FIVE leisure centres in the New Forest, including Ringwood, are set to be run by a not-for-profit leisure trust.

Councillors voted to support recommendations to award a contract to Wealden Leisure Ltd, trading as Freedom Leisure, to operate and maintain New Forest District Council’s leisure centres at Ringwood, Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, and Totton.

The recommendations from the cabinet were discussed by full council on February 25.

The plans have proved controversial. A 2,000-name petition opposing the scheme was presented to the council last year and two members of the authority resigned from a working party.

Councillor Mark Steele said the council would continue to own the leisure centre buildings and stated Freedom Leisure was “very community focused” and its proposal was to “increase community use throughout the district”, adding: “So again, we are not privatising our centres.”

“Freedom Leisure is the right partner to deliver and sustain the excellent health and leisure service we provide to our local community,” said Cllr Steele.

He said the proposal would provide “security” to provision over the next 11 years and also investment in the leisure centres, as well as “significantly” reducing the cost of the service to taxpayers.

But Councillor Malcolm Wade said the district council was the “custodian” of the service and was “delegating” that responsibility to a third party. He raised concerns about uncertainty over the service in the future due to the pandemic and said the “wise decision would be to hold fire and see what happens in 12 months time”. These concerns were echoed by councillors Alex Wade and Caroline Rackham who also urged councillors to delay a decision to see how the service would be post-Covid.

However, Councillor Sue Bennison felt the sharing of Freedom Leisure’s expertise and knowledge would be for the benefit of residents and it was a “good partnership”.

The contract to the not-for-profit leisure trust will start on July 1 and be for a period of 11 years with an option to extend by another four years.

Council leader Barry Rickman said it was an “exciting new beginning” for the service which would be in “great need” coming out of Covid.

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