Union anger over £120million plans for private firm to run Sunderland leisure services

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UNION bosses have slammed Sunderland City Council chiefs over a decision to put all their leisure services out to tender.

The authority has asked for parties interested in running everything from the city’s Aquatic Centre to leisure centres and swimming pools.

The winner of the indefinite contract is estimated to be worth between £50million and £120million in its first 10 years.

Now, Unison has expressed “huge disappointment” with the move.

The organisation claims there was a lack of trade union consultation and involvement in the early stages of the decision to bring private firms into the city’s leisure services.

Bosses claim the authority has not taken the opportunity to fully explore suggested options to keep leisure services under council control.

The winner of the indefinite contract will be expected to form a joint venture company with the city council.

Helen Metcalf, Unison regional organiser, said: “Before any move towards a 50-50 joint venture is considered with any external provider, the council should undertake a full consultation process to determine if the people of Sunderland want to see their leisure facilities run by private enterprise.

“It is lamentable that the local authority is only considering private enterprise above public sector control.

“It is even rumoured that the authority is considering financing improvements to the existing leisure facilities to attract private ownership.

“The cost for this will inevitably be borne by the taxpayers of Sunderland, while the profits generated go into the pockets of private shareholders.”

She added: “In light of the Olympic legacy promised by the Coalition Government, Unison considers that this flies in the face of ensuring high-quality leisure facilities remain available and affordable to people of Sunderland.

“We are concerned that the authority gives no guarantee of any subsidy continuing; this will effectively bar families and the elderly on lower incomes from being able to use the city’s leisure facilities.”

Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson defends the plans:

“The city council is seeking a partner to establish a joint company to run sports and leisure facilities in the city.

“This will help us achieve the savings we need to make at the same time as protecting and keeping leisure services and getting more people involved in physical activity, sport and leisure.

“This is not new, it’s been done in the past and has proven to be a successful formula.

“There are companies out there that have evolved from the public sector and have a public sector ethos which would be the type of company we would look to do business with.

“A reduction in council budgets of more than £100million in the last three years and the need for similar reductions over the next three means the council is reviewing services and exploring options.

“Our on-going commitment to sport and leisure is demonstrated by the fact that in the last ten years alone, together with partners we have invested more than £60million in sport and leisure facilities. This level of investment is unprecedented outside of London. “This continues with the building of an £11million replacement Washington Leisure Centre and this search for a new partner to help protect sports and leisure facilities and increase the number of people using them.

“The sport and leisure industry is one of the most competitive out there.

“The belief that we can assure the future of the city’s leisure and sporting assets through careful management is understandable but very high-risk given the commercial world we are now in.

“However with a different approach we can be more positive about the future for sport and leisure in Sunderland.

“We have a strong track record of talking to the unions about proposed changes.

“We have been talking with UNISON and the other trade unions about the future for sport and leisure and will continue to do so.”