Mon, 06 Jan 2020
WEST Berkshire Council was accused of “punishing residents” after it agreed to increase leisure centre charges for the second year running.
The council doesn’t actually set the charges or keep any of the income from them – but is legally obliged by its leisure contractor, Parkwood Leisure Ltd, to either approve or refuse any proposed increase by the end of the year.
And councillors were asked to do just that at a special executive meeting on December 19.
The price rises, which equate to around 2.6 per cent, were voted through, meaning they will come into effect in April.
The council’s portfolio holder for public health and community wellbeing, Rick Jones (Con, Tilehurst and Purley) , said the increase was in line with inflation and said it still represented good value for money.
He added that a recent survey showed a “high level of satisfaction” among leisure centre users.
However, Adrian Abbs (Lib Dem, Newbury Wash Common) said: “Inflation, I think we can all agree, is 1.5 per cent at the moment.
“I see price rises here for local residents of 5.26 per cent on certain things such as juniors and over-60s.
“I guess the question is, how come we are penalising more the residents of West Berkshire and why are some of these figures nearly three times the rate of inflation as opposed to in line with it?
Mr Abbs pointed out that the price of an early morning swim would go up by 3.3 per cent for residents compared to 2.38 per cent for non-residents.
He added: “We seem to have penalised our residents as opposed to our non-residents and I’m just a bit confused why we would do that.”
Mr Jones said: “I don’t think we are penalising our residents over non-residents.”
Council leader Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen) said those who had a West Berkshire Card, which is available free of charge to all residents, would get “favourable rates”.
Card-holders receive a discount of £1 per activity (adult); 50p per activity (child) and £5 per activity (team sports).
At the meeting the leader of the opposition, Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East), hit out at the council for “leaving the meeting to the last minute” and giving councillors no chance to respond to the proposals.
Mr Dillon asked the council whether it would consider deferring the item so councillors could “come back and have a proper look at it”.
However, Mrs Doherty advised Mr Dillon that they were unable to as the local authority had a “contractual obligation to make a decision by the end of December”.
She added: “That’s why we had to bring this in tonight.”
A frustrated Mr Dillon, turning his attentions to the council’s head of legal services, Sarah Clarke, said: “What is the point in deciding it Sarah if we can’t do anything, but decide it?
“Why is it even on the agenda for debate?”
When she repeated Mrs Doherty’s point about having to make a decision by the end of the year, Mr Dillon hit back: “That is not our fault that you left it too late for us to agree.
“We said this last year with the budget– we said you can’t leave stuff this late.
“We said to you then to stop leaving these decisions right until the last minute and we’ve got two items tonight where we’re in this situation.”
In council papers, circulated ahead of the meeting, the local authority admitted that “a delay in implementing the decision could compromise the council’s position”.
The council’s contractor is Parkwood Leisure Ltd with the management of the district’s seven leisure centres delivered by its charitable arm, Legacy Leisure.