Council's U turn over leisure trust

CONTROVERSIAL plans to relinquish control of Colchester's premier sports centre to a charity trust have been ditched, it emerged last night.Colchester Borough Council hired consultants Lawrence Graham - at a cost to the taxpayer of nearly £20,000 - to investigate whether savings could be made by transferring control of Leisure World to a tax-avoiding trust.

CONTROVERSIAL plans to relinquish control of Colchester's premier sports centre to a charity trust have been ditched, it emerged last night.

Colchester Borough Council hired consultants Lawrence Graham - at a cost to the taxpayer of nearly £20,000 - to investigate whether savings could be made by transferring control of Leisure World to a tax-avoiding trust.

The consultants recommended handing over the borough run leisure services saying £165,000 could be saved, because the trust would be exempt from paying business rates.

But despite this and backing by councillors earlier this year, the council is due to abandon the plan.


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Although the final decision will not be taken until the ruling cabinet meets next Wednesdayofficers have recommended the proposal is dropped after senior councillors expressed reservations about the implications.

The main problem was that the amount of money saved by the borough, which faces a £250,000 shortfall in its leisure budget, would not be nearly as high as it had first been thought.

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Another factor in the decision not to proceed with the trust option was that up to 400 council staff would have left the town hall payroll if leisure services had been handed over to a charitable body.

There were also concerns that if the trust was not effective, it would be difficult for councillors to intervene, because only 20 per cent of the charity's board would be made up of councillors.

Labour group leader Tim Young said: "This is a blatant U-turn and an expensive one at that. What was the point in spending taxpayers' money on consultants only to turn around and ignore their advice in the end anyway?

Don Quinn, who, when chair of the council's Best Value panel in February called the proposal a "morally questionable tax fiddle", said: "We have averted a catastrophe. I'm delighted we have decided not to go ahead with it."

As Lib Dem cabinet member with responsibility for leisure at the time, Ken Jones spearheaded the publicity campaign calling for transfer to a trust.

He said: "At the time we were saying it looked like a good option. Of course I was championing it at the time - in a sense that was my job, to make sure we could get the best from the resources we had.

"However, having had consultants look at it - which is a perfectly sensible and proper thing to do - we have decided that as one of our flagship, three star services this transfer would not be appropriate at this time."

Council leader Colin Sykes denied the council was making a U-turn.

He said: "At the time, the idea looked as though it would be a good bet. We would have been quite rightly crucified if we had not investigated it thoroughly and as we did not have the necessary expertise to do that in house, we had to employ external professionals to do that job."

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