Price hike fear over ‘privatisation’ of council leisure centres management

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New Forest District Council’s Appletree Court HQ in Lyndhurst

CONCERNS have been raised about prices being hiked at the New Forest’s public leisure centres if management is handed over to a private company.

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The district council is preparing to go out to tender for either a business or potentially a charity to take on a 10-year contract to run the facilities, which would stay in public ownership.

The money-saving plan has been attacked as “privatisation” by the Liberal Democrats and Labour, and earlier this year sparked protests outside the centres in New Milton, Lymington, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton.

The latest questions were posed by Cllr Martyn Levitt, the newly elected Conservative member for Bransgore and Burley, at a meeting yesterday (Wednesday) of the ruling Tory cabinet which backed the ongoing review.

New Forest leisure centres
Conservative Cllr Martyn Levitt

Cllr Levitt previously served on Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council in Hertfordshire where, he said, a similar process had ended with the authority deciding to keep control by setting up its own management organisation.

He said: “My concern is where we looked at outsourcing leisure centres at Hatfield but kept it in house. How will you ensure that our prices will not escalate extraordinarily high?

“I know there will be controls but I worry we will not have complete control.”

He also described the 170 customers who attended 10 public forums as a “disappointingly low turnout” and asked if users would be kept involved as the process goes on. About 1.6-million visits are made to the centre in total every year.

Cllr Steele, the cabinet member for health and leisure, responded: “We might see prices decrease because they have to be competitive in the market place.”

He said the aim of the review, which at the start predicted 10-year savings of £4m, aimed to provide “affordable, accessible leisure facilities”.

He said there would be further public forums, adding: “It’s open to anyone who is a customer of these leisure centres. I would hope that the members of their areas would come to those forums.”

NFDC head of resources Manjit Sandu added: “Any offer needs some flexibility and all the work that the task and finish group has undertaken indicates that any price rise would reduce the amount of customers coming in.

“It’s very market-led and we would have very clear guidance and monitoring in the contract.”

Cllr Steve Clarke is chair of the task and finish group which initially recommended going out to tender.

He said: “If a partner does not come forward that meets our criteria we do not have to accept it. We have other ways of moving forward for our residents.”

NFDC could explore setting up a local authority trading company to take on the job instead.

A cabinet report said £76,000 would be spent, including £50,000 on external procurement consultants and the rest on condition surveys of the leisure centres. A customer group will be set up, it said, and dialogue held with trade unions for the 500 employees.

Further public forums will be held at the centres in November and December.

The tender document will be signed off by Cllr Steele before being released on 16th September with a response deadline of 18th October.

A shortlist of five applicants will be invited for negotiations before final bid presentations at the end of March 2020. A final decision on the winner is expected by the full council in June. The 10-year contract would have the option of a five-year extension.

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