Leisure company warns of service cuts

EXCLUSIVEBy Laurence CawleyA COMPANY formed to run leisure centres across west Suffolk has warned it might axe services unless taxpayers step in to help out.

A COMPANY formed to run leisure centres across west Suffolk has warned it might axe services unless taxpayers step in to help out.

Set up in April last year by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, Abbeycroft Leisure Trust took over the running of leisure centres in Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill.

But the non-profit company, which employs 180 staff, will today warn council members that it needs an extra £79,400 - on top of the £525,000 already pledged - to cover unforeseen cost hikes. Without the cash injection, the people of west Suffolk face either service cuts or price increases of twice the amount originally planned.

Proposed cuts include closing the football school at Haverhill Leisure Centre, ending the agreement with Haverhill Lawn Tennis Club for use of courts, closing the bar at Haverhill Leisure Centre and closing crèche facilities at both Haverhill Leisure Centre and Bury Leisure Centre.

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The other option highlighted by the trust was hiking prices in April next year by 6% rather than the currently proposed 3%.

The idea of cutting services has sparked major concern, with one council member calling the entire trust venture a “cock-up”.

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Stephen Withers, secretary of Haverhill Lawn Tennis Club, which has a strong and growing youth section, said: “We could not really survive without these tennis courts - we've built them into our funding plans. This is not encouraging news.”

Alison Bowyer, acting chief executive of the trust, said the main cause of the problems was a 33% hike in energy costs which was unforeseen by the trust.

She said the potential cuts outlined to the council were “sensitive” but added: “We don't face any financial problems if the council can support us. They are not major financial problems.”

In her report to the council, Ms Bowyer said: “It is predicted that due to unforeseen costs incurred, Abbeycroft Leisure is predicting an outturn deficit for the financial year 2006-7.

“If this situation occurs, the build up of reserves Abbeycroft Leisure has accumulated may be depleted, which will affect the future financial stability of the company and increase the dependence of further financial assistance from the council.”

But Derek Redhead, an independent member of the council's leisure development panel, said: “As I said at the time, I think it was a mistake to put it out as a trust in the form that it's in. I said in my view the business plan did not stack up and would be a constant drain on the council.

“I said time will tell, and time has already told. It is a cock-up, and the proof of the pudding is there.”

West Suffolk MP Richard Spring said: “Obviously I would be very concerned if sport and leisure services were impaired in any way. It is a key element of giving people things to do that are healthy and productive.”

Terry Clements, the council's cabinet member responsible for leisure, said: “We would not want to see any reductions in service and are keen to make sure Abbeycroft is offering the best possible value to its customers. We will work closely with the trust to reach the best solution for both parties and for those using the facilities Abbeycroft provide.

“We are very pleased with the way our partnership is working with Abbeycroft, which provides some of the best sports and leisure facilities in the area. We look forward to that partnership continuing for years to come.”


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