So Belfast City Council’s “outsourcing” (I love the Orwellian newspeak of this phrase) of its leisure facilities has been in the pipeline for quite a while, but the official hand over of our leisure centres to Greenwich Leisure Ltd (a ..err… “charitable social enterprise for all the community”) happens on 1st January. BBC today is running a story on sixty staff losing their jobs* and from what our local leisure staff have been telling me over the last few months, prices are also set to spike, notwithstanding GLL’s commitment to “delivering five-star services at three-star prices”.
To be fair, local Leisure Centre prices were not exactly on the cheap side. Fine if you qualified for the half price Boost membership, but pricy enough otherwise and no family passes on offer. However, having a swimming pool, gym, sauna, exercise classes etc. that you could pay per use whenever you felt like going, ten minutes walk from the house was pretty decent.
When you actually read the BBC story, though, it’s not so much that 60 people have been let go – which would be bad enough – but that it’s all but 60 of the existing leisure centre staff have taken voluntary redundancy after union negotiations. And it’s not a great climate to be out looking for a job. [See footnote for reason for amendment]
Belfast leisure centres have, in addition to sport and leisure facilities, been providing community services such as swimming lessons for kids with Autism, holiday schemes and tailored fitness sessions for people with health conditions.
Prices are set to be reviewed over the next nine months and the move will allegedly save Belfast City Council £2m a year…but meanwhile the Council is taking out a £105m loan (from where? on whose authorisation?) to refurbish the leisure centres it will no longer be running. If I’m not mistaken, something similar has happened at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. Back in 2012, Slugger’s very own Alan in Belfast reported that Belfast City Council was planning to do this, i.e. spend £20m (in conjunction with NITB / European Regional Development Fund) on an extension to the Waterfront Hall, getting rid of the studio space that was being used by community theatre groups. Plans subsequently changed. Now the extension is going ahead next year, but at a cost of £30m rather than £20m. The studio space is staying. Discussions are ongoing as to who will operate / profit from the newly expanded / refurbished Waterfront Hall. As recently as November 2014, Belfast City Council minutes were published, suggesting various options for who should operate the Waterfront once renovations are complete. These options include:
“Belfast City Council will fully test a range of operating options for the project to ensure the operating model deployed gives the greatest return to the economy in line with the targets outlined within the approved business case. These options are to include (but not limited to):
i) The review and potential enhancement of the current status quo operating model
ii) Outsourcing the operation to an established private sector operator
iii) The creation of an arms length company/non profit distributing organisation wholly owned by Belfast City Council (NDPO/Mutual Company)”
So, the eventual business model for the Waterfront appears to still be undecided. What is confirmed is £30m is being pumped into it from public money and there is no guarantee that the public stand to benefit much from an arrangement in what a private sector operator takes it over once the refurb / extension is complete.
Which sounds a little like £105m being spent on Leisure Centres which are now run by GLL, funded by a loan that Belfast City Council is taking out.
It will be interesting / potentially disheartening / predictable to see how it all plays out.It will be interesting / potentially disheartening / predictable to see how it all plays out.
Editors note: The BBC have amended their original report to point out that the 60 employees received voluntary redundancy and that 250 leisure centre staff will be retained by GLL when they take over next month.