IT SPARKED a 2,000-name petition and also resulted in two people resigning from a council working party.
But civic chiefs have defended their controversial decision to outsource the management of New Forest leisure centres – despite complaints about the quality of the service.
It comes after the operator, Freedom Leisure, closed saunas and steam rooms at the centres to cut costs.
As reported in the Daily Echo, the district council handed over the running of its centres at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton to Freedom Leisure last year.
The company’s performance was raised at the latest meeting of the Conservative-run authority.
Cllr Alex Wade, a member of the Liberal Democrat opposition group, said customers had complained about delays to building work, swim session cancellations caused by staffing problems, the lowering of pool temperatures, and issues involving the changing rooms.
READ MORE: Soaring energy costs force Freedom Leisure to shut saunas and steam rooms
He added: “It has been nearly 18 months since Freedom Leisure took over – do you think the current performance levels have justified this decision?”
Cllr Geoff Blunden, cabinet member for partnering and wellbeing, replied: “The short answer is ‘yes’.
“Health and fitness memberships have grown by 54 per cent since the date of transfer and the numbers on the learn to swim programme have grown by 57 per cent.
“I recognise the significant challenges impacting Freedom Leisure with regards to the energy crisis and understand the difficult decisions it is making.
“I am aware some users have disliked some of the measures taken to reduce significant cost increases but it is right we show our support as they continue to work towards ensuring the financial viability and sustainability of all the leisure centres.”
READ MORE: Freedom Leisure set to run five facilities in the New Forest
Outsourcing the running of the buildings has proved controversial since it was first discussed.
A 2,000-name petition opposing the scheme was presented to the council and two Liberal Democrats, Mark Clark and Caroline Rackham, resigned from a working party after accusing the Tories of flying in the face of public opinion.
But the scheme was approved in March last year.
Council officers cited the problems facing the centres, including competition from low-cost gyms, and added that Freedom Leisure had the expertise to take the service forward.
The Daily Echo contacted Freedom Leisure but they declined to comment.
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