Allegations of fake news in New Forest leisure centre ‘privatisation’ row

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Cllr James Binns

ACCUSATIONS of “fake news” were traded between political opponents over plans to hand management of the New Forest’s public leisure centres to a private firm.

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Ruling Conservatives clashed with the Liberal Democrat opposition at a district council meeting on Monday night in a row over whether the move – forecast to save £4m over 10 years – amounted to any level of privatisation.

Cllr James Binns, NFDC’s cabinet member for leisure and wellbeing, stressed there was no question of anything being sold and described the process as a “partnership” in which staff were being fully consulted.

He said: “It’s not privatisation, as members well know. This is not about closing the doors and walking away. We want the best service that is fit for the future and provides investment in our services.”

As reported in the A&T, last week the cabinet approved going out to tender for a private company or trust to run its five centres in New Milton, Lymington, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton. If that fails, NFDC might set up its own management group instead.

Cllr Binns used President Donald Trump’s favourite phrase to attack Lib Dem leader Cllr David Harrison for spreading “fake news” by describing the plans as privatisation.

Cllr David Harrison

The allegation by Cllr Binns prompted a reprimand from NFDC chair Cllr Mel Kendal, who told him: “You can say he’s misinformed but you can’t impugn a member of the council.”

Cllr Harrison reacted: “The fact of the matter is that if we had carried out a public consultation before this decision, people would better understand the difference between privatisation and the hybrid privatisation Cllr Binns is talking about.

“The problem is when you cannot control, you lose democratic accountability, do you not? When you make staff redundant or force them into a TUPE [staff transfer] situation, it smacks of privatisation.”

He stormed: “If that’s ‘fake news’ I make no apologies. My version of fake news has more connection to reality than yours!”

Cabinet member Cllr Jeremy Heron shot back: “It’s not fake news – [Cllr Harrison] is misinformed and fails to understand the subject.”

Cllr Binns was further defended by Tory Cllr Steve Clarke who chaired the task group, made up of eight Tories and one Lib Dem, which drew up the proposals.

He said: “The task and finish group worked very hard to come up with options. It’s a sensible partnering arrangement we’re looking at and will provide the best options for the people of this district.”

NFDC is preparing to spend about £100,000 on a tendering process to find a management organisation to run its leisure centres – a move attacked last week by the Unison union as a “false economy”.

There will be also be separate reviews of leisure staffing, prices and activities with the aim of saving £600,000 of a £1m target by 2020/21.

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