Council officers have defended giving taxpayers’ support to a leisure operator to help it when the venues it runs were mothballed during the pandemic.
A meeting this week heard that Bedford Council is working closely with Fusion Leisure on a recovery plan which involves the repayment of “re-profiled” management fees that were made subject of a payment holiday.
The council also paid Fusion between £44,700 and £54,700 per month between April and September 2020 to support the seven Fusion-run centres in the borough. The council is lobbying the Government to recover covid-related losses.
“I think by taking that sort of approach what we’ve managed to do is protect services, protect our assets, protect local jobs, the suppliers that supply Fusion and ultimately local health and well-being for our residents,” said John Molyneux, the council’s chief officer for regulatory services & culture.
Previously, Fusion had been significantly criticised for their handling of the Borough’s leisure facilities, forcing talks to discuss how they need to improve.
Speaking to the Bedford Independent in August last year, Cllr Doug McMurdo, who oversees leisure and culture across Bedford Borough, said the relationship with Fusion has been “tense over time”.
Financial risk rests with Fusion
Thursday’s (July 8) meeting of the budget and corporate services overview and scrutiny committee was told that financial risks if recovery goes wrong until the end of the contract in January 2024 rest with Fusion, not the council.
And Richard Tapley, the council’s manager of sports development and leisure, said the council is working with Fusion to attract customers back to venues.
“It’s a huge challenge to get people to return,” he said.
“Marketing is the key to all of this. The centres are good value compared to the more expensive alternatives that people have been using.
“We need to re-emphasise those benefits.”
Fusion currently manages Robinson Pool and Leisure Centre, Kempston Pool, Oasis Leisure Pool, Bedford International Athletic Stadium and the John Bunyan Sports and Fitness Centre. They also look after Mowsbury Park Golf Complex and Kempston Outdoor Centre.
Bedfordians have contacted the Bedford Independent over the last 12 months to complain about how many of these venues are managed and operated by Fusion.
None more so than the Oasis Leisure Pool on Cardington Road, which one reader described as “…more like the setting for a post-apocalyptic film than a place to take my family.”
Political row over ‘secret’ use of public money
The issue of support for Fusion Leisure was the subject of a heated political row between Lib Dem mayor Dave Hodgson and Conservative leader Graeme Coombes (Wilshamsted) late last year.
Cllr Coombes had slammed a decision to hand Fusion £632,000 of public money in direct grant and loan repayments as being “shrouded in secrecy”.
In turn, mayor Hodgson said his opponents either lacked an understanding of numbers or were being mischievous.
Thursday’s meeting saw no such locking of political horns but cross-party members of the committee did probe the nature of the contract between the council and Fusion.
Chairing the meeting, Cllr Stephen Moon (Cons, Great Barford) questioned the working relationship between the council and Fusion and why it wasn’t one where Bedford could tell its client what it wanted.
Mr Molyneux said: “The best relationships are partnerships that work together. We try to work together in the best way that we can.”
by David Tooley Local Democracy Reporter
and Bedford Independent’s Paul Hutchinson