Belfast Telegraph

Leisure services reforms go to vote

Proposed major changes to how leisure services are delivered in Belfast are set to be decided in a crunch vote by city councillors tomorrow.

A council committee must select one of three business models to deliver the £2 million annual efficiency savings required to finance a planned £105 million investment in improving the city's 10 leisure centres.

Privatising the service, reforming the current in-house operation or setting up an arms-length not-for-profit trust to run the centres are the three choices facing members of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

The council centres continue to experience declining customer numbers as they struggle to compete with the burgeoning private sector fitness industry.

The capital programme has been designed to breathe new life into some of the more run down centres.

With councillors opposed to hiking rates to finance the construction work, a new business model is required to free up the funds necessary to enable the council to borrow the additional tens of millions needed.

But despite cutting £2 million from the annual £11.5 million spend on leisure, there is an aspiration within City Hall that a streamlined operating model could actually deliver a better, more cost effective service.

But unions have expressed concern any cuts will have a negative impact on the 300 plus workforce and potentially lead to job losses. Unions intend to stage a protest at City Hall tomorrow morning ahead of the vote.

With privatisation unlikely to gain support among members, the committee's decision will effectively boil down to reforming the current system or creating a leisure trust - a so-called non-profit distributing organisation (NPDO).

Research commissioned by the council has identified the trust model as the only one capable of delivering the savings needed.

A paper presented to committee members at their meeting last month stated: "The professional analysis and advice is that the only model that will deliver the required £2m savings by 2016 is the non-profit distributing organisation.

"Any other decision will jeopardise the capital financing strategy, thereby compromising the new build programme, and importantly, the overall social (health, well-being, employability, regeneration, etc) and financial (value for money) outcomes of the Leisure Transformation Programme."

But unions chiefs have voiced opposition to a course of action that would see workers being transferred to a new employer, citing concern about the potential for redundancies and whether any new staff hired by the trust in the future would be offered the same terms and conditions.

In negotiations with unions, city council management have said "significant changes" to working practices are required, highlighting the need for more flexibility in jobs and working hours, reduction in overtime and introduction of performance targets.

Bumper Graham, assistant general secretary with union Nipsa, said his organisation was opposed any move to "externalise" public service work.

"There are cost saving elements in it which can only come at the price of staff or their terms and conditions," he said.

"We have three main fears: one, removing service delivery from the public sector itself, secondly, the potential for job losses and, third, the potential that if you move into a trust situation that any new employees would be recruited on less favourable terms and conditions."

Any decision taken by committee members tomorrow will have to be ratified by the full council next month. If the trust model is selected, it could be created and operational by the autumn.

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