A number of questions have been raised in recent weeks regarding the ongoing Swindon Borough Council’s Leisure and Culture Change Programme, and the reasons why the council is exploring a proposal to transfer its leisure services to an external operator on long-term leases, writes Councillor Keith Williams, Cabinet Member for Highways Strategic Transport and Leisure (pictured).
It is right that such a major proposal has been challenged and I would like the opportunity to answer some of the points that have been raised, particularly in Swindon Link Magazine.
I want to reassure everyone that the Cabinet’s over-arching aim is to ensure a sustainable, long-term future for leisure in the Borough and we are seeking an outcome that enables this.
We are facing unprecedented financial challenges and recent funding announcements from the Government have seen our financial position worsen in recent months. In short, we must find a further £54m in savings over the next three years due to funding restrictions and rising demand due to demographic pressures and inflation.
This has forced us to look at all our non-statutory services and with leisure requiring a £1.5m a year subsidy, we have had to look at how we can drive costs down.
One of the main points that has been raised is why we are proposing to transfer our facilities on 99-year leases. We wanted to encourage potential bidders to come forward with credible bids and our market research indicated that to ensure that we secure investment, significant lengths of tenure are critical to obtaining funding from lenders in the current market.
We took the same approach regarding the Oasis, while Charlton Lido is being leased to GLL on a 97-year term, to enable the appropriate levels of funding to be secured.
I expect this model will become far more common in future as councils struggle to balance budgets with increasing costs in statutory areas such as adult social care and children’s services. In fact a number of councils are taking a keen interest in what we are doing here in Swindon with a view to doing something similar.
We are looking to make our leisure services break even or possibly provide revenue, protecting them from subsidy reductions.
If we were to offer management contracts for our facilities we would still carry the liability for maintenance work, would have to retain a client team to manage the contract, re-procure the contract once the contract expires and manage the repairs, maintenance and capital investment programme. In addition, the service provider would be expected to invest in resources to manage the obligations under the contract, provide regular reports to Councillors on performance and participate in partnership governance arrangements. This is likely to divert resources away from the operation of the facilities and impede any reduction in subsidy.
I believe the range of facilities we offer is superior to any other town or city in the South West, something that is set to improve still further as a result of the asset transfer of the Oasis.
But unless we take the course of action we are taking then even more difficult decisions would need to be made in future. What we are proposing protects the services for the people of Swindon and the wider community of users.
Right, Keith Williams, right, with Garry Perkins, cabinet member for regeneration, centre, and Martin Barber, CEO of Moirai which is regenerating the Oasis and the land around it at North Star. Images right and below: Richard Wintle of Calyx
It has also been suggested that the leisure sites could be sold off and used for other purposes. Under the draft lease the Permitted Use for the centre is restricted to leisure and any changes to the Permitted Use would only be by agreement of the Council.
Some people have also questioned why the proposed keep open clause is three years. As our demographic needs change and adapt in the future, we may consider proposals that allow flexibility in provision, as this is more likely to encourage innovation and investment, which benefits the Borough as a whole.
The current private sector investment in the Oasis Leisure Centre and significant development proposed around the Oasis site is an example of how this approach can benefit local residents. It has the potential to generate approximately £65m of private-sector investment and about 1,500 jobs.
I have also been recently asked why the Council would transfer assets and only take a 50% share of any profits rather than dispose of them itself. This condition recognises that in many years we will almost certainly need to revise the location of facilities. If we take the East of Swindon expansion it will quite probably make sense to build a larger leisure centre there eventually.
Consolidation of other centres would probably be sensible at that point releasing the land. Investment in a new facility could then be financed through this route. So although we could sell the facilities ourselves and take the money, why would we do that when we don’t want to close anything?
The Council also controls the lease so can block any change of use we are not happy with. Coupled with the business plan being a key element of the evaluation process, along with a high weighting towards the socio-economic benefits and track record a provider can offer, we intend to protect the service rather than compromise it.
I would encourage anyone who has not already done so contribute to the current consultation on the proposal by visiting www.leisureinswindon.co.uk
The closing date for the consultation is Monday 3 March
Jane Milner-Barry expresses worries about the process of transferring Swindon leisure facilities and golf courses to alternative operators