Erewash Borough Council signs off plans to hand over running of five leisure centres to private firm

Erewash Borough Council has signed off on plans to hand over the running of five leisure centres to a private company after a heated, and partly secret, debate.

More than £1 million will be invested in the centres as part of the handover, which will see a private firm – the identity of which cannot be disclosed at this stage – run them on the council’s behalf for up to 15 years.

Victoria Park Leisure Centre, Ilkeston.

Victoria Park Leisure Centre, Ilkeston.

Councillors agreed to award the tender to the firm - more than two years after the authority first entertained the idea - at a meeting on Thursday, November 8.

sites involved in the decision are Long Eaton’s West Park Leisure Centre, Sandiacre Friesland Sports Centre, and Ilkeston’s Victoria Park Leisure Centre, Rutland Sports Park and Pewit Golf Course.

The council is bankrolling a half a million pound loan to help make improvements at all five sites, with the company fronting the rest of the costs, along with repaying the loan – at an interest rate of 4.5 per cent.

It is thought that the transfer will save the council £6m over the course of the 10-year contract, which has an option of a five-year extension.

This boils down to £600,000 a year, with further savings of £300,000 a year also predicted ‘by reducing staff in functions which currently support the leisure service’.

Part of debate was held in private due to confidential information contained in the business bid from the unnamed company.

Labour councillors lobbied for the press and public to be allowed to remain in the council chamber at Long Eaton Town Hall, but this was overruled by the Conservatives.

Among the opposition councillors, Coun Alexander Phillips, said: “I find it amazing that this council wants to hide this decision with a cloak of secrecy.”

He accused the Conservative administration of ‘pawning off the crown jewels’.

Labour leader, Coun James Dawson, said: “Our leisure centre staff are going to be faced with an uncertain Christmas.

“They may find that by May next year they will not have a job. We need to treat our staff with respect.

“If we are going to do this, the staff need to know now. A lot of local government work relies on the goodwill of its staff and we don’t want to burn that bridge.”

Coun Dawson said that he did not want to be the person to say ‘I told you so’ further down the line if the contract hits problems.

Meanwhile, Conservative councillor, Wayne Major, said: “I think this is the right thing to do despite our finances. Our only other option is a reduction in our services.”

Fellow Tory, Coun Kewal Athwal, added: “We are here to give value for money to our residents.”

A report on the final award of the contract to the undisclosed private firm states that the decision will “‘reduce costs to the council while safeguarding leisure services against the vicissitudes of local government finances for the foreseeable future and indeed enhance services to be offered by securing further investment’.

After the secret debate, for which the press and public were kicked out, Labour councillor Danny Treacy said: “I feel sorry for our staff, they are set to be on less than the living wage.

“If you pay your staff peanuts, you’ll end up employing monkeys. Good staff need to be paid well.”

Council leader, Coun Hart, said: “These will still be our buildings, they will still be Erewash Borough Council leisure centres, we will still be responsible and I think residents will get a better deal.”

Coun Michael Wallis, lead member for culture and leisure, said that when the idea was first mooted he was intensely sceptical - and was trying to avoid any option that did not keep the leisure centres in-house.

However, he said he has come to the realisation that the right thing to do is to outsource.

He said: “We have had a good debate but at times I felt like going home and slashing my wrists.

“I wanted to keep the leisure centres in-house but we have to make a strategic decision. The council has invested millions in our leisure centres.

“I think that this is a good deal for the borough. We have to be innovative and we have to find ways to make savings.

“I think through this investment and funding from the bidder we get a terrific deal out of this.”

The investment set to be pumped in to the leisure centres includes an expansion and improvement of gym facilities, improvements to the customer retail/vending offer, installation of new gym/spin and weightlifting equipment, and the provision of a number of new activities not currently provided.

All staff currently working at the leisure centres will have their contracts transferred over to the new operator.

If the new operator pulls out of the contract, or the authority terminates the contract, the employees would return to the council.

The contract would come into force in the New Year.