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Bring leisure centre service back in house, council urged

Officers say 'insourcing' is too expensive

15 February, 2019 — By Richard Osley

Councillor Jonathan Simpson

LABOUR chiefs have been warned not to ignore a manifesto ambition to peel back the privatisation of council services ahead of the award of a major new leisure centre contract.

The council is facing pressure to consider “insourcing” the management of its sports centres when a deal with current operator, Greenwich Leis­ure (GLL), comes to an end next year. A lucrative 10-year deal could be secured by GLL or another operator in the upcoming tender process.

Ahead of last May’s council elections, council leader Georgia Gould and her team of Labour candidates won a near-landslide victory with a manifesto which vowed to look more proactively at in-house options.

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had said he expected Labour authorities to “quickly” bring services under council management, where it was legal.

But officers and cabinet councillors have warned that taking back the leisure deal, which includes management of new and fairly new facilities at Pancras Square, King’s Cross, the Prince of Wales Baths in Kentish Town and Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre, would be expensive.

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, backbench coun­cillors on the cross-party culture scrutiny committee were divided on whether there needed to be closer examination of council figures which suggest it would be too costly.

The Oasis Lido

They had heard a deputation led by Allan Kerr, who lives in Swiss Cottage and who told the panel that council-run service would lead to “better conditions” for staff and a “much more motivated workforce”, claiming that “power had swung to the employer” through private contracts. He was among a group of residents who backed the deputation.

“The Association for Public Service Excellence has shown through numerous case studies that when services are brought back in-house, there is a dramatic improvement in the quality of service offered to residents,” said Mr Kerr, adding: “We were disappointed that the case for insourcing was dismissed in less than 100 words [in council reports]. I address this to Labour councillors: in your manifesto you made a commitment to bring contracts in-house and you got huge support from the electorate for that manifesto. This is the first opportunity you’ve had to bring a service in-house since last May and we think dismissing it with just 100 words is totally unacceptable.”

Camden’s director of community services Jessica Gibbons said the council had researched the feasibility of an in-house service and estimated there would be a 10 per cent loss of income and a 10 per cent rise in cost.

She said the council would be competing against 24-hour gyms and pilates studios, adding: “It makes it very difficult as to how competitive we can be, and the expertise we bring to that.”

Ms Gibbons said the council had spoken to local authorities who had insourced. “We have only spoken to one who have managed to balance their books eventually and that was Broxbourne, who took eight years to get there,” she added. She said in the current financial climate Camden had to make savings.

There is a split within the Labour group on how assiduously the council should heed Mr Corbyn’s call for in-sourcing. Councillors clashed on the issue at a private group meeting earlier this month. Group whip Lazzaro Pietragnoli watched Tuesday’s meeting.

Leisure chief Councillor Jonathan Simpson said: “After months of conversations with residents, we are discussing the potential for a contract which will provide even deeper community benefit, maintaining our commitment to the living wage, local employment and more support for disadvantaged groups to access our facilities.”

He added: “We estimate that it will cost us almost £30million over 10 years to deliver leisure directly, which is a substantial pressure, given the deep austerity we’re facing and the commitments we’re making to safeguard our libraries and youth services, and protect the poorest from council tax. “As a council, we are actively pursuing bringing services in-house where we can and, where this isn’t feasible, driving social value through our contracts.”

The cabinet will discuss the new contract at a meeting next week.

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