Following the closure of Swindon Council’s public consultation on the transfer of it’s leisure and golf facilities to private operators, or not for profit organisations, on 3 March, the Labour opposition group have declared that they will not support the option of handing over facilities to operators on 99 year leases, as proposed by the controlling Conservative administration.
The Labour Group made their position at a cross-party Leisure & Culture Cabinet Member Advisory Group Meeting on 3 March, stating they will only consider leases of no more than 25 years, with break clauses to review the service during the length of the lease.
Labour is proposing that fully constituted community groups should be permitted to take over community leisure facilities if they can demonstrate that they can run the facilities without a subsidy from Swindon Council and leisure facilities in parished areas – including the Haydon Centre and the Highworth Recreation Centre – are offered to their respective Parish and Town Councils if they can run these facilities without a subsidy being required from Swindon Council;
They also state that any contract must include the guarantee that the assets can only be used for leisure, sport and culture in the future.
Right, the marketing brochure for Swindon’s leisure and golf facilities. Below, Link Centre in West Swindon
The Labour Group’s Shadow Lead for Leisure & Culture, Councillor Junab Ali, said there should be more effective control of council’s assets in the future: “We have considered the responses that we have received from members of the public, as well as industry experts and the research that has been done by the council officers. Throughout the public consultation period we made it clear we wanted to work with the Conservative administration in a constructive way in the best interests of the town.
"We recognise that it is important that the council saves money from the present leisure subsidy budget because of the financial challenges and that bringing a private provider in to run some of Swindon’s strategic leisure facilities could be beneficial as more specialist and commercial skills could generate greater income.
"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 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 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."
Old Town resident Jane Milner-Barry, whose close research has not found another local authority in England offering 99 year leases, said: "The Labour Group’s proposals are a very positive step forward. Now we need to call a halt to the sell off of our leisure centres and golf courses. We need time for the council to explain all the options to Swindon residents and give us all the facts and figures we need to make an informed decision about the future management of our leisure centres."
However Councillor Keith Williams, Cabinet Member for Highways Strategic Transport and Leisure, said the council had marketed the opportunity to take over Swindon’s leisure and golf asset after legal advice that 99 year leases were appropriate. "Our objective is to absolve Swindon tax payers of ongoing repairs, maintenance and subsidy of users.
"After a soft marketing exercise we were advised that a lease of up to 99 years gives us the scope to design leases that meet this aim. We don’t have to award leases of this length, but if we had marketed the facilities for a shorter period we would have had to start another consultation exercise to consider a longer lease as part of negotiations with an operator.
"Many councils have negotiated shorter management contracts of 25 years, but they’ve had to continue to subsidise users and fund improvements. We cannot do this because the council is facing unprecedented financial challenges and recent funding announcements from the Government has 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.
"Swindon’s approach is going to become more common across the country and we have had enquiries from other council’s about how to negotiate long term leases."
Potential operators had until early February to submit their proposals for taking over Swindon’s leisure centres and golf courses. Cllr Williams said commercially sensitive discussions had started with alternative operators. "Our aim now is to come up with the best value solution for Swindon residents and ensuring they can be sustained for the long term," he said.
Public asked to give their views on additional leisure consultation
People have the chance to comment on proposals which could see the playing fields at Dorcan Recreation Centre and Croft Sports Centre transferred to an external operator on long-term leases.
The plans form part of Swindon Borough Council’s Leisure and Culture Change Programme which is seeking to address the Council’s estimated £54m budget gap over the next three years.
The Council is therefore looking at alternative ways of delivering services and recently invited commercial and not-for-profit companies to submit proposals to take over the running of its six leisure centres and three golf courses.
A consultation inviting members of the public to comment on the overall proposals closed on Monday 3 Marchbut a further opportunity to give feedback on the proposed transfer of the playing fields at Dorcan Recreation Centre and Croft Sports Centre is open until Tuesday, 15 April.
The additional consultation is required as the Council has a statutory requirement to gain Secretary of State (Education) approval to enable any transfer of the playing fields contained within the proposed leases to third party operators. The application cannot be considered until the consultation has taken place.
The Council is keen to receive specific feedback from users of the centres, including schools, and details of the notice letters and plans have been displayed at each centre and in other local community centres.
Letters have also been sent to more than 80 organisations who use both leisure sites, including several schools who use the facilities.
Anyone would like to comment on the proposed transfer can email: LandCChangeprogramme@swindon.gov.uk or write to the following address:
Law and Democratic Services
Swindon SN1 2JH
Any correspondence should quote: Leisure Project (SP) and all comments should be received by 15 April 2014.
An analysis of the comments received will be forwarded to the Secretary of State as part of the Council’s application for consent to the proposal.