Future of leisure under discussion
5:30am Monday 10th March 2014 in By Mike Benke, @Michael_Benke
THE council is in talks with a number of companies looking to take over the running of its leisure and golf facilities.
It launched an invitation to tender for companies last year, offering 99-year leases for the whole portfolio, which includes the Broome Manor and Health Hydro.
However, the move has been likened to selling the family silver, with some saying the lease on offer is far too long and that local groups were not given an opportunity to bid.
Council leaders have said in leasing the sites they are facing up to the economic reality and if they had offered them for a shorter period of time they would not have attracted business.
But the opposition believe not enough is being done to keep them within the control of either the council or local organisations, such as parish councils, risking the possibility they could close down.
Coun Junab Ali (Lab, Central) said: “We recognise that it is important that the council saves money from the leisure subsidy budget because of the financial challenges facing the council and that bringing a private provider in to run some of Swindon’s strategic leisure facilities could be beneficial in bringing more specialist and commercial skills to generate greater income from our leisure facilities.
“However, we do not see the leasing off of Swindon’s leisure facilities for 99 years can be anything more than the effective disposal of these facilities and therefore it is not in the best interests of the town.
“We believe the leases of these facilities should be no more than 25 years and preferably less. And we also feel that community leisure facilities like the Haydon Centre and Highworth Recreation Centre should be offered to their respective parish and town councils or community groups to take over their operational management before being offered to a private leisure provider.”
But the cabinet member for leisure, Coun Keith Williams (Con, Shaw) said there were strong reasons for taking the decisions, pointing to the recently leased Oasis as an example of the positive aspects of the process.
He said: “We have taken legal advice and we were told this was the best option. If we were looking at a management contract then perhaps a shorter lease would be an option but the council would still be liable for the maintenance cost. This way the companies have the incentive to properly invest.
“If you look at the Oasis, most of the prices now are the same or cheaper than they were in 2012 when the council ran it, with only a few slightly higher in line with inflation.
“Prior to putting a tender out, we ran a soft test to gauge interest and although a few showed an interest, some wanted to change the use of the facility. We were also concerned some groups did not understand the full implication and difficulties in running the facilities, no matter how well meaning they were.”
“They become trustees, so if it goes wrong they could be left to cover the costs as the council is not in a position to bail them out. We were not prepared to do that.”
As part of the process in deciding the best company, the council is looking at the five-year business plan for the facilities as well as the amount of work they will do in the community.
Coun Williams said when a decision is made it will go before the full council and not be decided in cabinet.
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