AN attempt by Redditch Conservative councillors to move the borough’s leisure services to an external trust to create ‘a financially sustainable budget over four years’ was defeated at full council on Monday evening at the Town Hall.
It came as the controlling Labour group presented their budget for the forthcoming financial year 2018/19.
At the heart of the debate was the continual cuts to local authority grants from central government which has seen many authorities, including high profile ones like Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire County Council and Surrey County Council, the richest in the UK, flag up their cash shortfalls.
Redditch has taken a £538,000 cut in its grant compared to what it received in 2016/17, leaving it with just £363,000 for the coming year.
The borough is also expecting a cut in its New Homes Bonus – £674,000 instead of £870,000 – thanks to a change in the Government’s funding formula.
Local Tories have long championed the idea of having an external organisation run leisure facilities like the Abbey Stadium, Palace Theatre and Forge Mill Needle Museum.
However this was rejected by the ruling Labour group last year who instead chose to set up a local authority trading company – known as a Teckal – to run leisure services.
This would not produce as much in savings – estimated at £440,000 per annum – but would mean the authority would keep direct control of its facilities and retain the terms and conditions of staff.
A survey answered by 1,700 residents endorsed the aim of the council to keep control of the facilities.
In an amendment to Labour’s budget proposals, Conservative group leader Councillor Juliet Brunner once more put forward the external trust option, stating it could create £800,000 in savings per year – although it would take a year to establish and would involve borrowing £200,000 from reserves to balance the books for 2018/19.
However once achieved the savings could help budgets for years to come and put extra cash into council services like the tree teams.
The move brought a stormy reaction from Labour who accused the Conservatives of trying to privatise leisure services.
“All along I have heard the Conservatives talk about external trusts and outsourcing and to my mind it smacks of privatisation, and the one thing the people of Redditch said in this survey is that they want leisure services to remain in Redditch and we keep control of them,” said Coun Pat Witherspoon (Lab, Church Hill).
To which Coun Jane Potter (Con, Astwood Bank & Feckenham) replied: “What a lot of rubbish. A trust is a charity; it is not privatisation it would maintain our assets completely and totally within our control and we would have a contract to run these services for the benefit of our residents and staff.”
She also said the survey quoted by Labour did not give residents all the options available.
Coun Andy Fry (Lab, Lodge Park) said a few years ago Redditch received a £4million grant from Central Government but would have to pay a £330,000 to the Government in 2019/20.
Council Leader coun Bill Hartnett (Lab, Church Hill) said: “Setting the budget is about balancing those reductions in government grant funding with providing the services residents and customers have told us are important to them.
“We have made some brave decisions including looking at new ways of running our leisure services.
“These are jewels in Redditch’s crown and we want to ensure they are utilised to their full potential which will benefit residents and visitors alike.”
The Conservative amendment was defeated and the budget for 2018/19 was approved.