A major review of the entire leisure estate of Belfast city council has proposed 3 options: setting up a Not For Profit organisation or ‘social enterprise’ to take over the running of all leisure centres; outright privatisation or retaining everything in-house.
Councillors decided late in 2013 to commission Deloitte to do an in-depth report as most leisure centres are in need of significant refurbishment and are subsidised by the council. While there is no doubt that much of the leisure estate is in bad need of repair and replacement, the conclusions the Deloitte report draws could represent a devastating attack on the terms and conditions of most low paid workers in leisure.
It is estimated that over £100m investment is needed in infrastructure to bring leisure up to standard. This funding apparently will be made available from the Stormont government provided £2m in ‘savings’ is made in the running of leisure. This means either generating revenue from admission charges for the use of facilities by improving public participation, cutting overtime, reviewing staffing levels or a combination of various options.
The best option would be a campaign for a big increase in the uptake of all facilities with an upgrade in particular for the lowest paid leisure attendants to improve staff moral and give them a real stake in their futures. Genuine partnerships with sporting bodies, community groups and schools could be very useful if done properly.
In reality the thrust of the report is aimed at setting up a Not for Profit organisation based on the model of Greenwich Leisure set up by Greenwich council in London in the early 90’s, which has spread throughout England. A large number of union reps accompanied by some full-time officials were sent over to London by the City Council last year to look at this model. A contingent from Greenwich Leisure also came to Belfast to look at a number of centres. Obviously this is the preferred model of the council. They are also looking at ‘partnerships’ with sporting organisations such as the GAA and IFA at venues such as Casement Park /Andersonstown and Windsor Park/Olympia.
There is an urgent need for the key unions – which are Unite and NIPSA – who have most of the members in leisure to come up with a strategy to retain all leisure facilities in-house and to maintain all workers’ terms and conditions in the Green Book joint negotiating body. Unite, GMB, and SIPTU met the council in December and apparently argued for an in-house option. NIPSA were due to meet the council separately following a disagreement with the other unions. The problem is that the GMB and SIPTU have very few members in this area so it is up to both UNITE and NIPSA to resolve any differences in the interests of all their members. Meetings in all leisure centres need to be called to inform workers about what is happening. Shop stewards need to be meeting regularly to fight any proposals which could take a significant number of workers out of the council and outside the National Agreement. It must be remembered that TUPE legislation only gives limited protection to existing terms and conditions and is in the process of being further weakened by this government. One only has to look at the jobs website of Greenwich Leisure to see that moving down that route means wage cuts and casualisation with all that that means for staff and the overall service. A two and even three tier-system could come about. There would be no significant difference between the nightmare scenario of outright privatisation and ‘Not For Profit’.
As it stands over 30 council workers in the Waterfront and Ulster Halls are uncertain about their future as they were the first group to be threatened with outsourcing/privatisation over a year ago. A final decision has yet to be made.
Belfast City Council workers have largely been spared the ravages of privatisation in spite of cutbacks and the wage freeze which is bad enough. Any move down the road to outsourcing/privatisation of any facilities must be fought by the unions, including the use of industrial action, by what at present is a 90% organised workforce as it would have major implications for all City Council departments and all other councils throughout Northern Ireland. Unite in particular has a major responsibility to take the lead here, drawing on its successful campaign to prevent privatisation in Translink and to persuade Omagh Council not to privatise the leisure centre there.