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Wednesday, 03 June 2015

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Tynedale: Assurances sought over leisure facility changes

CHANGES to the management of Tynedale’s premier leisure facilities is all about cost cutting at Northumberland County Council.

That’s the view of Tory group leader Coun. Peter Jackson, who says local councillors haven’t had a say over changes to the way Hexham’s Wentworth Leisure Centre and Prudhoe Waterworld are run.

Now Coun. Jackson and other members of the county council’s west area committee have called for assurances that standards won’t drop.

The Courant revealed last month that Hexham-based North Country Leisure, which developed and ran the leisure centres for decades, was being superseded by a new county-wide organisation.

Active Northumberland – made up of staff from North Country Leisure, Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure, Sport Northumberland and the county council – is now running the county’s leisure facilities.

At the latest west area committee meeting, Coun. Jackson, of Ponteland South with Heddon, said the scheme was all about efforts to trim the council’s budget.

“This is the first time that we have had a say on these changes, which have been made at a higher level, at County Hall,” he said. “These leisure facilities are important to communities and we have had no say in this whatsoever. This is all about saving money.”

Coun. Jackson expressed fears that the county council would dramatically reduce the subsidy it paid towards leisure over the next two years.

He added: “The subsidy towards leisure across the county is £3m per year. That is to be reduced to zero in two years’ time. The only way you can do that is to make a profit out of some centres to subsidise those which make a loss.”

Prudhoe South’s Coun. Tony Reid called for uniformity of charges for leisure facilities across the county, while Coun. Eileen Burt, of Prudhoe North, stressed that all parts of the county must be represented on the board of the new organisation.

Coun. Anne Dale, of Stocksfield and Broomhaugh, said: “We have two outstanding centres at Wentworth and Waterworld. Can we have assurances that there will be no drop in standards?”

Fielding the questions was chief executive of Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure, Bruce Ledger, who has been appointed to head up the new organisation.

Mr Ledger said he had not been set any targets in terms of budget savings, and that the county was not working towards a “zero-subsidy” situation in terms of leisure provision.

However, he admitted, ways of reducing costs had been explored.

He said: “The idea behind these new arrangements is to put everything in one place. One organisation can drive out inefficiencies, and there is a support network within one organisation.

“I do not see any of the facilities we manage diminishing in quality. Certainly, in terms of investment and delivery of service, we are looking to enhance the service.

“Yes, we will be a big player; we will have one voice. We will be unique in that we will not have a fragmented leisure offer.”

Mr Ledger said he hoped funding could be ring-fenced for health-related activities in the county.