Leisure centre sell-off plans under scrutiny

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NORTHUMBERLAND County Council’s plans to sell off its leisure centres to a private-sector company have been put on hold.

The council’s Liberal Democrat administration last week gave the thumbs-up to officers and executive member for leisure Neil Bradbury to look into such a move as a possible way of cutting costs.

The plan put forward was that the new £20m leisure centre to be built in Ashington be used as a loss leader for a deal expected to save the authority £4 a year in subsidies.

However, Labour and Conservative councillors have raised concerns that the privatisation process was being pushed through too quickly and are calling for other options to be considered.

Their concerns prompted the council’s communities and place overview and scrutiny committee to call in the strategy at a meeting held last Thursday.

It was agreed that committee members form a group to monitor market testing of the idea, then come up with revised recommendations to the executive.

That rethink was agreed after members quizzed Coun Bradbury, of Prudhoe West, about the proposals.

Plans are currently being drawn up for a new leisure centre to be built at the former Asda site at Lintonville in Ashington to replace the present council-run one in Institute Road.

The current proposal would see a private-sector operator initially be put in charge of the new building, then gradually take over all the county’s other leisure centres.

As things stand, the council-owned Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure runs the sports centres at Blyth, Cramlington and Newbiggin, and Leisure Connection is in charge of those in Morpeth and Ponteland.

The county’s other sports centres are operated by North Country Leisure and Tees Active.

Scrutiny committee chairman Glen Sanderson, of Chevington, said: “We decided to call this in because of a lack of detail in terms of potential staff cuts, changes in management and, most importantly, implications for leisure centre customers.

“We agree that keeping all our leisure centres open is vitally important to residents, as is offering quality leisure services that people on all incomes can afford, but we need more information before we can recommend whether or not this course of action should continue.”

The authority is currently considering going into partnership with private-sector firms to deliver some of its services in a bid to make tens of millions of pounds in savings, but Coun Bradbury insisted that any such move would be completely separate from the proposed sell-off of its leisure centres.

“At the moment, there are six leisure operators across the county with different contracts, with some not obliged to report everything about their operations,” he said.

“As well as making savings, there would be a simplified and consistent approach to the management of the centres.

“We’re now going to see how feasible it is to make the change because it may be expensive to get some operators out of their current contracts.”

The council’s Labour group leader, Grant Davey, of Kitty Brewster in Blyth, has pledged to fight the privatisation proposals all the way, saying: “The Labour group is determined to turn the spotlight on these chaotic and potentially damaging plans.

“We are particularly keen to look at the alternative options available to the council to fight of this unnecessary back-door privatisation.

“There is a fantasy at the heart of these proposals that partnership will lead to more efficient or better services for residents and employees. You just need to look at the G4S debacle to see that isn’t always the case.”