ARE leisure centres across Ards about to be privatised?
That’s the question being asked after public services firm Serco submitted a bid to take over Ards Blair Mayne Leisure Centre, Londonderry Park sports pitches, Comber Leisure Centre and Portaferry Sports Centre.
Serco has run council-owned leisure centres and sports grounds in the North Down area for the past 10 years, and it’s understood the firm now wants to take over facilities across the rest of the borough as well.
The company has submitted what’s being described by officials as ‘an unsolicited bid’ for contracts to run Ards sports and leisure facilities that are currently under direct council control.
Serco’s move came up at a behind closed doors council meeting last week, during which politicians agreed to share information with the company so a full formal proposal can be filed.
Said a council spokeswoman: “It is important to note that, at present, the council has only agreed to the sharing of information with Serco.
“No proposal has yet been made and so no further detail or estimated timescales are available at this time.”
The bid comes after the council last year u-turned on an attempt to get rid of Serco, deciding to instead give the firm control of leisure centres in Bangor and Holywood for another five years.
Serco’s time in charge of North Down’s leisure facilities has occasionally proved controversial, such as criticism over the speed of repairs to Bangor Aurora Leisure Centre after it suffered storm damage.
This summer there was an outcry when children were banned from swimming in Aurora after 7pm, only for the people in charge to then relent and impose the ban from 8pm every night.
In summer 2020, some councillors lashed out at the firm after it refused to reopen Queens Leisure Complex in Holywood and a Bangor open-air pitch and putt course after initial Covid lockdown restrictions eased.
The company said it wouldn’t be economical to reopen either one under strict social distancing rules, infuriating locals who wanted to use them after months stuck indoors.
But despite owning the two facilities, due to its contracts the council was powerless to intervene and could not command Serco to get either one up and running again.
In 2021, politicians voted not to renew Serco’s 10-year contract in North Down, some citing concerns over that lack of power.
But late last year councillors u-turned on that decision, raising fears over the cost of bringing leisure centres back in-house amid rocketing fuel prices and runaway inflation.
Serco’s control of council-owned sports facilities in Bangor and Holywood was instead extended to run through to 2028.
Ards Blair Mayne infamously wound up hundreds of thousands of pounds in the red during its first full year in operation, the result of a massively underperforming attraction, construction issues and serious problems with anti-social behaviour.
That attraction has since closed, but anti-social behaviour continues to be an issue; last Christmas, for example, the entrance to the centre was so heavily vandalised that it had to be closed off and everyone coming into the centre was forced to use a side door until repairs could be carried out.
At the time a council spokeswoman complained that the ‘continued anti-social behaviour’ at Ards Blair Mayne is ‘eating into council resources and costing the ratepayer money’.