Fenland Council offers emergency loans and support to protect its four leisure centres during lockdown
- Credit: HARRY RUTTER.
Freedom Leisure has agreed an interim financial support package from Fenland District Council to help it through the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
The council used emergency powers to defer £37,560 a month management fees that should have been made to the council by Freedom Leisure.
The company will also be given £7,000 a month for the same period to cover staff wages.
The council felt that by not agreeing an urgent relief package with Freedom it could have jeopardised their contract which is less than two years into a 15-year term.
The cash settlement was released to councillors last week – a week after the overview and scrutiny committee was told of it but not offered details.
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Cllr Ann Hay told the scrutiny committee that she supported the agreement since the contract was in its early stages and when it was signed the savings were expected to be up to £350,000 a year.
“If we had not helped Freedom Leisure, we would have been in danger of taking this contract back,” she said.
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She said most of the support was on a loan basis “so it will be recouped over the following years. I agree it was an urgent decision, but you couldn’t expect them to hang on and have run out money and not be able to pay their workers”.
Council leader Chris Boden said a support package was needed urgently since once the Government announced all leisure centres must close “this had a profound and immediate effect on Freedom Leisure”.
It was clear from the outset some financial support would be needed and “relentless efforts” were made to arrive find a workable solution.
Cllr Boden said Freedom operated almost 100 leisure centres on behalf of 25 councils and the pandemic had threatened their very existence.
Lib Dem Cllr Gavin Booth said he was “surprised” Fenland Council was given a tight seven-day deadline to agree to help Freedom Leisure. A longer-term span, he felt, was available to “allow democratic processes to run”. He summed it up as the “tail wagging the dog”.
But Cllr Boden said the council was anxious not to jeopardise the contract since we felt it “helpful to continue to operate with Freedom rather than terminate contract”.
He said had agreement not been reached and Freedom gave the council three months’ notice of termination, there was a real possibility “it might have threatened one or more of our four sites”.
He predicted some of the loans might convert to grants over the years but those loans that did remain the council expected to be repaid.