Colchester lesiure `sell-off'

COLCHESTER Borough Council is to consider surrendering all of its leisure services in an attempt to maintain provision in the face of massive budget cuts.

By Roddy Ashworth

COLCHESTER Borough Council is to consider surrendering all of its leisure services in an attempt to maintain provision in the face of massive budget cuts.

The move would leave the town hall with no direct control over sports, parks, museums, cemeteries or the multi-million pound complex Leisure World.

Instead, these would be managed by a charitable trust set up specifically to look after them, and funded by the council.

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The proposal to hand over responsibility to such a trust is to be considered by the council's Best Value Review Panel (BVRP) on February 24.

The panel's recommendations will then be referred to the ruling Cabinet.

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Establishing a trust to manage all leisure services is one of three options put forward by officers to the BVRP.

The second would see a smaller handover, with just specific areas of the department being given to the trust to manage.

The third option would see the council retaining direct control over leisure – but the implementation of severe cuts to services.

The attraction of having a trust running leisure services is largely that of tax liability. The council currently pays around £250,000 to the Government in business rates on Leisure World alone.

A charitable, not-for-profit trust, however, would be exempt from taxation and so would be able to plough the cash back into its own business.

This could cover cuts to the leisure budget due to be enforced in the wake of a £1.7million funding shortfall for the council.

The trust would also be exempt from strict rules binding local authorities' ability to borrow money.

Yesterday Ken Jones, cabinet member with responsibility for Leisure Services, said: "We would still be the main funder, and the council would be represented in terms of the organisation of the trust. We would have a very strong voice indeed.

"The budget for this year is very tight. Leisure Services has to make £300,000 worth of savings.

"I think peoples' perceptions need to be addressed. Colchester Borough Council will still be setting the policy."

Yesterday Don Quinn, chairman of the BVRP – who previously branded the trust idea as a "tax dodge" – said because of his position it was inappropriate for him to comment further on the specific proposals until after the meeting.

He added: "We certainly have not agreed to anything, but Best Value's job is not to make the decisions, but to make sure the information is full and complete.

"I am happy with the way the officers have prepared the report. I just wish the options were different.

"I find it very depressing that in 2003 we are talking about cutting budgets in art and leisure. I really don't like it at all."

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