There was cross-party approval as councillors voted unanimously on 3 May to award the contract for managing four Derbyshire Dales leisure centres to a not-for-profit leisure trust.
Freedom Leisure, which manages leisure and cultural facilities on behalf of partners across the UK, will take over operational control of the centres in Ashbourne, Bakewell, Matlock and Wirksworth on 1 August for 10 years, with a five year extension option.
A three-month transfer period starts on 16 May to embed an agreement that sees Derbyshire Dales District Council continue to retain ownership of the leisure centre buildings.
A special meeting of the District Council, which can be viewed again the District Council’s YouTube channel, heard that Freedom Leisure wants to implement a number of innovative and capital investment opportunities at all four sites that will add value, increase participation, reduce inactivity and improve the financial position for the council.
District Council Leader Councillor Lewis Rose OBE told the meeting:
"This is a very big decision for the council. The housing stock transfer was probably the last time we transferred a whole service to another provider, and our officers have done an excellent job here. It's not just about saving money however. What is absolutely clear is that we are going to be able to provide for the residents of the Derbyshire Dales a better service.
"Freedom Leisure is geared to provide a much better service than we can ourselves, so we are joining forces with an organisation that has a much broader approach, more resources and is generally in the business of operating leisure centres, so it's a win-win situation. The proposal has been tested and a lot of work has gone into it.
“It's a really exciting prospect for residents of the Dales and I'm delighted to move the recommendation - and in so doing I want to express the thanks of the council to the officers who have worked on this project for so many years."
Deputy Leader Councillor Albert Catt said:
“When we started on this journey we all had quite a lot of negative thoughts and concerns, but here we are with one of the most positive reports that has come before this council.
“We had concerns that we might lose the social aspect of the way our leisure centres are run, but we have found an organisation with a track record of working with the community. Every single one of the concerns we put forward as Members has been addressed, and moreso.
"We were concerned about staff and I think it's fair to say they are apprehensive because this is a huge change for them. Their concern is understandable, but Freedom Leisure will see the staff as probably the biggest asset they are taking over, because they are not taking over ownership of the buildings. So staff will probably have a better chance to progress in their careers because Freedom has the resources to invest in them.
"We were looking to make savings of £4m over 10 years and our officers have come back with £5.1m and that is fantastic when you consider all the add-ons that have also been achieved. I am really proud that the council is moving forward with Freedom Leisure in this partnership."
A report to the meeting stated that in addition to taking over ongoing operation and maintenance costs, Freedom Leisure would invest around £1m to enhance the District Council’s facilities, ensuring that Arc Leisure Matlock, Ashbourne Leisure Centre, Bakewell Swimming Pool and Wirksworth Leisure Centre meet changing industry trends and reflect local demographics and customer expectations.
The meeting heard that the development of staff and improved customer experience had featured strongly throughout the bid, as had the introduction of customer interactive technology that is not currently in place.
There was support for the proposal from across the political spectrum, and Labour group leader Councillor Mike Ratcliffe said:
“Initially my political conscience rather baulked at any suggestion that we were going to relinquish control from what has been regarded as a local authority service.
“The cynic in me wants to say a cautious welcome because it is the outcomes that will prove the point and I'm sure the realisation of what has the potential to be one of the best contracts this authority has ever negotiated. The benefits are wide ranging from increasing staff to enhancement of the service, facilities and income."
Capital investments will include:
- Improvements to Health and Fitness equipment across all sites
- Improvements to the Indoor Cycling Studio at Ashbourne Leisure Centre
- Installation of clip and climb type ‘auto belay’ system at Wirksworth Leisure Centre’s climbing wall
- Refurbishment of changing facilities at Bakewell Swimming Pool
- Introduction of new technology to improve the customer experience
- Creation of ‘grab and go’ café at Ashbourne Leisure Centre
To achieve annual revenue savings of more than £5m over the life of the contract - £1.1m more than the target set when the process started - the District Council is investing an initial capital sum of around £1.2m to facilitate new developments.
The contract protects areas such as school swimming lessons, pitch bookings at Wirksworth and the use of the leisure centres for elections, Ashbourne Shrovetide and civil emergencies.
The specification document – drawn up following several months of consultation with leisure centre users and staff also sets out recommended pricing policies and the position of existing club and user group bookings.
Four bidders, including Freedom Leisure, originally took part in a thorough procurement process.
Ashbourne Leisure Centre, Bakewell Swimming Pool, Arc Leisure Matlock and Wirksworth Leisure Centre currently are subsidised by local Council Tax payers to the tune of around £1.3-million a year.
- Here's the report [PDF 390KB] to the 3 May meeting