‘Don’t rush into leisure shake-up’

COUNCILLORS have been urged to put the brakes on plans to have one company running all of Northumberland’s leisure centres.

Northumberland County Council’s Liberal Democrat administration has endorsed moves to soft market-test the idea, which would reduce the authority’s annual £4million subsidy.

But the Labour and Conservative groups are concerned that it is being pushed through too quickly and say other options must be considered.

The Communities and Place Scrutiny Committee has now decided to call in the strategy.

And it was agreed last Thursday that some of its members will form a group to monitor the market-testing and make recommendations to the council’s Executive.

Members quizzed Executive Member for Leisure Neil Bradbury about the proposals, which could see a different firm take on Ponteland Leisure Centre and Morpeth’s Riverside Leisure Centre. Both are currently managed by Leisure Connection.

North County Leisure runs centres at Alnwick, Rothbury, Hexham and Prudhoe; Tees Active is in charge of Berwick’s Swan Centre; and the council-owned Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure runs the centres at Blyth and Cramlington. The Ashington and Newbiggin facilities employ county council staff.

Scrutiny Committee Chairman Glen Sanderson 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, the 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.

“As a scrutiny committee, we want to be heavily involved in the future development of the centres and we should explore all the options available to the council before making a firm decision. We can’t rush things on such an important issue.”

The authority is considering a partnership with a private firm to deliver some services in a bid to make tens of millions of pounds in savings, but Coun Bradbury insisted that these plans are completely separate from that process.

“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.

“If we move towards a single contractor, there would be regular opportunities for local communities and councillors to have their say in how the facilities are run.

“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.

“If things progress, members of this committee will have the chance to call it in again if they are not happy with the outcome.”

Potential improvements at the centres were also discussed, but Ponteland North councillor Richard Dodd said the authority should be wary about spending money on the ageing Ponteland Leisure Centre when there is land available to build a new facility.