A proposed £2million contract with Fusion Leisure had been agreed to operate the three venues owned by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council [TWBC].
The confidential deal was arranged behind closed doors due to the commercial sensitivity of the talks and would see Fusion retain the management of the sites.
The registered charity has been running Tunbridge Wells Sports Centre in St John’s Road, the Putlands Sports and Leisure Centre in Paddock Wood, and the Weald Leisure Centre in Cranbrook since 2006.
In August last year, following the closure of all of leisure centres across the UK following the pandemic, TWBC had to hand over £670,000 of taxpayers’ money to Fusion in order for it to be able to reopen the centres after the provider ran out of cash.
TWBC waived the annual £249,634 management fee the company normally pays to operate the centres, but also handed over £420,000 from Council funds to pay for the reopenings.
Fusion came under criticism from a number of local clubs, including the 100-year-old Monson Swimming Club, after the leisure provider raised fees.
The contract to provide leisure services in the Borough was due to expire in March next year, but the Council has been told there is no alternative but to accept a new deal with Fusion.
Cllr Jane March, who heads Culture and Leisure on the Conservative-run Cabinet, has been told that extending the contract is the ‘only viable option’ and that five years would offer the maximum ‘capital investment’ by Fusion.
The deal, the Times has learned, would see the leisure provider repay the £670,000 it borrowed from TWBC last year and continue to pay the existing £250,000 annual management fee for the next five years, along with any debts accrued along the way.
Fusion has also made a pledge to invest money to upgrade the facilities, but no details have been made available.
However, opposition councillors at TWBC are unhappy with Fusion following the bail out last year, and have now ‘called in’ the deal, meaning it is to be challenged before the authority’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee next month. No single party now has overall control of the council.
The political row could see the Cabinet forced to reject the leisure provider’s offer, which may in turn see leisure services in the area put on hold until the authority finds another provider – or is able to run the sports centres itself.
The deal was ‘called in’ by Cllr David Hayward from the Alliance, who declined to comment on his objections to the new contract. His appeal has been backed by both Labour and the Lib Dems.
Cllr Hugo Pound, who leads the Labour Group on TWBC, called the decision to hand Fusion back the contract ‘lazy and thoughtless’.
He told the Times: “The proposed extension of the Fusion contract does not meet residents’ needs. Why do we have to put up with broken fitness machines, filthy public areas, limited opening hours, and a lousy booking system?“
He added: “Cabinet considered no evidence of the possible cost of bringing the service in-house, of approaching other suppliers, of asking smaller, local companies to take on parts of the contract.
“It has hardly spoken to local community groups who use the facilities daily. It is a lazy, thoughtless decision which we hope will be [eventually] overturned by Full Council.”
Lib Dem Leader Ben Chapelard added: “We do not support the Conservatives’ plan to extend Fusion’s contract for five years. Their management of the Council’s leisure centres has been poor.
“Too many residents and sports clubs feel let down by Fusion.”
The future of leisure centre provision and the deal with Fusion was set to be discussed at a Special Overview and Scrutiny hearing on Thursday [August 12].