A SECOND protest has been scheduled to fight plans to outsource Ards leisure services by staff who are ‘genuinely panicked’ by the proposed changes. 

Staff, leisure users and even local sporting hero, Bethany Firth, attended an initial protest in Newtownards last Wednesday to register their fears of job losses and price hikes.

The action follows a petition which is swiftly gathering names of those opposed to a request from private operator, the Northern Community Leisure Trust (NCTL), to take over the running of leisure centres in Newtownards, Comber and Portaferry.

Staff and supporters are planning a second protest outside Bangor City Hall on November 29 when Ards and North Down councillors meet for their monthly meeting.

The NCLT has run council owned leisure centres and sports grounds in Bangor and Holywood for the past 10 years.

And if given the green light, the privatisation bid by NCTL and its managing agent Serco, would extend that to all council run facilities in Ards next year.

The petition calls for ‘our beloved local leisure centres’ to instead remain in the local council’s hands.

Staff members at Ards Blair Mayne Leisure Centre have been described as being ‘genuinely panicked, no shadow of a doubt’, by the feared changes that could result from this type of privatisation. 

Concern is high too, among school sports clubs, that the outsourcing could heavily impact them, including the local primary school football league which has been running for approximately 60 years.

A source said the school clubs were ‘struggling to deal with the prices that they have already’, stating that the price hike would be ‘massive for them’.

Fears are rife among adult football clubs that pitch booking fees will rise considerably within the Ards area, up to levels for facilities in Bangor and North Down. 

“The cost of booking a pitch at Aurora or Valentine Playing fields is about £140 while it’s about £80 for pitches at Londonderry Park, Portaferry and Ballywalter,” said the source.

“It’s the gym memberships too, that people are worried about.”

The source said the large turnout at last week’s protest was testament to the level of opposition to the plans. They said protesters had only 24 hours’ notice, yet the turnout was very considerable. 

The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, which has been supporting staff during the period of uncertainty, was asked for its views on the contentious issue but no one was available for comment.

Chris Kelly, leisure contract manager for the Northern Community Leisure Trust, which manages through Serco, said: “Due to the confidentiality of the process and the fact it is in the very early stages, the Trust/Serco Leisure would not be in a position to comment at this moment in time.”