Lib Dems prepare to challenge Harrogate council over plan to overhaul leisure centres

Harrogate and Knaresborough's Liberal Democrats are preparing to challenge the council over its contentious plan to hand over management of its 11 leisure centres to an authority-controlled company.

By Jacob Webster
Wednesday, 1st July 2020, 3:42 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st July 2020, 3:48 pm

A virtual meeting will be held next Wednesday when the proposal to rebrand venues and transfer key decision making powers to a select few council leaders and managers will be up for debate.

The council's Conservative cabinet members have already given their approval to the plan which they hailed as a "new vision for the future" and said will save around £400,000 a year in business rates relief and VAT benefits.

But Coun Pat Marsh, leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council, has expressed concerns that the plan could fail residents and has set out a series of "cast-iron guarantees" which she says must be met before the plan is given a final go-ahead.

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Coun Pat Marsh, leader of Harrogate's Lib Dems, said the leisure plan "has a lot of merits" but added "there is also potential for it to go wrong".

"The Conservative government has put huge pressure on local councils’ finances and they’re severely limited in what they are able to do, so it’s understandable that where opportunities to save money and offer a better service are available, they should be explored fully", she said.

"As a concept, this has a lot of merits, but there is also potential for it to go wrong and residents have already expressed many of these concerns in the consultation.

"We’ve identified what we believe could be some of the biggest issues and have asked for reassurances."

Harrogate and Knaresborough's Labour Party has also dived into the debate, echoing concerns from union officials over the council's 400 leisure workers who would be transferred across to the new company.

A spokesman for the Labour Party said: "The council say the staff are loyal, hard-working and deliver a fantastic service. So why are they kicking them out of council employment and transferring them to a new private company?"

The council has insisted its workers' employment conditions would be protected under the proposed transfer - but David Houlgate, branch secretary at Unison Harrogate, said "it’s what happens thereafter" that is the issue.

Mr Houlgate has also launched fresh criticism at the council for the way it handled a public consultation on the plan, to which just under half of the respondents said it is a bad idea.

He said: "It’s a bit of a cliché but the consultation would appear to have been a tick box exercise and pretty meaningless because the decision seems to have already been taken in December last year. It was telling though that only 433 people responded so that says everything about how well publicised it was.

"And of course there was no real support for the proposal in the responses, even though, in our view, the wording in the consultation was strongly biased in order to influence the desired outcome.

"It certainly didn’t provide residents with sufficient information on the pros and cons."

As part of the plan, the council would spend £300,000 on company start-up costs.

It is also looking to borrow £23million of government cash to upgrade leisure centres. This includes a new swimming pool and gym for Knaresborough and a revamp of Harrogate Hydro.

The Conservative's Stanley Lumley, cabinet member for culture, tourism and Sport, previously said of the plan: "It is an exciting venture and vision for the future of our service at Harrogate Borough Council.

"This is clearly going to be a benefit to all and that includes the staff working for the new company, as well as the residents."

The demands which Liberal Democrat leader Coun Pat Marsh has set out include:

- The company board must be fully transparent and accountable, with major decisions being made by Full Council

- Prices must be affordable, with an introduction of concessionary rates to allow less well-off people to easily access the services

- Profits must be invested back into leisure services, not using leisure services as a cash cow to offset costs elsewhere

- Current services must be protected, especially Starbeck Baths

- Knaresborough Pool should be built on the current site, while not affecting service offered by the current building

- The service must be brought back in-house if the company gets into financial trouble

- Current workers must be protected and new staff must have the same pay and conditions

By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter

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