Bedford’s Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes has said he is “astonished” Bedford’s Mayor has given Fusion £632,000 to reopen the area’s leisure facilities after they were closed for the coronavirus lockdown.
He also claimed the Mayor was trying to keep the payment “secret” by not discussing the decision with full council before handing over taxpayer’s cash.
In a statement, Bedford Borough Conservatives angrily attacked the decision and called the financial deal with Fusion “a big failure” for Leisure Portfolio Holder, Cllr Doug McMurdo.
Adding, “whose [Cllr McMurdo] tortured negotiations with Fusion have resulted in considerable cost to the Bedford taxpayer, with only the re-opening of Robinson Pool to show for it.
“Other Borough leisure facilities will remain closed, with no indication from the Council as to when they might re-open, or whether yet more public money will be handed to Fusion in order to do so.”
Currently, Robinson Pool & Fitness and Mowsbury Golf Club are fully open, and Bedford International Athletics Stadium is partially open but only to Beds and County Athletics Club.
Oasis beach Pool, John Bunyan Sports & Fitness, Kempston Outdoor Centre, and Kempston Pool are still closed completely.
Fusion say the funds are required “to allow our centres to open at significantly reduced capacities.”
Decision won’t be scrutinised
The sum, which was agreed through an ‘executive decision’ by the Mayor will see Fusion awarded the sum, which the Borough’s Conservatives say is including:
- £273,000 in financial aid
- £315,000 of deferred loan payments up to March 2021
- and £54,700 a month since last May
Under Bedford Borough Council’s constitution, the decision is exempt from ‘call in’ meaning other Councillors will not be able to scrutinise the decision.
Bedford Borough Council say a call in would have a “serious adverse impact on the Council’s financial position… Due to the “financial risks in relation to the Fusion contract and the need to mobilise elements of provision as soon as possible.”
Even so, Cllr Coombes is not happy, “I am astonished by the Mayor’s decision to give yet more public money to failed leisure operator Fusion and to try and sneak this out and keep it from the public, without the opportunity for it to be properly scrutinised by elected Councillors.
“Openness is not his [Mayor Dave Hodgson’s] strongpoint, but I believe it’s important that the wider public know what he does in their name,” he said.
Fusion are contracted to look after facilities in the Borough until 2024. There have been calls for the council to end their contract early.
The council has repeatedly stated this would not be possible. But Fusion were put on notice of an improvement plan, which was agreed by full council in December 2019.
Cllr McMurdo, who oversees leisure and culture across Bedford Borough, said previously that improvements were being seen in the first two months of this year, but coronavirus halted that for now.
But the financial impact of the lengthy closure of the facilities and coronavirus has now also been called into question.
Cllr Coombes added: “Only last week the Mayor was complaining about difficult financial picture with a projected budget shortfall, but can we believe him when it seems like it’s a bottomless pit where Fusion are concerned?”
“The experiment with Fusion has turned into an expensive farce with leisure users being asked to minimise their use of changing facilities to comply with COVID guidelines, whilst Fusion get yet more cash for doing less work.
“It’s time the Council ran the facilities for the benefit of the Bedford public, rather than for the highly paid Fusion management,” he said.
Cllr Doug McMurdo, Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture said “In light of the serious impact of COVID and regrettably the lack of Government support for leisure facilities to re-open, Bedford Borough Council has had to follow the example of other local authorities and provide extra funding to our leisure provider to support them in re-opening Robinson Pools & Fitness.
“Throughout lockdown, the facilities have been maintained and in a state ready to be re-opened quickly as soon as it is feasible and this is ongoing at facilities that remain closed.
“With the initial closure and now with limited capacity required to keep people safe, leisure centres have been hit hard by coronavirus.
“We are working with Fusion Lifestyle to ensure that they re-open further leisure centres for Bedford Borough residents as soon as possible, but we know that people will appreciate that this may come with an extra cost. We are calling on the Government to help us to meet that cost, with Council finances already under huge pressure.”
A spokesperson for Fusion Lifestyle said they will “continue to work very closely in partnership with Bedford Borough Council” stating also that this funding is “required to allow our centres to open at significantly reduced capacities.”
“It will also support all the new safety measures required to open our centres within government guidelines, to minimise contact and allow for the track and trace process to be implemented,” they added.
We have contacted Mayor Dave Hodgson for comment.
- Correction: this article was updated on 4 October at 14:27 to change the words ‘on top of’ to ‘is including’.