Trust us on leisure centres says council

RUN BY A TRUST? ... Temple Park Centre in South Shields.
RUN BY A TRUST? ... Temple Park Centre in South Shields.

COUNCIL bosses are considering a cultural revolution that could see South Tyneside’s leisure centres run by a charitable trust.

The Temple Park Centre, South Shields, Hebburn Pool and Jarrow’s Monkton Stadium – along with the £15m Pier Parade development in South Shields, due to open next spring – are all involved in the radical plan.

The move could also affect libraries, tourism, The Customs House, South Shields Museum and Bede’s World – all of which get South Tyneside Council cash.

With the authority needing to make £35m savings in the next year, setting up a charitable trust to run leisure services is being examined as a way of cutting the current £11.53m leisure budget.

The proposal involves 220 staff jobs – not including museum, Bede’s World and Customs House workers – and union bosses are closely monitoring the plan, saying they would prefer the services to remain “in house”.

The cost of a trust is estimated at £100,000 but savings made have not yet been identified. That would depend on the facilities included.

The creation of a trust would save money, as they get relief from non-domestic rates and partial exemption from paying VAT.

More than 100 local councils in the country have set up sport and leisure trusts to cut costs.

As part of its investigations, officials from South Tyneside have visited Stockport, Rochdale and Wigan to see how trust-run leisure facilities operate.

These were carried out with officials from North Tyneside, which, along with Sunderland, is also named as a potential partner if South Tyneside opted to run the services with another local authority.

The report says the business case for putting leisure facilities in a trust is more compelling than other services.

Libraries, for example, generate no income, but the report says: “Other trusts have demonstrated how they have started with leisure and added other activities, as the trust becomes established.”

It goes on to warn that, “it is critical that specialist advice is sought on taxation and legal issues, as a number of trusts have failed as the result of not carrying out sufficient due diligence at the start of the process.”

Other options under investigation include entering into a public/private partnership, outsourcing services to the private sector, or running them in partnership with a neighbouring authority.

Tracey Dixon, the council’s lead member for culture and wellbeing, said any change adopted would need to be “beneficial to residents in South Tyneside”.

She added: “This is very much at an exploratory stage. We will look to see how each option would work, if they would work and, most importantly, how we can best serve the people in the borough.”

Merv Butler, branch secretary of Unison South Tyneside, said: “We maintain services are best run in-house by our dedicated and skilled staff, but we recognise the council is in a desperate financial situation.

“If they want to explore alternatives that will safeguard jobs, we are clearly willing to do that.”

The issue will be discussed on Friday at a meeting of South Tyneside Council’s select committee on jobs and enterprise.

A report to the committee says: “Putting leisure facilities within a trust, where there is potential to generate increased income levels, is compelling.”

Friday’s meeting is at 1.30pm in South Shields Town Hall.