MORE than 2,000 people have signed a petition opposing plans for a private operator to take over the running of public leisure centres in the New Forest.
The list of names has been submitted by the New Forest West Labour party to the district council which is looking to contract out management of the five sites in Lymington, New Milton, Applemore, Ringwood and Totton.
The Labour group was joined at Lymington leisure centre by users to stage a protest last Saturday accusing Conservative-run New Forest District Council of attempted “privatisation” and urging them to be kept under full public control.
New Forest West Labour co-secretary Jennie Worsdale said: “Many members of the public expressed concern for the future of a highly valued community resource and questioned why, when the service is currently financially viable, profits should be made by a private company rather than being returned to the public coffers.
“We realised how strongly people felt, and our members set about gathering signatures from every town and village in the Forest, including from many parents of young children.
“Time and again, people said how much they valued the centres and didn’t wish to see yet another community resource potentially disappear.”
The petition of 2,039 signatures was gathered over the past six months and will be debated at the next full meeting of NFDC in Lyndhurst on Monday.
It stated that the leisure centres should be “kept in public ownership and management and available to all”.
As reported in the A&T, NFDC has said private management is the most “sustainable” way to run the leisure centres over the next decade as they require more investment in a competitive market, and stressed they would stay in public ownership.
A management contract has gone out to tender and a decision on whether to make a deal with a preferred bidder – expected to be identified in April – will ultimately be voted on by district councillors, as early as July. The contract could be in place by January 2021.
Private groups using the leisure centre have been given reassurances that any agreements would be honoured for a year if management changes hands. But some are worried about potential price hikes and their longer term futures.
Further concerns were raised by the badminton club in Lymington, which is among those whose use of the town sports hall has been curtailed since 2018, although NFDC has said that is due to separate reasons of “restricted access and low usage”.
Club spokesperson Jim Gill said: “They claim that this action was not related to the current proposal to privatise the centres but we believe it was a ‘tidying up exercise’ intended to make it attractive to private management companies.”
The A&T asked for comment from NFDC’s cabinet member for leisure and wellbeing, Cllr Mark Steele, but he did not respond at the time of going to press.