Fears expressed over privatisation of Mid Ulster leisure centres

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Fears that the running of Cookstown Leisure centre and associated services could be privatised, have been voiced in the Mid Ulster Super Council.

Though still operating in a shadow capacity, the new council authority is already looking at ways at which money can be saved across the three areas of Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt.

At a recent Development Committee meeting, a report revealed that the privatisation of Magherafelt’s leisure centre services, has proved cost effective.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have expressed their opposition to privatisation being rolled out in Dungannon and Cookstown, which could potentially put public sector jobs at risk.

Greenvale in Magherafelt was contracted out to private company, Pulse Fitness, under a five year contract which is due to end next year.

Now, the council is preparing a detailed report on the running costs of leisure services - one of the largest areas of council spend.

The new super council will have to strike a balance between saving rate-payers money and maintaining the level of services across the three areas.

On July 10, director of operations at Magherafelt District Council went before the Development Committee to give a “comprehensive overview on the remit of the group... on a cluster basis towards April 2015.”

In the meeting’s minutes it said he provided a work plan and outline of the financial resources needed to take “sport and leisure forward”.

It is understood UUP councillor, Trevor Wilson aired concerns that Mid Ulster “could be driven into a way of privatisation across the board”.

When asked whether this was a possibility, Mid Ulster District Council’s chair, Cathal Mallaghan said it was discussed.

But he assured the Mail that “a number of members at the meeting were very concerned about making sure that the private end of leisure services didn’t expand any further”..

“Myself and Trevor Wilson spoke against any further privatisation of leisure services,” the Sinn Fein man said.

“I also asked the question at that committee meeting, ‘when was the first opportunity to break off contract with the privatised people?’

“There’ll be a review in five years,” he explained, “after the five years, which is next year, the contract can be terminated - but we have to look at all the options.”

Cllr Mallaghan said the supercouncil is considering a ‘family pass’ that could be used throughout Mid Ulster.

“And it’s just working round how we fit Greenvale into those plans,” he added.

Brian Campfield from the union body NIPSA, said he was ‘strongly opposed to privatisation’ and would be raising the concerns with the new council.

“This is something, which must be opposed. They can argue they might save money, but it is the impact on jobs and the rights of staff and conditions, which we are concerned about,” he said.

“There have already been issued surrounding Magherafelt, and certainly we would not want to see that in Cookstown and Dungannon.

“We also remember that when we privatise our leisure services, we lose any democratic control over the running of the centre and more importantly, we lose accountability.

“Leisure services are one the main functions of the council, there is a fear that they could be privatised across Northern Ireland.”