Bedford’s Mayor, Dave Hodgson has defended his and the Council’s handling of its contract with Fusion prior to and during the coronavirus pandemic, debunking comments by opposition councillors as “mischievous”.
He also said that improvements Fusion had begun to make at the beginning of the year were interrupted by the global pandemic.
“When we wrote the contract with Fusion, we couldn’t foresee a global pandemic,” said Mayor Dave, in an exclusive interview with the Bedford Independent which took place just before the latest lockdown restrictions.
“We’re hopeful that the government will provide funding to help councils who have outsourced their leisure facilities.
“Mothballing a swimming pool to enable it to reopen again costs a lot of money. You need to keep the filters running or it could be a very, very large bill – you’re probably looking at a seven-figure sum to replace the filters as they can just seize up.
“We paid around £56k a month to have nothing open, to make sure we kept everything in a condition that allowed it reopen; making sure that Mowsbury Golf Course was mowed at least some of the time so it could be brought back into use; keeping the swimming pool filters running, doing maintenance checks on all our buildings even when they’re closed.”
The Council have given Fusion a ‘loan holiday’ on money the not-for-profit borrowed to carry out improvements on Bedford’s leisure facilities – including renovation of Robinson Pool.
“This has been a loss of income, but it is a holiday, not a non payment, so the council will be able to recoup that from Fusion.
“Cllr McMurdo [leisure portfolio holder] has been working very hard with Fusion not just locally, but also nationally, as we’re not the only local authority who works with Fusion, and there doesn’t seem to be a standard way that Fusion work throughout the sector.
“The Council was in discussion with Fusion about the level of service they provided before lockdown began.
“There was a recovery plan which was sent to the overhead scrutiny committee about a year ago which was just about to be implemented as the virus hit us.
“They were not even three months into the plan before they had to close. The recovery plan was to reset and recover the level of service that we and the residents expect and deserve.”
But the Mayor has hinted at a feeling of regret that the Borough’s leisure facilities are outsourced.
“I think so. But would we have been able to spend £3m in terms of upgrading the facilities, in terms of the cuts we’ve had?
“[As a council] we wouldn’t have been able to afford to make the improvements. We’d have struggled to find the capital, given the financial situation we’ve been in for the last 11 years to actually invest in it.
“And at the end of Fusion’s contract, those facilities come back to us; the assets come back to the Council.”
“So, there is some regret, but we couldn’t have made the investments ourselves. It’s never as simple as ‘yes or no’.
“What it has meant going forward is that conversations with a whole range of organisations about how they might step up and support Fusion in terms of delivering services and Cllr McMurdo is having those conversations.
“You won’t be surprised to hear that people in the Borough are seeing an opportunity to help and are stepping up.
“It will give us opportunities moving forward to have facilities that the people of Bedford deserve.”
In early October, the Bedford Conservative Group launched a scathing attack on a decision by the Mayor to appear to ‘give’ Fusion £632,000.
Back in October, Bedford’s Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes said he was “astonished” Bedford’s Mayor seemed to have 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 also angrily attacked the decision and called the financial deal with Fusion “a big failure” for Leisure Portfolio Holder, Cllr Doug McMurdo.
“That number is wrong and has been misreported,” said Mayor Dave.
“That number includes the money that Fusion owe the council as part of their loan repayment and it is a loan holiday, not a loss of earnings.
‘The people who gave that number just can’t do their sums.
“We were paying £56k a month, that’s now £45k a month and there’s a chunk of money – [Fusion] were repaying a loan – and we have given them a holiday period from their loan repayments while they’re not getting any money in.
“We’ve seen people with mortgages given payment holidays and we’re doing that for our tenants.
“Where there is a crisis situation – and I think Covid-19 is a crisis situation – we will suspend your repayment. It’s not cancelling it, it’s suspending it and we’ll add it on at the end of the contract.
“Coming up with those figures is either a lack of understanding of numbers, which is worrying from opposition in the council, or it’s mischievous. Either of the two is not good.”
Responding to the Mayor’s comments, Conservative Group leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes, said, “Discussions between the Borough and Fusion have been shrouded in secrecy, with the Mayor refusing to allow his decision, to hand them £632k of public money in direct grant and loan deferrals, to be scrutinised by Councillors.
“This is money that would have been much better spent helping our beleaguered town centre businesses battling the effects of COVID, rather than handing it to discredited leisure operator Fusion Lifestyle.
“Despite the Mayor’s generosity towards Fusion, coming at the same time as he complains about a projected £24.6m Council budget shortfall, they had still only managed to open two out of eight Borough facilities before the lockdown.”
Since 2010, cuts to Bedford Borough Council funding have totalled £90m, representing a loss of around 50% of central government funding. After next year, it will be £111m.
“The need doesn’t reduce. The need increases,” said Mayor Dave.
“Adult social services count for about 42% of the budget and increases every year. There are over 280 children in care in the Borough, and that’s just two of the things we deliver within the whole range of things we offer.”
“We are very grateful for the great effort that so many people have made, be it bars, restaurants, shops and the vast majority of the public, but we need everybody to do it,” said the Mayor.
“A lot of people who have covid-19 are asymptomatic and you would not know they had the virus; for a lot of people younger than me it will have a limited effect.
“But when it gets to the older generation, then we see some really serious situations. We’ve got to reduce the pressure on the NHS.
“It’s down to us all and we need to look after all the members of our community. We need to redouble our efforts.”