Council denies jumping gun over leisure centre sell-off

The Ashington Leisure Centre building in Institute Road, Ashington.
The Ashington Leisure Centre building in Institute Road, Ashington.

COUNTY council chiefs have been accused of flouting an agreement to put plans to privatise Northumberland’s leisure centres on hold.

Labour councillors claim the authority’s Liberal Democrat leadership is going back on its word by sanctioning moves to encourage private-sector firms to express an interest in running the new £20m leisure centre to be built in Ashington and those already up and running.

A leisure services review is being held on Wednesday, September 5, as the council looks to introduce a uniform approach to leisure management across the county.

Currently, the majority of the county’s leisure facilities are managed by four external leisure operators, with only two centres run in-house.

It is being proposed that the council appoint just one operator to manage the centres as Lib Dem chiefs believe that will help them save money, but councillors have agreed to put those plans on the back burner while other avenues are explored.

However, Labour group leader Grant Davey claims council leader Jeff Reid, of Plessey in Blyth, and fellow executive member Neil Bradbury, of Prudhoe West, are carrying on regardless with their sell-off proposals.

Coun Davey, of Kitty Brewster in Blyth, said: “It has emerged that Couns Reid and Bradbury had no intention of sticking to their word and allowing an all-party working group to explore other options including in-house bids and have instead carried on with their plans to outsource virtually all of the services the authority provides to communities.

“It’s also a slap in the face for residents, especially those in Ashington who have seen the council close down the old leisure centre, only to see the promised £20m new centre given away as a sweetener before it has even been built.”

Coun Bradbury denies that claim, saying: “Grant Davey is, as usual, barking up completely the wrong tree.

“The leisure services review is entirely separate from the public-private partnership scheme he refers to and has been in preparation for years.

“This scheme was thoroughly scrutinised by a cross-party scrutiny committee with Labour, Tories, independents and Liberal Democrats on it. They unanimously endorsed the approach being taken in this review.

“If Grant had attended this meeting or the two executive meetings where this was discussed, he would know that I have set up a cross-party group, separate from his committee, to examine how local communities can be involved in the management of their leisure centres and that any final decision will come back to the executive and will be subject to cross party scrutiny.

“Under Labour, in the former Wansbeck district, leisure centres were neglected.

“That is why this Liberal Democrat administration has made the building of a £20m leisure and community facility in Ashington a top priority, despite opposition from Labour members.”