Belfast Telegraph

Shankill swimming pool among Belfast leisure facilities facing possible closure, union warns

Council refutes claims that amenities at Shankill, Loughside, Balllysillan and Whiterock are under threat

By Sue Doherty

A number of public leisure amenities in Belfast are at risk of closure or reduced access, Unite trade union has warned.

Unite's regional officer, Michael Keenan, accused Belfast City Council of a "cost-cutting agenda" which is reducing local access, driving staff levels below what the union considers safe, and is threatening the future of a number of centres.

He said that the union has, over the last two years, fought plans to cut funding for Belfast leisure services by £2 million annually.

The cuts, he added, mean "attacks on workers’ pay, corner-cutting on health and safety, service reductions and more limited access to those coming from deprived parts of the city."

The cuts are also jeopardise the future of facilities at Loughside, Shankill, Whiterock and Ballysillan, he said.

The council's leisure centres and swimming pools are managed by Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL), which the council describes as "a charitable social enterprise" and the largest public leisure centre operator in UK.

The two organisations, Unite says, are currently carrying out a review of the city's leisure facilities. On Thursday, the union published what it claims are internal documents drawn up as part of that review.

The comments made about Loughside Leisure Centre are: "Discussions are underway with BCC in regards to the centre's medium to long term future and closure is a possible option but would be extremely political."

With regard to Shankill Leisure Centre, the document reads: "There are currently no plans for modernisation... A proposal has been tabled to BCC to introduce a Better Extreme/Play product into the centre removing the swimming pool and greatly reducing the staffing model".

There are also no modernisation plans for Whiterock Leisure Centre, according to the document. There have, however, been "tentative discussions with BCC to look at carrying out an asset transfer to the local community groups that use the centre".

At Ballysillan, there are no plans to modernise either, and GLL/BCC are "working with the TU [trade union] on a reduction in lifeguards hours based on pool programme review".

Mr Keenan commented: "The impact of existing staffing policies already in force in Avoniel and Ballysillan have been to reduce local access and to drive staffing levels below what we consider to be safe.

He added: "Unite is calling on Belfast City Council to do the right thing and return management to democratic control and accountability so as to guarantee long-term access to quality leisure services and decent conditions for workers.”

Council response

When asked to comment, a spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said: “To be clear - there are no plans for closure of Ballysillan, Shankill or Loughside leisure centres nor for any community asset transfer of Whiterock.

"Belfast City Council's politicians remain committed to the long term sustainability of an excellent leisure service provision."

Unite's claims were "unsubstantiated", she added. "As yet, no evidence has been provided to either Belfast City Council or GLL, despite our request to do so."

Noting that the council was addressing "the historic and unsustainable £8m subsidy to Belfast leisure services and improve the future leisure provision offering for residents", the spokeswoman said that the £2m savings "is being re-invested back by the council through an unprecedented £105 million programme into the physical development of new, exciting leisure centres, at no additional cost to the rate-payer."

She cited the  £21.75m Olympia Leisure Centre which opened last year and said that, since GLL came on board in 2015, "they have doubled the amount of children learning to swim and the number of leisure centre members – achieving the Council’s aim of getting more people, more active, more often.

“We would like to reassure customers and staff that the leisure centres remain in Council ownership and only our elected politicians can make decisions to change this.  Our councillors are very alert to the needs of the communities they represent," she concluded.

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