Taxpayers hit with �700k leisure bill

TAXPAYERS have been left stumping up �721,000 more than expected to fund an outsourced leisure trust originally set up as a cost-cutting move.

When St Edmundsbury Borough Council handed over its leisure centres in Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill to Abbeycroft Leisure five years ago, those involved said it would deliver “improved services at a lower cost”.

The original business stated that despite Abbeycroft Leisure’s status as a charitable trust independent of the council, it would still require financial support from the authority on a yearly basis.

The plan said between 2005/2006 the amount of support needed would be �3,236,040.

However, it has now emerged that taxpayers have actually given �3,957,350 in management fees during Abbeycroft’s first five years - �721,310 more than expected.

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Of that sum, �455,633 more than originally planned was handed to Abbeycroft between 2007 and 2009 - years during which leisure trust made an operating surplus of �156,000.

The council last night defended the spend claiming while the amounts paid were more than planned, the transfer move had nevertheless saved money and led to improved leisure services.

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It also states that the bulk of the extra cash was given to Abbeycroft while its leisure centres were closed for refurbishment works.

However, Independent councillor Derek Redhead said he had always been concerned that the deal would end up more costly than planned.

He said: “They (the council) were whistling in the wind in my view - putting it out to a trust never was the right way to go.

“I foresaw this and I believe it will be ongoing. I’m afraid that when it comes to those big projects they get led by the nose.”

John Griffiths, council leader, said: “Fundamentally, even with the benfit of hindsight, it was an extremely good decision to hand the management to Abbeycroft.

“Things have improved and between us we have significantly refurbished both leisure centres and very much improved the offer to our residents.

“I think it would have been far worse had we not taken that decision. Not only have we reduced the costs to the taxpayer but we’ve refurbished both centres.”

Warren Smyth, Abbeycroft chief executive, said: “The increase in management fee was due to the Haverhill Leisure Centre closing over a two year period for refurbishment and the associated loss of income/costs associated with that closure and providing outreach activity.

“This was never taken into account in the original five year business plan as the closure was not foreseen at that stage.

“In the current year (2010/2011) the management fee paid to Abbeycroft Leisure is �396,000 which is less money that the original indication at this time and Abbeycroft Leisure agreed a further five year plan last year reducing the fee by at least 5% year on year and annually reviewed.”

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