Friday, June 30, 2023

The mini Margaret Thatcher of Gateshead Council


The future of leisure centres in Gateshead has been a hot topic for over a year. A consultation was launched in October 2022 which included proposed closures and plans to privatise the management of any remaining facilities. The two most threatened centres also happened to be in the most marginal Labour held wards in Gateshead (Birtley and Saltwell). I think it is fair to say that Labour went into panic mode as the end of the consultation approached in January. The result of this was a last minute change of plan at the all-Labour cabinet which delayed the end of the consultation to 8th May, 3 days after the local elections! The cost of that was £600,000.

If Labour thought they could avoid defeat by delay, they were mistaken. They lost both Birtley and Saltwell to the Lib Dems.

The cabinet member responsible for leisure services is Angela Douglas. The plans for closures and privatisation belong to her. She has presided over a failure to make the facilities self-financing. Cllr Douglas has been rather quiet about the leisure facilities. When the report came to the cabinet in January she had nothing to say, despite the two hour debate that took place. At the budget meeting there was an amendment from the Lib Dems calling for reserves to be used to keep the facilities open while their future was sorted. She made no contribution to the debate despite being the responsible portfolio holder.

The people of Gateshead have every right to ask, "What is the point of Cllr Douglas and what do the people get for the £16K she is paid in addition to her councillor allowance?"

Fortunately her vow of silence came to an end in June at the cabinet meeting that considered again the closure of two facilities and to seek private sector providers to take on the running of what's left. Cllr Douglas in her speech to cabinet decided to blame the Liberal Democrats for the closures and the current state of the centres!

This is somewhat rich coming from Gateshead Labour - they have run the council for nearly 50 years (or should that be "they have run the council into the ground for nearly 50 years?") Given  the privatisation agenda of Cllr Douglas, the mini-Margaret Thatcher of Gateshead Council, she should be the last person making such comments!

There is one hopeful element to this saga. There are possible community asset transfers that could result in the voluntary sector taking on Gateshead Leisure Centre and Birtley Swimming Centre. Nevertheless, the two centres will have to close on the day the school summer holidays begin, stripping Birtley and Gateshead Centres of vital income as well as denying local communities access to important leisure facilities when the kids are out of school. If they were to reopen in the voluntary sector, much of their customer base is likely to have gone elsewhere, helping to fatten up the facilities where Cllr Douglas is looking to privatise the management. But that's market forces for you. Margaret Thatcher would have been proud of her mini.

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