Outsourcing vote on leisure centres
A Belfast City Council committee has voted to outsource the operation of city leisure centres.
Unions protested outside the meeting, claiming it could lead to redundancies and changes to hours and conditions. The publicly owned centres have attracted declining customer numbers amid stiff competition from the burgeoning private sector fitness industry.
Councillors supported the changes, which could see up to 300 leisure centre staff move to a new employer, by a margin of 10 to six.
The DUP's Gavin Robinson said the change was necessary to improve the running of leisure centres and underpin a £105 million refurbishment programme.
"A Belfast Leisure Trust will not only secure the jobs, basic terms and conditions and pensions of existing employees, but will be a good employer for anyone joining the trust in the future," he said.
"Sustaining the business is key to protecting existing jobs, providing career development opportunities and enabling the creation of new jobs and apprenticeships.
"Currently we have professional, passionate people watching on as customers take their business elsewhere due to poor facilities."
Sinn Fein opposed the change but if the votes fall in full council as they did in committee the shift will happen this autumn.
A 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, new efforts are required to raise 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 streamlining could deliver a better, more cost-effective service.
Research 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 £2 million 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."
Union chiefs have voiced opposition to transferring workers to a new employer, citing concern about potential redundancies and querying whether new staff hired by the trust 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 greater flexibility in jobs and working hours, reduction in overtime and the introduction of performance targets.