TWO councillors have resigned from a working group tasked with overseeing a private company taking over the management of New Forest District Council’s leisure centres.
Cllr Caroline Rackham and Cllr Mark Clark, who are both Liberal Democrats, said they no longer wish to be involved in the project to outsource running the five leisure centres, claiming the Conservative-run council was not listening to the public.
NFDC has invited private firms to bid for the contract to run the centres at Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton for at least 10 years.
Since it first announced its intention to bring in private management, the issue has provoked objections from opposition councillors, protests and a petition attracting thousands of signatures.
Cllr Rackham told the A&T: “Quite simply my colleague and I have had enough of this Conservative administration not listening to anyone – the public, opposition members, even privately voiced fears of their own backbench members.”
As reported in the A&T, the customer focus group (CFG) representing users of the leisure centres also quit talks because it disagreed with the council moving ahead with its plans.
Cllr Rackham added: “The cost of the process to outsource the management of these centres has so far been put at around £150,000 and has been dragging on for about three years in total.
“Our district council employees have been doing a great job for decades and it is simply not obvious how a private company coming into the district could take over, improve the service, and make enough money over a 10-year contract.”
The Unison union has already said it is opposed to the scheme, because it believes it is “politically ideologically driven”.
Cllr Clark said the project should be paused to gather more data, adding: “It is obvious that the management company will need to increase numbers to increase profits and we simply cannot see where those additional users will come from.
“The Lib Dems cannot support the idea of public assets, which we own and raised the money for, being used for commercial profit rather than the public good.”
Cllr Mark Steele, NFDC’s Conservative cabinet member for leisure, defended the plans and said he had listened and responded to all questions raised by the Lib Dems.
He said: “Our vision for the project has always been to create active communities by providing affordable, accessible leisure facilities, dedicated to improving physical and mental health and wellbeing and establishing a sustainable healthy lifestyle legacy for future generations.
“I remain confident that our procurement process will help us secure a viable long-term leisure service for the district.”
He added the next stage of the process is for the recommendations to be discussed at the next meeting of the community and leisure panel, before it goes before the council for a decision in February.