Friday, February 23, 2024

COUNCIL DELAYS SERCO DECISION TO NEXT SUMMER

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COUNCILLORS have put back a vote on privatising leisure centres across the Ards area by up to eight months.

Last week, Ards and North Down Council unanimously voted not to make any decision on Serco’s takeover bid until a planned strategy for the long-term future of leisure services across the whole borough is complete.

That was in the face of council chief executive Stephen Reid warning that the strategy won’t be ready until next summer.

But councillor Rachel Woods, who was behind the move to delay the decision, replied: “I don’t think we can have a full picture of where we’re at and where we want to be [without the strategy].

“If it takes to next year, it takes to next year.”

The council agreed to put together the strategy at a behind closed doors meeting in July – but just a few weeks in, work on it was paused when Serco put out feelers about taking over Ards leisure centres.

Serco already runs all council-owned leisure services across North Down through a secondary organisation it set up, the Northern Community Leisure Trust.

In August, the public services firm began moves that could see it take over Ards Blair Mayne Leisure Centre, Londonderry Park sports pitches, Comber Leisure Centre and Portaferry Sports Centre as well.

Council officials largely stopped work on the long-term strategy at that point, redirected to instead concentrate on the Serco bid, which was expected to come before councillors for a final decision at the end of November.

Last week, politicians were united in their desire to see the long-term strategy finished before Serco’s takeover is considered.

Their vote came in the wake of a huge protest outside Bangor City Hall, with local leisure services staff and unions objecting to the privatisation idea.

Senior council officials wanted last week’s debate and vote kept secret, arguing that it should be moved behind closed doors as it could involve matters to do with the local authority’s contracts.

Politicians broke with that view to hold it in public, though the chief executive repeatedly told councillors that if they wanted questions they raised answered, the public and press would have to be removed from the meeting and the rest of the debate held in secret.

Mr Reid and Mayor Jennifer Gilmour, chairing the meeting, also interrupted more than one councillor, warning them against ‘stepping over the line’ by giving too much information away in an open setting.

During the debate, councillors agreed that they wouldn’t have enough information on the full ramifications of Serco’s bid without the strategy in place.

“This is about time,” said Ms Woods. “Time to prepare, time to scrutinise, time for decision-making based on up to date information – because that’s what we need.

“We don’t have a leisure strategy; we don’t have consultation with leisure users, [there has been] no discussion on the ideal future. If we don’t know where we want to be, what is it we are hoping to do? What are we transforming into?

“I cannot support this overriding of decision-making because of timing – timing of an unsolicited letter in August, timing I find very odd.”

She was backed by SDLP councillor Joe Boyle, who stated that the council needs to ‘think carefully about the future of leisure provision in this borough’, as well as DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen, who commented: “It’s important we don’t end up acting in haste and repenting at leisure, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

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