Council scraps sports privatisation plans in last minute U-turn

Council scraps sports privatisation plans in last minute U-turn
The Herald Scotland, by Gerry Braiden

Controversial plans to privatise all council sport and leisure services in Stirling have been sensationally dropped at the last minute, it has emerged.

Ahead of a meeting where the Labour and Tory administration was expected to become the first authority in Scotland to fully privatise a ‘front-facing’ service the council’s leadership dropped the plans.

An amendment was brought to Thursday evening’s full-council meeting calling for the £25million deal with Sports and Leisure Management (SLM) to be cancelled. Stirling will now look to set up a charitable trust similar to those operated in Glasgow, Edinburgh and other Scots councils.

Council leader, Labour’s Johanna Boyd, agreed to the joint motion with SNP group leader Scott Farmer.

Mr Farmer said he was in no doubt the plans were scrapped due to pressure from his colleagues, the public and unions.

He said: "I am delighted that the Labour/Tory administration have buckled under the pressure and that privatisation of our services is now firmly off the agenda."

A statement from the council said: "Stirling Council has voted to look at setting up a dedicated Stirling-based charitable trust to run its sports and leisure services.

"In December 2015, the council took the decision to tender and undertook an open, transparent and competitive procurement process.

"Whilst the procurement process was robust, the council decided that neither of the two bids submitted met its wider ethos of being community-led.

"At a meeting of the full council, all parties voted unanimously instead to temporarily extend the current contract up until the end of November this year, while work is ongoing to establish a Stirling-based not-for-profit trust to deliver sports and leisure across the area."

But one senior source said: "They utterly bottled it. They got to the cliff edge and retreated. The looming election has clearly brought on a bout of cold feet ands they’ve seent that what’s over the cliff might not be such a good idea."

In an unprecedented move, Stirling had agreed to hand control of all its sports and leisure portfolio to SLM in a contract running until 2042.

SLM already provide services to around 40 councils south of the border and “prides itself on being a community-focused company, with a passion for improving the health and well being of our nation”.

But concerns were raised that the new venture will lose the public sector ethos required for local authorities to tackle health and social inequalities.

Stirling’s opposition SNP had also complained that they were expected to approve the deal while being kept in the dark about potential new pricing structures, how the services will be managed and how SLM will make money from the arrangement.

The council’s leisure services are currently provided by Active Stirling, an offshoot of the authority set up in 2006. The authority has said it was legally obliged to put the contract out to tender “to ensure best value for the taxpayer”.

Green MSP and Stirling councillor Mark Ruskell said: "Outsourcing sport and leisure services to a private company hiding under a sugar coated charitable shell would have been a bad deal for Stirling.

"The council can now bring the arms length delivery of services under closer control to tackle the considerable health challenges faced by Stirling’s communities.

"Stirling Council prides itself on paying the Living Wage, but Active Stirling still has many staff paid below the current rate.

"Getting staff onto the Living Wage and secure contracts should be the focus, driving staff morale and performance after the huge uncertainty over job security the outsourcing proposal has created."