Leisure services are to remain in-house at Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council, after a long, secret meeting last night at Craigavon Civic Centre.
Councillors faced a struggle to hear each other over the loud sirens, horns, chanting, whistling and banging on windows as protesters against the building of the new Southern Regional College made their presence felt.
Up to 200 protesters were around the Civic Centre, most from the unions, GMB, Unite and NIPSA who quietly protested at the front of the building.
During the more raucous demonstrations outside the chamber, some councillors felt staff were at risk of a window coming in and they were asked to move for their own safety.
One councillor said the police should be called and another Cllr Arnold Hatch suggested the flashing lights, which demonstrators were using against the window, could trigger elipespy in sufferers.
Many councillors expressed ‘disgust’ and ‘shock’ that information from a prior leisure services committee meeting had been leaked to the Lurgan Mail.
It had been revealed that a vote supporting an option to create a council-owned company (Co-Co) had split the leisure services committee with the DUP and Ulster Unionists’ majority vote swinging in favour of the Co-Co.
Unions representing staff at council facilities were in uproar and lobbied council intensely since that meeting several weeks ago to have the service remain in-house.
However at last night’s full council meeting, it was decided to reverse the Leisure Services Committee option and keep the leisure services management in-house.
After going into ‘Confidential Business’ the Council spent several hours without journalists discussing the matter and issued a statement following the meeting.
Later an ABC Council statement revealed councillors had unanimously agreed to transform leisure services in-house.
The statement said: “With the brand new £35m South Lake Leisure Centre construction due to complete on schedule in summer 2020, elected representatives reviewed a number of options on how the new facility would be managed.
“This review was undertaken to ensure that ABC Council’s largest capital investment project undertaken to date would be placed within the most appropriate structures to ensure its long-term sustainability, provide full value for money for ratepayers and maximise the potential of this flagship public resource.
“The options included in-house transformation, creating a Council-owned company fully answerable to elected representatives and ratepayers, or appointing an established leisure operator to run the facility.
“It was agreed that Council would continue deliver leisure services directly by owning, operating and maintaining the assets, and employing all staff.
“Under the plan agreed, Council will be fully responsible for the efficient operation and growth of the exciting new development and in its future.”
There was jubilation among workers in Unite, GMB and NIPSA late last night as they heard reports that ABC councillors voted to overturn a previous recommendation to outsource the new Craigavon Leisure centre.
Gareth Scott, Regional Officer for Unite welcomed the decision by councillors and thanked those parties and individuals who had supported the in-house delivery model from the start.
“All three workforce unions, Unite, GMB and NIPSA, at ABC council came together to build an unstoppable campaign to demand the new Craigavon Lakes leisure centre remain under council management and not be outsourced to a private or CoCo management company.
“The experience in other parts of NI where leisure services have been outsourced has been uniformly bad.
“This represents a convincing victory for the workforce who mobilised against this decision and the huge numbers in the local community who raised concerns. Unite would like to thank those parties and individual councillors who from the start supported the in-house model but we also welcome the fact that one of the two parties who had previously voted for outsourcing decided to reverse that stance and act in the best interests of everyone concerned.
“This vote will ensure that the new leisure centre will operate in-house for its first year of operation. All unions must remain focussed on ensuring that there is no backtracking on this commitment and that the new leisure centre remains under council management thereafter. Our local public services must remain fully democratically-accountable; there should be no diminution of either the status of workers or decisions that put generating surpluses above the needs of service users.
“This is a victory for common-sense delivered thanks to all our members and shop stewards and those of our partner unions, the GMB and NIPSA,” Mr Scott concluded.
Sinn Féin Councillor Catherine Nelson said: “We have been engaging extensively with the unions, leisure staff, council officers and other parties.
“Despite Unionist support to out source the centre at committee level a few weeks ago we are delighted that after much negotiation the in-house working model enjoyed full party support.
“This was a vote of confidence in our extremely capable and talented leisure staff.
“We look forward to working with them to ensure the delivery of the high quality facility our ratepayers deserve.”
Independent Cllr Paul Berry said he is delighted with decision
“Following many weeks of discussions around the new operating model for this new state-of-the-art leisure centre I am delighted that the right decision has been made to keep the services In-House with a review in one year of it opening its doors.
“Whilst I appreciate it was on legal grounds that the Option 2 could not be voted on, as it did not have the 80% support in the Chamber, this outcome is most welcome for our fantastic staff.
“From day one I was supportive of keeping it In-House because I believe in our staff and have every confidence in them working with us all to ensure we have a first class facility for our rate payers. I know many of our staff and they are professional, innovative and passionate about their jobs and it’s vital we support them and ensure certainty in thier employment.
“Could I commend the Unions for their work. I always had productive meetings with them throughout this process and I know they are keen to move forward and help deliver the Transfomation with us for the benefit of all.”