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New Forest District Council considers £750,000 bailout for Freedom Leisure

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THE trust running the New Forest's public leisure centres is set to receive a bailout worth more than £750,000 just a year after it controversially took them over.

The Conservative-run district council, which last year handed over management to Freedom Leisure on an 11-year contract despite public opposition, said increasing costs had forced its hand.

A review of NFDC's financial support measures to the not-for-profit group, will be discussed at a meeting of the ruling cabinet tomorrow (Friday).

New Milton Health & Leisure is one of five centres run by Freedom Leisure
New Milton Health & Leisure is one of five centres run by Freedom Leisure

A report explained Freedom Leisure, which took over last July, was experiencing "extreme pressures in utility expenditure and projected shortfalls in income".

It is responsible for centres at Lymington, New Milton, Applemore, Ringwood and Totton.

This was due to a slower return of customers post-Covid, it said, and was "undoubtedly" linked to financial pressures faced by households across the country.

It said: "Disposable income has clearly been impacted, with some individuals having to de-prioritise gym membership and attendance at exercise classes."

The report recommended supporting the company with up to £400,000 for utilities and grant a two-year rent waiver of £354,000.

Cllr Malcolm Wade
Cllr Malcolm Wade

Cllr Malcolm Wade, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition, blasted the Tory administration for now having to subsidise what he said had initially been a cost-saving operation.

He said: "NFDC transferred the running of the leisure centres to Freedom Leisure as we came out of the pandemic in a situation where their usage was well below pre-pandemic levels, instead of waiting until a time of stability to review the situation on how best to run the service in the future.

"They did this without considering properly the financial impact of the post-pandemic world – the whole objective was to save NFDC money rather than maintain the service.

"Now we are in a cost of living crisis with rising inflation. Whilst that was not visible when they took the decision to offload the service, the uncertainty of the future was obvious to everyone yet they went ahead."

He added: "Now they are having to subsidise a cost-saving operation. This is another example of the Conservative administration taking a decision without fully considering the potential impact on what they were doing.

"The Conservative policy of small government has once again come back to haunt them."

Cllr Geoffrey Blunden
Cllr Geoffrey Blunden

The proposed support was defended by Cllr Geoffrey Blunden, NFDC cabinet member for partnerships and wellbeing.

He said: "Continuing to provide leisure facilities in the district is important and this financial mitigation is to protect the centres in the long term.

"Freedom Leisure has been working hard to improve our facilities and has longer-term plans that will see improvements and investment."

He added it continued to be "a really challenging time" for the leisure industry nationally.

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