PROTESTERS gathered outside public leisure centres across the New Forest to demonstrate against plans to hand over management to an outside organisation.
The action was organised by local Labour activists who have accused the Conservative district council administration of “privatising” the service, which has facilities in Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton.
Online petitions launched by Labour against the policy have been signed more than 2,100 times and will be handed over to NFDC in July.
As reported in the A&T, the Tory administration is preparing to go out to tender for a private company or non-profit-making trust to run the centres, including control over employment and activities.
It promised the premises would all stay in public ownership under the new set-up, which was originally forecast to make £4m savings over 10 years.
The issue has been targeted by political opponents as voters prepare to go to the polls on 2nd May in district and parish elections.
The secretary of New Forest West Labour, John Haywood, said: “We are concerned about narrowing the range of services. We understand that a private company will be constrained to make savings over what the council wants to do directly.
“That will have an effect on services and staff there. We do not see any positives at this stage.”
He added: “We think that the leisure centres should remain in public hands. We see the cost to the council’s budget as wafer thin, frankly, and it’s important to keep them as community facilities.”
Labour protestors were joined in Lymington on Saturday by members of a 50-strong badminton club who say they were blocked in September by NFDC from using the town’s sports hall, alongside several other community sports groups.
They set up a net outside and played for more than two hours to draw attention to their plight, which they say has left them with nowhere to play during weekends and school holidays.
Member James Gill, from Pilley, said: “It was closed down and we were chucked out. We could not believe it.”
Although the club has since managed to secure one hour a week at the hall with Priestlands School, which mostly uses the hall, Mr Gill suspected NFDC was clearing the decks to make management more attractive to potential bidders when the contract goes out to tender.
In response, NFDC’s cabinet member for leisure and wellbeing, Cllr James Binns, said the authority was committed to providing a service “of the highest quality and fit for the future”.
He went on: “We are not privatising the centres or selling off our assets. We are clear – any potential partnership agreement will ensure that NFDC continues to own the buildings.
“No formal decision about a partner has been made, and we are currently exploring the market to see if there are any potential partners with registered charity status, meaning that any profit made will be reinvested back into the service.”
Cllr Binns said the complaint by the badminton club was “an entirely separate issue”. The decision to end activities at the sports hall in Lymington had been taken in 2017, and was due to “restricted access and low usage”, he said.