Fight against privatisation after ‘confidential’ meeting on future of new £35m leisure centre

Unions have united to protest at any attempt to privatise leisure services in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon area
Unions have united to protest at any attempt to privatise leisure services in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon area

A private company may be set up by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council to manage the new £35m South Lakes Leisure Centre.

At an ABC Leisure Committee meeting this week, councillors voted to set up a ‘CoCo’ or Council Company to manage the new centre which is due to open next year.

This has caused fury among leisure staff and unions as well as some councillors who fear this is the start of privatising leisure services across the borough.

It’s understood Sinn Fein and the SDLP as well as Independent Cllr Paul Berry voted to keep leisure services in-house while the DUP and Ulster Unionists voted for the setting up of a ‘CoCo’.

The matter was discussed in ‘Confidential Business’ and it is feared that when it comes before the main council for ratification later this month, it will also be behind closed doors.

Trade union Unite has forged links with other unions such as GMB and NIPSA to fight any privatisation of leisure services in the ABC Council area saying their experience of ’outsourcing’ has been ‘higher prices and reduced staffing’.

They have vowed to make retaining in-house management of leisure services a focal point of the forthcoming elections.

They have also started an online petition to keep the management of all the leisure facilities in-house fearing that a ‘CoCo’ option could lead to the privatisation of a £35m leisure centre paid for by the rate payer.

In a statement Unite said: “Workers at leisure centres operated by the ABC Council learnt with dismay of the decision by the council’s Leisure sub-committee to vote in favour of establishing a CoCo model allowing the outsourcing of the local authority’s leisure services.”

Speaking on behalf of his union’s members in the council, Gareth Scott, Regional Officer for Unite, challenged the benefit that outsourcing would offer and pledged the unions would back their members’ campaign to keep leisure services in-house.

“Unite the union workplace reps have sought to engage positively with ABC council management in the process of replacing three existing leisure centres – in Craigavon, Lurgan and Portadown – with a single one in Craigavon. Workers have raised a range of revenue-raising proposals including new activities and courses for the new facility. Monday night’s decision saw members of the Ulster Unionist Party joined with the Democratic Unionist Party in voting against the unions’ preferred option which to keep leisure services in-house.

“Leisure workers and the wider council workforce are indignant at the likely consequences of this decision – should it be ratified at the next full council meeting.

“Unite is committed to overturn this decision. No councillor in ABC council ever stood or was elected on a platform to outsource leisure services; there is no democratic mandate for this decision.”

“ABC Council workers and Unite the union will seek to make the issue of outsourcing front and centre of the upcoming local elections in Craigavon, Lurgan and Portadown in the coming weeks,” Mr Scott said.

When ABC Council was asked to comment, their response was: “The business of the meeting was confidential so we would not be in a position to comment.”