September, just before Minister Darragh O’Brien sanctioned the loan application last September.
In response, another civil servant in the Department of Housing, Áinle Ní Bhriain, said: “I can confirm there are no plans to pursue a merger of Galway City Council and Galway County Council, which was approved by Government in 2018, at this stage, and therefore should not be a consideration in relation to this loan.”
Chief Executive of Galway City Council, Brendan McGrath, confirmed two days before Christmas Eve last year, that the deal to buy the property from JJ Rhatigan was complete.
City Council workers are due to move to the new building by the end of this year.
In its loan application, the City Council said its College Road site, built 40 years ago, and refurbished and extended in the 2000s, had a number of “challenges”.
These included “limited capacity for additional headcount, lack of facilities within current infrastructure, building standard compliance and meeting our existing building climate targets for 2030”.
It pointed out to the Department that it leases two buildings in the city centre, to accommodate staff as well as City Hall, and buying Crown Square “will address the challenges outlined in the most efficient and cost-effective way and release our current City Hall, city centre site for regeneration”.
Hotel sector’s plea to retain lower VAT rate
With overseas visitors down more than a quarter and increases of 300% in energy bills compared to before the pandemic, now is not the time to hike VAT rates for hospitality.
That is the plea from the chairperson of the Galway branch of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), John Ryan, who is urging the Government to keep the 9% VAT rate for the tourism and hospitality sectors indefinitely.
The Government delayed the introduction of a 13.5% rate until March 1 at a cost of €250 million to help the sector get back on its feet after Covid.
Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohue referred to price gouging in hotels over the summer as one of the key reasons he was upping the rate.
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin last week stated that it was no secret she had sought the retention of the 9% rate in negotiations for the 2023 Budget and “will continue to seek it”.
The lobby group for small to medium business, ISME, has called for the reduced VAT rate to be brought in for the entire services sector.
The owner of the Ardilaun Hotel in Taylor’s Hill said the average price of a hotel room was €167 last year. With 4,000 rooms in Dublin booked out to accommodate refugees, the price of the remaining stock was at a premium.
“You could find a couple of examples all over the country where people were charging unfair prices and were wrong. There were a few serious spikes – maybe 1% of overall accommodation stock in Dublin did that. If I was a customer I wouldn’t pay it,” Mr Ryan said.
“But they shouldn’t penalise the entire sector because of that 1%. The 9% is the right one. We would be the same as other countries where tourism is a key industry. If we went up to 13.5%, we’d be the second highest after Denmark.
“We couldn’t absorb that. We have already contracted our foreign business for 2024/25 – we’d have to go out and tell suppliers we are putting up rates. That’s just not on.”
With almost all key tourism markets experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, the last thing the industry can cope with is a tax jump.
Of 27 EU countries, the VAT rate on accommodation is 9% or lower in 16 countries.
Tourism supports 22,000 jobs throughout Galway, generating €910 million in tourism revenues annually for the local economy.
Last year the average room occupancy levels were 69% for the West, just 1% lower than national rates. Over the same period in 2019, however, room occupancy was at 78% nationally.
This is largely due to a shortfall in overseas visitors to Ireland, with numbers still down more than 25% last year compared to 2019.
A recent survey found that hotels and guesthouses were reporting reduced levels of forward bookings compared to the same time in 2019.
Some 57% report reduced bookings from Great Britain, 48% say bookings are down from Northern Ireland, while 37% record fewer bookings from the rest of Europe. US bookings are down 41%.
Irish Water representatives asked to explain frequent East Galway problems
Irish Water will be urged to attend a full plenary meeting of Galway County Council to explain frequent problems with the public water supply in East Galway.
A motion calling on them to answer questions before councillors proposed by Cllr Shane Curley (FF) received unanimous support from across the chamber.
The motion comes amid prolonged unplanned outages across the county, with Loughrea Municipal District councillors repeatedly raising the difficulties affecting their area.
“What has been happening in recent months is verging on the ridiculous. Outages have been prolonged to the degree that they’re having a seriously negative impact on people’s lives,” he said.
“Other utility companies like Electric Skyline have come to council meetings in the past and presented to councillors about the work that they are doing. This is urgently needed for clarity to be given from Irish Water at this point.
‘We have had horrendous issues in towns like Loughrea and Gort, where people have been on prolonged bottled water notices. Manholes around Loughrea town have fallen into serious disrepair, causing trip hazards.
“Irish Water is funded by the taxpayer and the public deserve crystal clear information as to what has been happening across the county.”
A boil notice was in place in the Gort area for a month, including over the Christmas and New Year period.
The notice was originally issued due to issues at the Gort Water Treatment Plant, affecting the treatment and supply for 2,776 customers supplied by the Gort Public Water Supply Scheme.
Irish Water’s Eoin Hughes said several issues came together which resulted in the advice not to drink or use the water without boiling.
“Before the cold weather took hold there were numerous leaks on the network and these drained reservoirs to low levels across the scheme. Low reservoir levels were further compounded by unprecedented temperatures of -8°C which caused severe operational difficulties at the treatment plant, leading to the plant being shut down for unsustainable periods of time, further impacting supply continuity.”