Warnings over leisure shake-up plan

TRUST STATUS ... the Temple Park Centre in South Shields.
TRUST STATUS ... the Temple Park Centre in South Shields.

RADICAL plans to create a charitable trust to run leisure facilities in South Tyneside should be approached with caution, councillors have warned.

Members of the council’s jobs and enterprise committee have paid fact-finding visits to Peterborough and Stockton to see examples of leisure trusts in action.

But they returned with mixed views on how to proceed in the borough, with one councillor warning “we have only one shot to get this right”.

The Temple Park Centre in South Shields, Hebburn Swimming Pool and Jarrow’s Monkton Stadium would be given trust status under the cost-saving plans being considered by South Tyneside Council.

The move could also affect libraries, the Customs House theatre in South Shields, South Shields Museum and Art Gallery and Bede’s World in Jarrow – all of which receive cash from the local authority. With the authority needing to make £35m in savings over the next year, setting up a charitable trust is seen as a way of cutting the borough’s £11.53m annual leisure budget.

The belief is that the trust would also be able to get access to cash which is unavailable to the council. But at a meeting of yesterday’s select committee, members expressed the need to proceed with caution.

Committee chairman, Labour councillor Eddie McAtominey, described the leisure trust in Stockton as a “jewel in the crown”, but was less impressed at what he saw in Peterborough.

He said: “That trust was politically motivated, set up when the coalition government came to power. It is run by 300 staff augmented by 190 volunteers – that’s not what we want in South Tyneside. We want good service at affordable prices.”

Coun Steve Harrison, Independent, said: “The message is that we have only one shot at getting this right, we can’t rush a decision because it’s too important. One of the trusts was set up for 25 years, that’s just far too long.”

Merv Butler, of Unison South Tyneside, also preached caution. He said: “It’s far too early for this committee to be making a recommendation to the cabinet, members have only been on two visits, and there were strong concerns expressed about the Peterborough situation.

“Both trusts are very different models, set up in different eras. We want what is right for our members and the public.”

The establishment of a leisure trust could see the creation of more community hubs in the borough – where leisure, health, libraries and other services are provided under one roof.

Members are to receive a written report on the leisure trust issue at their next meeting.

Under the plan money would be saved as charitable trusts receive relief from the payment of non-domestic rates and partial exemption from VAT.

The proposal involves 220 staff jobs – not including the 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 setting up a trust is estimated at £100,000, but the extent of the potential savings has yet to be identified.