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Councillor Questions the Future Provision of the Borough’s Leisure Facilities

Published on: 12 Nov, 2021
Updated on: 12 Nov, 2021

Guildford Spectrum in Stoke Park

By Emily Coady Stemp

local democracy reporter

A Labour councillor is questioning the future provision of leisure services in Guildford following the latest annual report on GBC’s contract with Freedom Leisure, the company which manages three of the major leisure facilities in the borough.

Cllr James Walsh

James Walsh, a borough councillor for Stoke, said today (November 12): “Although there is a two-year extension to Freedom Leisure’s 10-year contract, we will soon have the opportunity to look at getting the best deal for our residents.

“I understand that there will be a range of options for how the Spectrum, Lido and Ash Manor could be run and I have requested that these are considered before a decision is made.”

“Our facilities clearly need greater investment and I’m not sure that the current arrangement is the best way of making sure that happens.”

His comment comes in the wake of debate on the annual report at GBC’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee, which met on Tuesday (November 9). Cllr Walsh is its vice-chair.

The committee acknowledged that the 2020-21 annual report accounted for only 16 weeks of trading due to lockdowns and restrictions.

Freedom Leisure runs facilities at Guildford Spectrum, Guildford Lido and Ash Manor Sports Centre as part of a ten-year deal that is now coming to an end.

During the pandemic, many costs have been waived for Freedom Leisure, including the management fee of just under £1.2 million a year which Freedom Leisure would normally pay the council, and business rates relief to almost £150,000.

As well as using the government furlough scheme, the borough council has provided, so far, Covid support funding to Freedom Leisure of just over £2.6 million.

The company also successfully applied for just over £267,000 in National Leisure Recovery Funding from central government.

Jonathan Sewell, head of Culture, Heritage and Leisure at Guildford Borough Council, said the council was exploring options for how to run leisure facilities in the borough in the future, but that the current contract was in the process of being extended for a further two years.

He said at the end of this time the market should be in a better place with the sector recovering and he hoped that the pandemic would be behind us.

Options available for running leisure facilities included working with Waverley Borough Council – the two authorities now share a joint chief executive – operation by a wholly-owned council company or bringing the service in house, though he admitted this did not seem likely.

The council’s ten-year leisure partnership with Greenwich Leisure Ltd began in November 2011. Greenwich Leisure Ltd subcontracted the service to Freedom Leisure. Both companies are not-for-profit organisations.

During the meeting, Cllr Walsh highlighted a line in the annual report which said: “In the opinion of the client team, the operation of the venues has been broadly within the acceptable parameters of the contract,” saying it was hardly a glowing endorsement of how the contract had been run.

Mr Sewell said: “I think we ran it better if I am really honest but I am biased.

“I think for a day to day operation the venues are quite well run. The issue is with asset management and available funding to invest in different venues.”

He said the structure of the arrangements was such that it encouraged the private sector – including not-for-profits – to put in their best possible bid but then not have the resources to maintain the facilities.

He added: “They are driven by competing on the marketplace to win the tender to put in their best possible offer and then it puts strain on the amount of money available for reinvestment into the facility.”

Officers said a report will be due at the end of November into future options, but warned councillors it will be high-level rather than detailed.

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