A WEST WALES AM’s comments on the provision of Welsh leisure facilities have sparked controversy over the future of Welsh leisure provision.
Llanelli Assembly Member Lee Waters said: “An obsession with winning medals risks the future of grassroots sports.”
Mr Waters continued: “The medal tally at the Rio Olympics was brilliant, and intoxicating. But it masks a growing crisis in sports at a grassroots level, and does nothing to address the wider public health emergency from rising obesity” the Labour AM said.
Grassroots provision cut
“Funding for elite sport is being prioritised over grassroots development and austerity cuts have brought local clubs to the brink. The irony is that this will turn off the pipeline of future participants at the elite level.
“With chronic health conditions linked to a lack of physical activity like Type 2 Diabetes, depression and heart disease, on the rise we need to focus limited public funds on activities which get more of us moving, not on investments that win medals for a few.”
The Llanelli AM, who sits on the Assembly’s Culture committee, added: “Councils across Wales are facing tough spending cuts because of Tory austerity. And outdoor sports facilities, which Councils are not required by law to provide, are understandably not being prioritised. The money that is available is being funnelled into elite projects.”
“In Carmarthenshire, the Council are spending its entire grant of £293,000 from the Welsh Government on staff to encourage kids to join clubs and progress up the elite ladder, whilst our pitches are threatened with being sold off for housing developments and volunteer coaches are at their wits’ end” Lee Waters added.
“Since last August, ten sports clubs and 100 bowlers have been lost as a result of fee increases brought in by Carmarthenshire County Council, according to the Carmarthenshire United Sports Committee.
“At the same time, the Council are spending £286,000 from precious reserves on resurfacing Carmarthen Velodrome for elite cycling, and they’re proposing to spend £500,000 on a new cycle racing ‘closed-circuit’ track in Pembrey, which may be handed over to Sports Wales/British Cycling for elite training.”
Kevin Francis, Chair of the Carmarthenshire United Sports Committee said “There are around 10,000 footballers, rugby players, cricketers and bowlers in Carmarthenshire, and the development of sport is under threat because of fees. They are not able to accommodate new football teams unless they are able to find around £2,500 to pay for a pitch. A sum of £10k a year, for the next few years, would provide a pitch, and the flexibility to support clubs with development staff. Instead volunteers are being asked to take on more and more and it is a matter of time before more clubs fold. Season ticket prices at bowls clubs will need to be around the £200 mark to cover costs. In comparison, the most expensive private club in the county is £120.”
‘Sports facilities are too expensive’
In response, Welsh Conservatives have accused Llanelli AM, Lee Waters, of “spectacular hypocrisy”.
Welsh Conservatives pointed to Labour hikes to rental fees for public sports pitches; whilst also noting the impact heroes like Bradley Wiggins and Jade Jones have on encouraging a new generation to take up sport.
The Welsh Conservatives spokesperson for Sport – Russell George AM – said: “Lee Waters seems to have spectacularly missed the point here.
“Lottery funding has been a huge boon to sports facilities across the UK, and his analysis ignores the massive impact that our sporting heroes have on inspiring the next generation of stars to get involved.
“Look at the impact Brad Wiggins’ success had on cycling in 2012, and imagine what Laura Trott and Becky James’s success in Rio could do for cycling in the future.
“And let’s not forget that the crisis in grassroots sports here in Wales is largely due to Labour councils hiking fees for public pitches.”
Meanwhile, Plaid’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Sport, Neil McEvoy AM, said: “Lee Waters is a Labour AM complaining about the things his Labour government is doing in Wales.
“It’s true that sports facilities are too expensive. I know from my own five-a-side days how much prices have gone up. And now I see kids in my community with their faces pressed against the gates of empty sports pitches. They wish they could use them but just can’t afford to.
“Those kids deserve better and they’re not getting it from this divided Labour government.
“One of the real scandals is how fantastically our Welsh female athletes did at the Olympics but how little we’ll see of women’s sports now the Olympics is over. I’m calling on all broadcasters to commit to keep showing women’s sport and to put more funding into it. That would be an Olympic legacy we can all be proud of.”
The comments touch upon the thorny issue of what has been described as the backdoor privatisation of local authority leisure facilities.
West Wales councils look to outsourcing
In spite of their importance to fulfilling both the Welsh and UK Government’s long term health plans, the provision of leisure services is not a statutory obligation for local authorities.
And in a time of savage cuts to local government budgets, many councils are spending significant sums of public money seeking to palm off leisure services to third parties.
In West Wales, concerns have been expressed by unions that leisure service workers employed by local authorities will be forced to transfer from local government employment to employment by third parties, losing both job security and potentially facing cuts to wages and pensions.
External consultants employed by local authorities have suggested that leisure services be handed on to so-called ‘leisure trusts’ and ‘arm’s length companies’ (Carmarthenshire has done that with its environmental services, with Cwm Environmental managing to obtain the Council’s refuse contract without even bothering to tender for it), or private companies.
In Llanelli, a new leisure centre has been promised by the local authority for many years, but a series of pie in the sky projects have now culminated in an eight figure scheme to construct what has been described as a ‘wellness village’ in the town. The more details that are revealed about that scheme, the less focus there appears to be on upgrading the town’s leisure facilities.
A consultation on leisure provision in Carmarthenshire resulted in bitter arguments between staff union, UNISON Cymru, and the local authority about the way the Council seemed to have made up its mind before it began consulting on proposals to outsource leisure provision with staff and public.
Short notice for Pembrokeshire
In Pembrokeshire, the Council recently announced a consultation on the future provision of leisure services only 24 hours before the first of series of public meetings to discuss the proposals.
“We are asking the community, service users and other stakeholders to help inform the decision-making process” said the Authority’s deputy Leader, Keith Lewis.
He went on: “Over the past ten years Pembrokeshire County Council has invested in excess of £25 million in upgrading its leisure centres and libraries.
“It is therefore very important that we take advantage of any potential savings with a view to maintaining a quality service to our customers and securing the future of our staff.”
With the focus squarely placed on ‘potential savings’, the local UNISON branch responded swiftly and attacked the proposals as likely to costs hundreds of jobs.
A press statement read, ‘Pembrokeshire County Council is preparing to outsource its libraries, leisure centres, sports pitches, museums, archives and arts development. Outsourcing will mean local people will no longer have any say over how these crucial services will be run in their community’.
Branch secretary, Vic Dennis said: “The Council has just spent thousands of pounds getting another consultant in, this time to recommend that they form a charitable trust to run these services and give away the services that they currently fully control. The changes will affect as many as 400 people and we know a charitable trust will look to make savings by depressing wages and weakening basic employment conditions.
“We believe that services are best delivered directly by the Council. These services contribute to the health and well-being of our community, give people free access to knowledge as well as helping us understand and appreciate our heritage and culture.”
The response from Deputy Leader Keith Lewis suggested that when it came to future cuts, the Council’s mind was already made up: “This is not about ‘giving away services’ as UNISON claims, rather – instead of further reductions and possible closures of leisure centres and libraries as part of the Council’s continued budget reductions – a different model of delivery is more likely to safeguard and possibly expand service provision in the future.”
Ceredigion will fight outsourcing
In Ceredigion, the Council withdrew plans to outsource refuse collections following strong opposition from UNISON.
Owain Davies from the union told The Herald: “While there is no current consultation on outsourcing leisure services, the Council does have a report from PwC and, due to the background of continuing cuts to local government budgets, we expect there to be one.
“While leisure is not a statutory service, we believe that the provision of leisure opportunities is an essential community service. There needs to be a broader look at the benefit and value of leisure services to delivering savings elsewhere, for example in relation to health and well-being.”
Councils ‘under intolerable pressure’
Dominic MacAskill, UNISON Cymru/Wales Head of Local Government said: “Across Wales council services are being privatised and outsourced. It is a terrible error which damages the quality of service for the public and the employees’ working environment. Local people want a say in how their services operate. That democratic accountability is gone forever if everything is outsourced.
“Welsh councils are under intolerable pressure after years of savage UK Conservative Government austerity cutsbut outsourcing is not the answer. Inevitably, the new company will make savings by sacking workers or not replacing staff who leave and squeeze wages and employment conditions. Typically, it is likely to make wider use of exploitative zero hours contracts. Our leisure centres, libraries, adult care and other services serve the community. Having far fewer staff means public access is more restricted and entry charges increase. When leisure facilities were contracted out by the Vale of Glamorgan, a sports centre closed.
“Sacking dedicated public servants means those people don’t have any money to spend in local shops and businesses. Outsourcing is a short-term economic fix and cannot benefit people in the long term. The new private company has a free hand on profits, money that would otherwise have been reinvested in the community for the public good. Councils are left hollowed out, with nothing to run and no power to intervene to positively shape the lives of their citizens.
“Welsh councils must invest in vital public services. Proper funding here helps tackle poverty and inequality and makes Wales a fairer place to live. UNISON has highlighted councils paying private management consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers’s (PwC) extremely lucrative contracts to advise how to save money by closing or privatising local services and sacking employees, including those working with vulnerable adults.
“PwC was paid at least half a million pounds by Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council last year to advise on making cuts. At Ceredigion, PwC’s contract is thought to be worth at least one million pounds. PwC is milking the public purse and they don’t care about critical public services being run down or ensuring that Ceredigion has a vibrant community with sustainable local jobs in future.
“UNISON wants Welsh councils to be much more ambitious. As well as being the most cost-effective way of delivering quality public services with a directly employed workforce, they should actively seek new ways to attract income by marketing their expertise and services to the private sector, providing additional income streams to hard pressed councils. This vision of ‘ensuring councils’ could transform the way local government looks and guarantee political accountability and social justice.”