Protest held over possible privatisation of more council leisure centres in Ards and North Down

Protest in Bangor over possible privatisation of leisure facilities
Crowds gather outside Bangor Castle in protest of the possible privatisation of more leisure services in Ards and North Down. Credit: UTV

Swimmers, leisure centre staff, gym-class goers and trade unions from Ards, Comber and Portaferry have staged a protest over the possibility that their council run facilities will be outsourced to a private company.

No decision on the future of leisure services in the former Ards Borough Council area has been made, but Ards and North Down council is considering a proposal that would see facilities taken over by management company SERCO.

SERCO, along with its' delivery partner Northern Community Leisure Trust, already runs council sports facilities in Bangor and Holywood.

The council says that it has been a "successful and productive" relationship, with many hundreds of locals visiting the complexes each week.

However, protestors say that following suit in the rest of the borough could mean higher prices and lower quality services.

They gathered at Bangor Castle ahead of a council meeting.

A decision cannot be made until next month, when councillors are due to receive a report from an independent consultant, but the issue was to be mentioned during the sitting.

Curtis Coulter is the head coach of Ards Swim Team, and told UTV they expect costs to soar by £40,000 a year if the privatisation goes ahead.

"We're one of the biggest users of Ards Blair Mayne swimming pool, we are in there over 140 hours a week, occupying multiple lanes," he said.

"Our concern would be primarily costing for the survival of the swimming club."

He said the club already uses some lanes in the Bangor Aurora complex at times. This facility is privately run and costs them double to hire compared to the council run Ards pool.

"We pay for a 25m lane £16 per hour in the Aurora, compared to £8 in Ards leisure centre.

"So if that rate were to transfer over, we would be adding on over £40,000 to our hire cost," he said.

Annette works in Ards Blair Mayne Leisure Centre, and said there is a feeling of anxiety as they wait for a decision.

"We're scared we're going to lose our jobs, all the staff, everyone's absolutely devastated as it's a very worrying time for everybody.

"There's so much uncertainty and it's not good enough for us or our customers."

Mark Kernaghan is afraid he will be priced out of his weekly swimming slots.

Mark Kernaghan is 67. He swims four days a week in the Ards leisure centre, and said it is amazing for his wellbeing.

"If it goes private and the prices go up it could price me out of it," he said.

"It's reasonable at the minute but I just maybe wouldn't be able to afford it."

Reuben, 11, is a keen swimmer.

Reuben, 11, said he enjoys swimming thrice weekly and attended the protest proudly sporting his green Swim Team hoodie.

"I'm afraid of swimming being cancelled because of fees going up," he said, adding that it would mean his club would have to do a lot more fundraising to offset the higher costs.

Alan Perry works for the Union GMB. He spoke of the fear and anxiety among leisure staff.

A statement from Ards and North Down Borough Council said that no decision has been taken in relation to the management of leisure facilities in the former Ards Borough, but that whatever the chosen path for the future, they'd be committed to providing high quality facilities for health and well-being.

"In August 2023 the Council was approached by Northern Community Leisure Trust (NCLT), about extending its scope to include Council leisure services in the former Ards Borough area," a spokesperson said.

 "Elected Members agreed to engage in this process and it is anticipated that a report with options will be brought to full Council for consideration in November.

"To support the independence of the process, specialist business consultancy V4 have been engaged by the Council.

"V4 are providing support to the Council to ensure that the process is transparent and robust."

The council said that it understands there is much frustration over the uncertainty, but that queries regarding pricing, opening hours and staffing cannot be answered as a final, detailed proposal has not yet been seen.

It went on to say: "Whichever form of management is agreed moving forward, the Council remains committed to ensuring residents across the entire Borough have access to high quality leisure facilities and services that deliver better health and well-being benefits and enhance quality of life."

SERCO said they will not be issuing any comment at this time.

Meanwhile, we also contacted Belfast City Council and GLL Better Leisure about this story, as some protestors had alleged that outsourcing was not positive in Belfast.

Belfast City Council said that the partnership with the not-for-profit Better Leisure has been a success though, as demonstrated "by substantial increases in visitors" since GLL started operating on their behalf in 2015.

"Since then, overall leisure centre memberships have increased by 500% to approximately 35,000 members, while swimming lesson participation has increased by 300%," a statement said.

It added that GLL’s performance is monitored via six monthly reports to the council’s People and Communities Committee.

GLL said their operating model saved Belfast City Council whilst boosting service user numbers.

“As a not-for-profit organisation, we invest our profits back into the communities of Belfast and are now delivering over £20 million in social value to the city each year, which is spent through our community initiatives.

"These include support for gifted young athletes with their training, our Healthwise programme for those with health conditions, and programmes for vulnerable groups, those living on a lower income, and the elderly.

"Overall, our agreement in Belfast has secured an annual cost saving of 25% in comparison to Belfast City Council’s previous operating model and, with our growth in membership, is improving health outcomes across the city year-on-year.”

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