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Not-for-profit trust is picked to run New Forest leisure centres

New Milton is one of five NFDC leisure facilities at the centre of the decision
New Milton is one of five NFDC leisure facilities at the centre of the decision

A NOT-FOR-PROFIT trust has been chosen as the preferred bidder to run the New Forest’s five leisure centres.

Freedom Leisure beat two other unnamed firms to win the nod from the district council to manage the network of facilities in Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood, Applemore and Totton.

Bosses at the company will hold virtual meetings with leisure centre staff and customers in the coming days.

Still to be confirmed, the 10 to 15-year deal will first be debated by NFDC’s community and leisure panel before the ruling Conservative cabinet decides whether to recommend it be passed by the full council in a final vote in February.

NFDC’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, Cllr Mark Steele, said he was “delighted”, adding: “Freedom Leisure are a not-for-profit leisure trust, where all surpluses are reinvested in support of shared objectives with their partners.

“Their approach to running community facilities really impressed us and they have demonstrated their track record in achieving what we would wish from a leisure service for the New Forest.”

The decision was backed by fellow cabinet member Cllr Michael Harris, who holds the economic development portfolio. At a meeting of Brockenhurst Parish Council he said:

“They have a lot of experience and will be great value to the enterprise.

“It is a fantastic thing to have happened and I am sad it’s taken so long to get there – but it’s a great thing to happen for the Forest.”

However, the opposition Liberal Democrat group on NFDC maintained their objections to the policy, which they argue is effectively a privatisation of the leisure service, although no property will be sold off.

The Tories announced their intention to bring in a new provider more than a year ago, but it sparked controversy, including demonstrations, union opposition and a 2,000-name petition gathered by the New Forest West Labour party.

As reported in the A&T, the liaison customer focus group (CFG) of centre users walked out of talks last year and the Lib Dems also recently quit a cross-party panel.

The Lib Dems said in a statement they were “very disappointed”, claiming the Tories had “no mandate” for the management shake-up which they said had not appeared in any manifesto.

They added: “With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic last year it became obvious to us that until long-term financial security for both the council and potential bidders had been established, there would be questions over future income to the council. However, once again the Conservative administration refused to listen.

“People’s habits change and after such a long period of lockdown both the council and potential bidders simply do not know yet how many people will return to the centres and in what numbers. The council’s future expectations are unrealistic.”

A spokesman for the CFG said it was “disappointed” and pointed to 23 online Trustpilot reviews of Freedom Leisure, many by former employees, of which were 78% 'bad'. Only 13% were 'excellent'.

He added: “Looking to the future and given the 10 to 15-year contract, the most disturbing aspect is any new provider will not be accountable to the electorate, so we will be stuck with them good or bad.”

Set up in 2002, Freedom Leisure runs 101 facilities for 23 council partners, schools and academies. On its website it boasts of being a “genuine, pro-active and innovative leisure trust”.

Customers can attend online presentations by Freedom Leisure on the following dates:

  • Wednesday 27 January (Applemore), 6pm-7.30pm
  • Thursday 28 January (New Milton), 11.30am-1pm
  • Friday 29 January (Lymington), 6pm-7.30pm
  • Monday 1 February (Totton), 11.30am-1pm
  • Tuesday 2 February (Ringwood), 6pm-7.30pm
  • Wednesday 3 February (all centres), 11.30am-1pm

For more information visit https://newforest.gov.uk/article/2071/Leisure-review-latest-updates

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