“It’s been tense” talks with Fusion over Borough’s leisure centres continue

Robinson Pool
Robinson Pool is one of eight venues run by Fusion Lifestyle in Bedford and Kempston.

Cllr Doug McMurdo, who oversees leisure and culture across Bedford Borough, says the relationship with Fusion has been “tense over time” as they seek to get the area’s leisure centres reopen.

The council and Fusion have been strongly criticised for the slow reopening of leisure centres in the Borough, despite local privately run centres being open since 25 July.

Fusion has also asked for an undisclosed financial sum to support the reopening of the centres.

Mowsbury Golf Club is the only facility almost fully open with Bedford International Athletic Stadium also open but only to Beds and County Athletic’s Club.

The remaining six publicly owned facilities remain closed.

Customers of Fusion Lifestyle have complained that there has been a lack of communication, whereas instructors who use their gyms and pools say the delay is damaging their livelihood.

September review

The Council and Fusion say there will be a review about the reopening of the leisure centres in September. For now, talks as to how and when that might happen are ongoing.

Speaking to the Bedford Independent, Cllr Doug McMurdo called on residents to be “patient” and that he is “passionate about getting these facilities open again.”

The council decided to keep swimming pools and indoor leisure centres closed, despite the Government saying they could re-open, due to the high rates of infection in the area.

But while rates of coronavirus have fallen to less than six per 100,000 and the Government saying Bedford is no longer an ‘area of concern’, the council has remained cautious.

Read: Bedford no longer coronavirus ‘area of concern’ says government

Bedford’s Mayor has said that even with the drop in rates, Bedfordians must not become “complacent”. But, the council are talking with Fusion to get leisure facilities reopen.

“I can assure you my staff are doing their very, very best and we will seek to get the facilites open at the earliest opportunity,” said Cllr McMurdo.

“Discussion are daily, not weekly… Bedford Borough Council is not doing nothing, we are actively working with our partner… It’s been tense over time.”

£20 million deficit

Bedford Borough council says dealing with coronavirus has left them with a £20 million shortfall in their budget, prompting rumours council property could be sold to fill the gap.

Cllr McMurdo was quick to quash this rumour, “let me be clear there is no discussion about selling any of our facilities,” he said.

“There is a petition to save Robinson Pool… this pool has been maintained, it is ready to go. Oasis Pool has also been maintained, subject to a deep-clean it will be operational.”

Cllr McMurdo also highlighted recent criticism of the state of Oasis Pool’s exterior, saying its appearance is a “result of direct vandalism” but there is a programme to fix the damage.

Read: “It looks disgusting” anger as Oasis Swimming Pool continues to let Bedford down

Fusion recently asked the council for an undisclosed sum, which both sides refuse to reveal saying the figure is “commercially sensitive”.

Fusion maintain this is not “financial support” for them but for our own leisure services that “aren’t financially viable in the post COVID world.”

“The government have not allocated financial assistance to third parties running leisure facilities, even though many are run by charities such as ourselves,” said their spokesperson.

Read: Fusion ask taxpayers for “financial support” amid leisure centre fiasco

UK Active and Community Leisure UK, the industry trade bodies, also estimate 1,300 local authority leisure centres and 20% of the UK’s swimming pools could go under by Christmas if the government doesn’t help.

Fusion say they are communicating with all members via email, websites, social media and through their app “every time we have had news to report”.

“This has been at least monthly since the closures in March and we have been wary about repeatedly communicating “no news” to customers and the community.

“We will be back in touch with members as soon as we have news of opening dates to share with them,” they add.

“Urgent action needed”

But opposition councillors have said there needs to be “urgent action” to end “the lingering uncertainty over the future of its leisure services contractor, Fusion Lifestyle.”

Fusion were put on notice of an improvement plan, which was gained off by full council in December 2019.

“The experiment with outsourcing the Borough’s leisure services to Fusion has proved a flop,” said Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes.

“Conservative Councillors have repeatedly questioned Fusion’s ability to deliver, and time and again Fusion has failed and we have been proved right.”

Read: Councillors call for “urgent action” over Borough’s leisure centres

Cllr McMurdo said improvements were being seen in the first two months of this year, but coronavirus has halted that for now.

He also says the contract with Fusion is due to end in 2024, and it can’t finish earlier. “We’re not in a position to cancel contracts,” he said.

“We’re in a ten year contract, that’s a legally binding contract, so one has to be very, very clear on what grounds you might cancel that contract.

“I have kept Cllr Coombes informed and tried to be as open with him as I possibly can.”

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