Stormy scenes as ELDC make decision on leisure services

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East Lindsey District councillors voted for a major shake-up in how leisure services are provided within East Lindsey yesterday afternoon - but only after stormy scenes at a special extraordinary meeting held at their Manby headquarters.

One member - the independent Coun Terry Aldridge - stormed out during a speech by council leader Coun Doreen Stephenson, claiming he was not prepared to listen to her “misleading” members.

His act of defiance received short shrift from chairman Coun Robert Palmer, who shooed him out of the debating chamber and declared: “On yer bike!”

As a result of the controversial decision, ELDC will retain ownership of buildings such as the Meridian Leisure Centre in Louth, Horncastle Swimming Pool and the Embassy Theatre in Skegness, but the actual services - along with 120 staff - will be transferred to a newly-created charitable trust, Magna Vitae (meaning “great lives” in Latin).

According to Coun Aldridge, the Council’s Executive had already made the crunch decision in advance of Wednesday’s proceedings.

“The Louth public have been told that the Meridian will be temporarily closed over the festive period for the purpose of rebranding,” he claimed.

This was denied by the leader who insisted that closure occurred every Christmas “to allow maintenance to be carried out”.

Earlier, the Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Sport, Coun Adam Grist, received widespread support from members including the opposition Labour group when he offered an assurance that not only would the public see no fundamental change in facilities and services, but there could also be “exciting new initiatives”.

The transfer has been prompted by cash-strapped ELDC’s need to save money against the backdrop of an ever -tightening cash squeeze on local government by Whitehall.

But Coun Daniel Simpson doubted whether any monies would be saved, especially as the authority will still be burdened with the “liability” of maintaining the leisure and sports buildings.

He criticised the absence from the meeting of Portfolio Holder for Finance, Coun John Upsall, because it denied members the opportunity to challenge the cash projections.

Coun Simpson described the transfer documents - which have been deemed confidential - as no more than a “wish list” and exercise in “crystal ball gazing”.

Misgivings were also sounded by both Coun Ed Mossop, who feared the new organisation might not have the capacity to support local clubs in rural locations, and by Coun Julia Pears who said she was “completely upset” at the prospect of leisure services being “privatised”.

Only 34 of the council’s 60 members felt the meeting was sufficiently important to have been worth attending, and it would have had to be annulled as ‘inquorate’ if the number had been five fewer.

The council’s Head of Communications and Consultation, James Gilbert, will oversee communications for Magna Vitae, but the press and public will have no right to attend meetings - the first time since ELDC was created in 1974 that debates and decision about leisure and sport will be held behind closed doors.

It is thought that the transfer will be seamless because the managing director of the new organisation will be Mark Humphreys, who is currently responsible for overseeing the leisure, sport and culture services within the council.