Councillors will not turn back on plans to outsource leisure centre management despite receiving the “largest ever” petition opposing the change.
Warwick District Council held a special meeting on Wednesday to receive 2,300 signatures against plans for a private company to manage Newbold Comyn, Abbey Fields and St Nicholas Park leisure centres from 2017.
This is a discretionary service and the council is facing unprecedented funding pressure. We need to ensure we can provide these services in the future by selecting the best model for our customersSue Gallagher
Despite pleas from users and councillors to keep the service in-house, the executive voted unanimously to accept the petition and continue as planned.
Council leader Cllr Andrew Mobbs (Con) said all concerns over staffing and users wold be addressed in the lease agreement and that time slots for vulnerable users such as Leamington Dolphins disability group will be secured.
He said: “We have been working on this for two years and it is still not complete, that is the level of diligence we are showing to this contract because we want to get it right.”
The current draft proposal sets out which services must be retained for the first 12 months, after which most decisions could be up to managers who must report back to a council working party.
Cllr Sue Gallagher (Con), portfolio holder for leisure, said: “This is a discretionary service and the council is facing unprecedented funding pressure. We need to ensure we can provide these services in the future by selecting the best model for our customers.”
Members of the executive and officers repeated that having a private company to manage centres and take eventual control of pricing and activity, was not a privatisation, and that many council centres are run in a similar way with no negative impact.
Backing outsourcing as the best option, officers said: “The in-house bid was looked at along with many others, but it was found that bringing in an external partner will exceed targets and bring in additional marketing and expertise.
“These companies pay good wages and have good competitive staff recruitment. They can bring things in such as staff training and promotions that we could not.”
Work on profit sharing is ongoing amid the draft lease agreement being finalised.
But expressing disappointment at the vote, Cllr Jane Knight (Lab) said if promises were not kept, the council will have “let everybody down”.
She said: “This is not privatisation, no, but people see it as that and that is a barrier.”
Campaigner, Ben Wesson, who presented the petition with an impassioned plea, said: “This is the biggest electronic petition the council has ever received. What is disgusting is the utter contempt the council has demonstrated towards the public with its lack of consultation with them.”
Cllr John Barrott (Lab)said there was general understanding that the decision to outsource would be taken by full council rather than the executive - but was told this was never possible due to council regulations.
Speaking of the council’s “poor reputation” in outsourcing services, Cllr Kristie Naimo (Lab) urged members to at least ensure the final lease agreement retained more control over pricing, user groups and staff in the “forgone conclusion” decision.
The council will now begin seeking an external partner.