THE controversial transfer of the district’s five health and leisure centres to a not-for-profit company has cleared its first major hurdle on the way to approval.
Members of New Forest District Council’s recreation committee voted along party lines 8-2 to back bringing in Weldean Leisure Ltd, trading as Freedom Leisure. The proposal will now go to its cabinet next week, before a final vote at the district council’s full meeting later this month.
NFDC claims awarding the initial 11-year contract could save it up to £8m – money it will reinvest in maintaining the buildings at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton.
Because of coronavirus, the deal includes a “transition” period during the first year, and a four-year extension if all goes well.
There is also a host of targets Freedom Leisure must meet and there will be monthly check-ups on its progress. NFDC can also impose financial sanctions on the operator if performance measures relating to customer experience, memberships, staff and asset maintenance start to flag.
But those measures have failed to quell critics, who have been staunchly opposed to the outsourcing since it was first announced. There has been demonstrations, union opposition and a 2,000-name petition gathered by the New Forest West Labour party, and the liaison customer focus group (CFG) of centre users walked out of talks last year.
Two members of the opposition Liberal Democrat party also quit a cross-party NFDC panel and the group as a whole remain fiercely opposed, declaring it a “privatisation” of a well-run service – although no buildings will be sold off as part of the change.
When the issue went to the committee vote, councillors Alex Wade and Caroline Rackham both were against. The former questioned why it is being done amid an ongoing pandemic with no current end date for a return to normality, adding: “I’m just not comfortable moving forward now.”
But the concerns were dismissed by the ruling Tory group, which said it pursued the decision to ensure the long-term sustainability of the centres, since otherwise they would “require significant ongoing investment and subsidy” that could necessitate a rise in the council tax.
Addressing the meeting, Manjit Sandhu, NFDC’s executive head of resources, and its chief financial officer Alan Bethune said the centres struggled to compete in the face of an “ever changing” market, amid the emergence of low-cost gyms and private leisure centres as “go to destinations”.
A report claimed the centres have had a “bottom line deficit” of at least £1m per year since 2015/16. As a result, members had set a target of achieving a £1m saving and wanted to have reached £600,000 of that by the end of this year.
It added the average operating position to transfer to a third-party provider was a surplus of £101,000 – with incomes of £7m and expenditures of £6.9m.
The officers outlined the lengthy process the council followed in inviting tenders, assessing the interested parties, visiting sites and consulting with stakeholders prior to the choice being made.
Freedom stood out, the officers said, because it was a not-for-profit venture that would invest £2.2m into the centres over the life of the contract and a further £2.4m for equipment.
Freedom Leisure has not recommended any immediate changes to staffing structures and levels and the council was satisfied, after a full risk analysis, the risks retained were “far reduced under this model”, while the operator was in a “good financial position”.
Mr Bethune said Freedom Leisure, which works with a number of local councils and operates 101 sites throughout the UK, had the “expertise” to take the service forward in what would be a challenging time, post-Covid-19.