Belfast Telegraph

Union contests council plan for shaving £2m off leisure centres

By Rebecca Black

Leisure centres in Belfast would be best managed in-house, a new report has found.

Belfast City Council gave trades unions six weeks to come up with an alternative to its favoured choice of setting up a not-for-profit trust to manage its leisure centres.

The council must find savings of £2m in its delivery of leisure services by March 2016.

A Deloitte report commissioned by the council identified the trust model as the only one capable of delivering the savings needed.

The DUP's Gavin Robinson said the change was necessary to improve the running of leisure centres and underpin a £105m refurbishment programme.

Now a report by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) commissioned by Unite has challenged this.

The Belfast Telegraph has seen a copy of the APSE report -- Belfast Leisure In-House Transformation Option -- which is due to be presented to the council today.

It identifies a range of measures which will produce net operating costs savings of more than £2.2m per annum -- which includes the possible closure of Loughside Leisure Centre.

While APSE said it broadly agreed with the content of the Deloitte report, it challenged the finding that an in-house management model would not be able to deliver the same level of savings as the trust model.

"The assumption made on staff savings was based on detailed work done at Andersonstown Leisure Centre, which is in fact not representative of the whole of the service," the APSE report found.

"If the in-house option is able to make timely decisions and manage the service without referring back to central services, ie the governance is improved, there is no real reason why the in-house service should not realise the level of savings required."

The report also found that the savings identified by the study under the 'in-house transformation model' exceed the target set for savings by Belfast City Council in July 2013 and, as such, there is no justification for transferring leisure services out of public sector management.

It proposes reducing opening hours at some leisure centres and using part-time staff to cover for sickness and holidays.

And it has proposed that the feasibility of Loughside, where income in 2012-13 was just £19,815 against expenditure of £195,599, be looked at.

Unite regional secretary Jimmy Kelly welcomed the findings of the report.

He said that outsourcing the management of leisure services in Belfast would threaten the quality of provision for the centres' customers.

"The trade unions and our memberships have indicated our willingness to work with Belfast City Council management to deliver leisure services more efficiently," he said.

"The APSE report confirms that an 'in-house transformation' option, retaining the leisure centres under public ownership and management, provides the best way forward for leisure services.

"Any move to outsource or transfer management for leisure services will threaten the quality of leisure provision, resulting in changes to opening hours and user charges that would impact users, in particular the most vulnerable.

"Unite is totally opposed to any move to outsource management and delivery of leisure centres by Belfast City Council."

Belfast City Council has responsibility for 10 leisure centres which employ 300 staff.

BACKGROUND

Trades unions staged protests outside Belfast City Hall last month while councillors voted in favour of transferring the management of its 10 leisure centres to a not-for-profit trust.

Unions 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.

At the March meeting of the full council, the unions were allowed £10,000 and six weeks to come up with an alternative model that would deliver the same savings.

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