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Controversial plan for private firm to run New Forest leisure centres is approved

New Milton leisure centre in Gore Road
New Milton leisure centre in Gore Road

THE battle over the New Forest’s five leisure centres being put under private management is over as district councillors voted for the plan to go ahead.

At the latest full meeting held online, the ruling Conservative group backed the controversial policy – which has sparked public protests, a petition objecting and resistance from union members.

The minority Liberal Democrat opposition voted against it, arguing that the impact of the pandemic, which has shut leisure centres, meant now was not the right time.

Stressing it was “not a privatisation”, Tory councillors said the 11-year contract with Weldean Leisure Ltd – which trades as Freedom Leisure – would bring a host of benefits to centre users.

NFDC pursued outsourcing as internal reports claimed the centres at Lymington, New Milton, Applemore, Ringwood and Totton have had a “bottom line deficit” of at least £1m per year since 2015/16.

They were also said to have struggled to compete with low-cost model gyms. The outsourcing should save NFDC up to £8m over the course of the contract, the council said – money it will reinvest in maintaining the buildings which will stay under public ownership.

After a lengthy tender process, NFDC said Freedom had stood out as a not-for-profit venture prepared to invest £2.2m into the centres over the life of the contract and a further £2.4m for equipment.

Because of the pandemic, the deal includes a “transition” period during the first year, plus a four-year extension if all goes well.

There are a host of targets Freedom Leisure must meet, as well as monthly check-ups on its progress.

NFDC can impose financial sanctions on the operator if performance measures relating to customer experience, memberships, staff and asset maintenance start to flag.

The scheme was backed by the ruling cabinet earlier this year, after it was first proposed in 2018.

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