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Leisure centres management 'privatisation' to continue despite council cash windfall

New Milton leisure centre
New Milton leisure centre

A CONTENTIOUS plan to privatise the management of the New Forest’s public leisure centres will be pursued despite the council netting a six-figure windfall after a court ruling.

The decision by the European Court of Justice has resulted in an annual £300,000 saving in the running costs of the local facilities in New Milton, Lymington, Ringwood, Dibden and Totton, the district council’s cabinet confirmed on Wednesday.

The decision put local authorities on a level playing field in terms of VAT with trusts and not-for-profit organisations.

It means the majority of fees charged at leisure centres were exempt from VAT, although councils can no longer reclaim tax on expenditure for items like sports equipment.

Cllr Jeremy Heron, cabinet member for finance, corporate structures and improvement, welcomed the development, telling colleagues: “We’ve had some good news from the VAT office.”

But he said it would not change the council’s intentions to privatise the management of centres – and he confirmed the tender opportunity for private firms would go on.

“This is helping the centres arrive at a baseline figure before they go out on baseline consultations [to private companies],” he said.

The privatisation decision was signed off weeks ago by the council, which claims the move could save £4m over a 10-year period.

Should it not find a suitable partner, NFDC will look at setting up an arm’s-length trading company to take advantage of tax breaks. It would retain ownership of the premises under either option.

The council claims it has been forced to do so because the centres lose around £700,000 a year.

However, the plan has not gone down well locally. It was criticised by union Unison as likely to worsen conditions for staff, and south-east regional organiser Peter Terry described the £100,000 tendering exercise as “wholly unjustified”.

This week, the New Forest Labour party set up a petition against the tendering process. As of Wednesday it had attracted 465 signatures.

“This strikes us as being driven by political dogma rather than cost saving,” the party said. “We believe that a privatised leisure service will result in fewer services, less investment in facilities and poorer pay for staff.”

The call went on: “Furthermore, there is no evidence of the council having undertaken any robust analysis of the impact of this proposal on the council staff currently delivering the service.

“Additionally, there appears to have been no engagement or consultation with service users and the wider New Forest Community.

“When the Tory council privatised the Dibden Golf Centre, the promised investment never arrived and the operator threatened to hand the contract back to the council unless the council paid more.

“It seems that New Forest Tories have not learned from previous mistakes. Labour would keep our leisure centres in public hands, accountable to the people and available for all.”

NFDC said it had no comment to make in response to Labour.

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