New £20m leisure centre could trigger mass sell-off

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THE £20m new sports centre being lined up for Ashington could lead to a sell-off of all Northumberland County Council’s leisure facilities.

Neil Bradbury, the authority’s executive member for leisure, describes the suggested deal as uncontroversial and wants the decision to be delegated to him and a colleague without any other councillors having a say.

However, the council’s Labour opposition sees the proposed move as another example of privatisation of public-sector services.

Labour group leader Grant Davey said: “Once again, the Lib Dem administration has been caught trying to slip through plans to sell off the family silver.

“It is disgraceful that the executive of the authority seems to want to offer up a newly-built leisure centre in Ashington as a tawdry inducement to bring in the private sector to run the council’s leisure services.”

The authority is already seeking a commercial partner to take on services as it faces pressure to save £70m within the next three or four years, on top of the £100m and 1,500 jobs it has slashed already.

Coun Bradbury’s aim is to cut the £4m annual subsidy for leisure by a quarter.

He maintains that his proposed leisure deal is not privatisation because the old district councils brought in outside organisations to run their sports centres, so this would just be a continuation of that policy.

However, most of the organisations involved so far are charities.

North County Leisure runs centres at Alnwick, Rothbury, Hexham and Prudhoe, and Tees Active runs Berwick’s Swan Centre.

The council-owned Blyth valley Arts and Leisure runs the sports centres at Blyth, Cramlington, Ashington, Newbiggin and the Pegasus Riding Centre for the disabled at Tranwell.

Coun Bradbury, of Prudhoe West, describes that mixture as a “mess of contracts” but praises its results.

“These operators have revolutionised the provision of leisure, with massively increased sports participation and user numbers,” he said.

He cites the example of Cramlington’s Concordia Leisure

Centre attracting 576,284 users a year at a subsidy of £1.14 each.

“This compares with a much worse story at the leisure centres with county council staff – a subsidy of over £5.50 per head and a third of the user numbers of equivalent outlets,” he said.

“We use 25 per cent of our subsidy to fund seven per cent of the users in Northumberland County Council-run centres.”

It would be hard to pull out of the current contracts, but it would be “a prize worth pursuing”, he said.

Coun Bradbury said: “My strong preference is to use the lure of a brilliant new facility in Ashington as the starter of a contract, where we will appoint a preferred provider who will gradually take over the other centres when the other providers’ contracts come to an end.

“My aim is to save 25 per cent on the leisure subsidy, but with little increase in prices and no cutting back in service.”

Coun Davey, of Kitty Brewster in Blyth, said his group would try to force a statement at next Wednesday’s full council meeting on what he brands “chaotic proposals to sell off Northumberland”.

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

It will include a sports hall, gym and swimming pool and other facilities such as a library and registrar’s office.