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New Forest leisure centres management to be privatised

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New Forest District Council's Appletree Court HQ in Lyndhurst
New Forest District Council's Appletree Court HQ in Lyndhurst

MANAGEMENT of the New Forest’s public leisure centres will be privatised in some form with the hope of saving £4m over ten years, a district council report has confirmed.

As revealed by the A&T in September, the Conservative-controlled authority has been investigating options for the service to help cope with drastic reductions in government funding – including keeping the running in-house.

But this week a report to NFDC’s community and leisure overview and scrutiny panel, which meets next week, rejected retaining the status quo and pointed to bringing in a private management company as the preferred solution.

There are five leisure centres at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton currently run directly by NFDC, which said it would retain ownership under any future plans.

Based on work by a task group of councillors, the report said £100,000 would be spent on tendering for a management contractor which was estimated could save £400,000 a year over a decade-long contract, with the option of a five-year extension.

The health and leisure service needs to fill a £1m hole in its finances by 2020/21, it said, as well as developing to compete with new, low-cost gym companies.

Further proposals to contribute £600,000 by 2020/21 include a staff review, cutting activities on offer, looking at the level of fees, and more self-service options.

If a private management deal could not be done, it said officers would instead explore setting up a local authority trading company to take on the job.

The report concluded: “Members are committed to ensuring the long-term health and wellbeing of our communities through the provision and accessibility of quality and affordable leisure facilities.

“Regrettably the current in-house model is not sustainable in the longer term given the benefits of the alternative delivery models.”

The nine-strong task group was made up of eight Conservatives and one of the council's two Liberal Democrat members, Cllr Alex Wade.

Lib Dem opposition leader Cllr David Harrison raised fears that under private management, prices might be hiked and the service deteriorate. He also complained of a lack of consultation with staff and residents.

He said: “It isn't clear exactly why a private company, that needs to make profits, could run the leisure centres at less cost than the local authority. Despite this the report makes mention of an ‘identified need’ to make a £1m reduction in the cost of the service by the year 2020/21.

“The leisure centres have been run very well by council staff, with high levels of customer satisfaction and positive relationships with schools and colleges that use them, for a quarter of a century. Now, suddenly, the conservatives have decided that the current in-house model isn't sustainable.”

The report will be discussed by the community and leisure overview and scrutiny panel on Tuesday at NFDC’s Appletree Court HQ in Lyndhurst.

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