Commercial and not-for-profit companies looking to take over Swindon Council leisure and golf facilities have to submit multi-million pound proposals by the end of Friday 7 February.
But in a strange back to front way of doing things, the council is running a consultation until 3 March which asks Swindon residents what they think of the plan to reduce the cost of leisure services.
However the survey online and available in leisure centres does not reflect the real price to be paid say several critics.
Wroughton parish council John Newman calls the consultation and survey a ‘complete sham.’ He said: “Quite honestly the consultation does not explain the deal the council is concocting with alternative operators. It does not say the facilities will be leased for 99 years, nor that operators only have to keep a facility open for three years before they can come back to the council to discuss other opportunities for the site.
“If they agree with an alternative proposal developers could be awarded a 999 year lease, with the council and developer splitting the proceeds of redevelopment in the future with the council on a 50-50 basis.
“These details are not being discussed in public and I’m calling for the council to have a full and proper debate about what they’ve been planning ever since last July, when cabinet agreed the transfer of assets out of council control.”
The facilities involved are the golf courses at Broome Manor, Highworth and Moredon and six leisure centres: Croft, Dorcan, Haydon Centre, Link Centre, Delta Tennis Centre and the Health Hydro. The proposal does not include Highworth Recreation Centre at this point.
The marketing brochure, pictured above, published by international property agents GVA promoting the offer to the market describes it as ‘An Exceptional Leisure Opportunity’.
The council has set itself the target of reducing an estimated £48 million budget gap over the next three years. They claim the subsidy of leisure amenities is £1.5 million, although a SwindonLink source believes staff cuts and reorganisations over the last three years has brought the subsidy down to around £150,000.
Councillor Keith Williams, Swindon Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways, Strategic Transport and Leisure, left, outside Link Centre, said: “We have so far received significant interest in our leisure and golf portfolio and are optimistic that our facilities will be enhanced by the course of action we are taking.
“But it is important that we hear from the public about what they think about the proposals before a final decision is made.”
Interviewed in December, Cllr Williams said: “It is in nobody’s interests to see a deterioration in what the town offers. A wide range of leisure facilities is a feature which makes Swindon attractive to so many people and business. Many other authorities have transferred assets to independent operators with great success. We can give up control but the town will retain the facilities whilst new operators can build on management efficiencies already in the system.
”At the same time the council will gain income from leasing the facilities, whilst the council can also offer borrowing at preferential rates so that essential maintenance and improvement work can be carried out.”
However chartered surveyor Peter Falding from Highworth argues that the council should be offering management contracts of 25 or 30 years duration. He said: “Whilst the cost pressures driving this process can probably not be denied, the details of the proposed disposal leave a lot to be desired.
"For example, there will be no guarantees with regard to the future provision of leisure uses at any of the sites; prices will almost certainly rise; the council will lose control of these property assets, and have already indicated that they will share with the new leisure operators the increase in value arising from granting planning permission for alternative uses, which could result in the loss to the Borough of millions of pounds.”
North Swindon resident Des Morgan added his concerns about the asset transfer process. "Whilst I broadly support the decision by the council to hive off some of the town’s leisure facilities as I do not believe it is the council’s responsibility to provide them with an imposition on council tax payers to support or subsidise them.
"Where I agree with the comments of Mr Newman and Mr Falding is in respect of the lease terms. In simple terms I would not trust or rely upon a single officer of the council to negotiate a deal which best serves the long term interest
of the town and its residents.
"The potential loss of amenity is very real and the council should require a ‘keep open’ term longer than three years, in my view the term should be at least twenty five years.
"A three year keep open term offers no incentive to the operator to do anything other than keep the ‘wheels turning’ before they apply for a change of use.
"Broome Manor Golf Course is the jewel in the council’s leisure portfolio. It is profitable and as a golf course it is highly regarded.
"The council is offering BMGC as a carrot to the operators as it knows the package of other
facilities provides no real profitability or indeed opportunity for profit from the operation."
Swindon Wildcats ice hockey action at Link Centre by Richard Wintle of Calyx
Give your views on the proposals for leisure and golf facilities at www.leisureinswindon.co.uk
Or write to: Cllr Keith Williams, Leisure Consultation, Cabinet Office, Civic Offices, SN1 2JH or mail: LandCChangeprogramme@swindon.gov.uk
Paper copies are also be available in all the council’s leisure facilities.