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New Forest leisure centre staff facing job cuts even after £750,000 bailout by taxpayers

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JOBS and pay could be cut and prices hiked at the New Forest’s public leisure centres despite the trust running them securing a £750,000 taxpayer bailout.

Freedom Leisure was handed control of New Forest District Council’s five facilities in 2021 under an 11-year contract, despite public opposition.

It is now facing financial pressures due to a slow return of customers post-pandemic and rocketing energy costs, so last Friday NFDC’s Conservative cabinet agreed to a rescue package.

New Milton is one of five New Forest centres run by Freedom leisure
New Milton is one of five New Forest centres run by Freedom leisure

But staff have now been told of proposals by the not-for-profit management group to slash the full-time equivalent of 11 frontline jobs across the five facilities – six in management, one senior leisure attendant and 3.7 in maintenance.

A staff member familiar with the proposals claimed it was also looking at cutting pay and rolling out further price rises.

Freedom Leisure said staff at risk will be offered alternative roles and admitted it was looking at charges to keep up with inflation at the centres in Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton.

The staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, told the A&T morale was at “rock bottom” and colleagues feared for their futures amid the cost-of-living crisis.

“We’ve been told we must all reapply for our jobs and, of course, there will be fewer posts,” he said.

“And there will be a redundancy selection criteria, which includes work performance, attendance record, discipline records and competence.

“What we score in these areas will be a major contributing factor in deciding whether or not we keep our jobs, so those who have had time off due to long-term health issues or have dependants or who are carers will have a black mark next to their names.

“The council was renowned for looking after its staff and so none of this was an issue when we worked under them.”

He claimed roles being axed would harm the service, particularly in maintenance.

“Freedom hasn’t stress-tested any of this,” he continued. “What will happen is there will be a mountain of issues that will be backlogged, with areas having to be shut off because they are a danger to customers.”

The trust also revealed plans to cut pay across the board, the staff member claimed, and had hiked the cost of a basic membership from £37 to £40 – with intentions to increase customer costs further down the line.

“Under the council we had banded pay scales, much like the NHS,” he explained. “But Freedom want to take our wages down to industry standard, which for some employees, particularly at senior level, will be a massive cut.

“I don’t need to remind you of how poor the majority of people are these days, so this will hit them hard. The cost of living is too damned high for people to be facing redundancies or pay cuts – it’s a poverty trap.”

He added: “We’ve been through so much here; we were an immunisation centre throughout the pandemic, we’ve always had very close links to the community, with a lot of our customers being classed as friends.

“To lose that would would be so demoralising, not just for us but for our customers too.”

Unison’s south-east regional organiser, Kieran Pearson, speaking on behalf of union members across the leisure centres, said the “looming threat” of compulsory ​job cuts during a cost-of-living crisis was a “major worry”.

“Staff shortages already ​pose a serious problem ​for the service,” he said. “​Workers at Freedom Leisure are concerned that making experienced ​employees redundant ​will mean significant cuts to services for ​local people.

“Leisure centres are a vital public service, helping to keep ​communities healthy. The pandemic has seen the entire sector suffer financially. ​It needs government support, not cuts ​that could see much​-loved services disappear forever.”

A spokesperson for Freedom Leisure said the move was one of several “mitigation measures” being looked at, including investment in energy efficiency, increasing prices in line with inflation, and reviewing efficiency of all its operations.

“We know this will be a difficult time and we will be doing all we can to support staff through this period, including offering opportunities for redeployment,” they said.

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