It appears that many councillors and council officers within Birmingham City Council are keen to transfer leisure services within Birmingham, including all swimming pools into a ‘Leisure Trust’. They are expected to vote on this in the coming months.
A Leisure Trust is essentially an independent body which will take the responsibility for providing the services that the council currently has a statutory duty to provide. Many councils currently use this model (including neighbouring Sandwell). Many reasons are cited for this, not least the ability to raise more funds that are currently unavailable to local authorities.
Andrew Brightwell has been doing some sterling investigative journalism over the past few months to find out why councils are so keen to pass responsibility over to Leisure Trusts, and whether the assumptions made about them are correct. I really recommend having a read through his blog, Where Can We Swim? which has loads of well researched facts and figures, many specific to Birmingham. His most recent post, Investigating Leisure Trusts: The real work starts now!! summarises just some of his research and calls on all of us to scrutinise the process that our local councillors and council officers are working on behind the scenes.
Friends of Moseley Road Baths have major misgivings about transferring services to a Trust. These include the need to protect staff pay and conditions (one of the most valuable assets in any public service), maintain and improve standards, sensitively protect the fabric of the building and to commit to accessibility for all.
We also have concerns about the nature of any body taking over services. Will they, for instance, invest any profits back into the service, can they be accountable and responsive to service users (whose taxes still pay for the service) and will we be able to put them under the same level of scrutiny as any other public body? At the present time such trusts are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act – an anomaly that MP Tom Brake is trying to address.
So, what are your thoughts? Is Councillor Mullaney presenting us with a quick fix which is too good to be true, or is the ‘Big Society’ vision of devolving power to trusts and community groups a sustainable, successful model for swimming pools that we should aspire to? What questions should Friends of Moseley Road Baths be asking of the Council. Is it maybe the case that this model could work for other pools, but not for a Grade II* listed building? Oh, and please, please, take time to have a look at Andy’s site and leave your comments and questions!