Customer group walks out of leisure centres talks over handing management to private firm

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New Forest leisure centres
New Milton leisure centre in Gore Road

THE group representing customers of New Forest District Council’s leisure centres has quit talks over plans to hand management over to a private company, the A&T can reveal.

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The customer focus group (CFG) walked away because it disagrees with NFDC pressing ahead with the plan for the facilities at Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton.

One member, who asked to remain anonymous, told the A&T: “CFG members do not want to be associated with the decision and have people think it is one we are endorsing in any way, shape or form.

“We want to send a clear message to everybody: we have not endorsed this process and have asked for it to be stopped.”

Cllr Mark Steele, NFDC’s Conservative cabinet member for leisure, said the authority was “disappointed” but respected the group’s decision. The council will be progressing to find a management partner, he added.

Since NFDC first announced its intention to outsource the centres’ running, the issue has provoked objections from opposition councillors, protests and a petition attracting thousands of signatures.

NFDC has invited private firms to bid for the contract to run the five centres for at least an initial decade.

The Unison union has already said it is opposed to the scheme, because it believes it is “politically ideologically driven”.

The process has now reached the stage where NFDC has chosen its three preferred providers – the identities of which have been kept secret.

Speaking to the A&T, the customer focus group representative said members had told NFDC the overwhelming view of leisure centre customers was that they do not want private management, which had not been taken on board.

“There is a feeling within the CFG that we have been a by-part of the procurement process so NFDC can say they have taken account of customers’ views and pat themselves on the back.”

The main concern the CFG has, he stressed, was lack of accountability as currently NFDC councillors could be challenged in open meetings or even voted out.

He said: “This is going to be a 10 to 15-year contract and there will be no democratic accountability to that organisation. Whoever is in charge of the council will not be able to have any kind of impact on whoever will be managing it.”

The CFG was concerned a large provider could wield its financial power to challenge aspects of any NFDC contract and may resort to cost-cutting measures to maximise company profits.

Cllr Steele responded by saying the leisure centres had provided an “excellent service” for many years but with a subsidy, adding: “This position is not sustainable and therefore the service may be at risk.

“The procurement process has shown that bidders can provide a service that meets the council’s objectives, and they bring industry expertise and economies of scale which go beyond what our in-house service can provide.

“At the customer forums, customers will be able to listen to the preferred bidder who will be able to explain in detail how they propose to deliver the service.”

Cllr Steele insisted the contract and specification within it was “very detailed”, covering the minimum standards required and performance measurements.

“If standards are not met then financial sanctions can be applied,” he confirmed.

“We are satisfied that the contract and specification is right and enables us to ensure that service is provided as detailed in the specification.

“A preferred bidder will be compared with the internal in-house provision when any recommendation is made to cabinet and council.”

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