REVEALED: Mismanagement contributed to leisure services fiasco
By Mark Owen and David Wood | 20th October 2023
The crisis surrounding the collapse of Gloucester's leisure facilities was partly down to financial mismanagement, Punchline can reveal.
GL1 leisure centre and Oxstalls Sports Park closed suddenly last month when charitable trust Aspire went into liquidation with the loss of 150 jobs.
An emergency Gloucester City Council meeting was held at a packed North Warehouse last night (Thursday) to discuss the crisis. It turned out to be a raucous affair with members of the public and councillors playing the blame game over who was at fault.
The city council was roundly blamed for the situation but Tory councillors blamed it all on Aspire's mismanagement.
Aspire trustees spoke at the start of the meeting saying they had debts of £500,000 and had asked the council to write it off multiple times.
The council had already provided Aspire with £1.5 million in funding in recent years and wanted assurances on the financial situation before giving them any more money.
They also had pension liabilities of over £10 million.
Council leader Richard Cook said not writing off the debt was the right decision as it would have been a "waste of taxpayers money".
Speaking to Punchline this morning, Cllr Richard Cook, leader of Gloucester City Council, said "I think it was a successful meeting. People were highly motivated on the issues that had happened and tended to focus too much on what had gone wrong rather than what needed to be done to restore leisure services to the city."
On the financial side, Cllr Cook said they had asked a firm of accountants to have at Aspire's account. "They were as nonplussed as we were about their accounts. They couldn't understand them either," he said.
"I think some of the issues that went wrong were down to some kind of mismanagement from Aspire. We heard about them awarding 10% pay rises to their staff. Frankly, a 10% pay rise for a firm on the verge of bankruptcy is a step too far in my opinion. It's completely wrong but I'm not a board member. I'm just amazed."
Deputy leader Hannah Norman said: "In April 2023, the minimum wage increase was around about a 9% increase so we absolutely support junior members of staff, those on the minimum wage, getting that in the light of the cost of living.
"However, for anyone in a senior of middle and senior management role knowing the deficits Aspire were working to, I do question them receiving 9.3%. Especially the one individual in the trust stating they earned a salary of £80,000 and receiving a 9.3% increase is very questionable when they were working on a negative operating budget.
"I think we would like to ask how did the trustees of Aspire scrutinise those decisions, were they passed through on the nod, did they go through to the board for ratification? I think those are incredibly important issues to be addressed because at the end of the day they were being primarily funded by the city council which is taxpayers' money."
Cllr Cook denied that the council had been "asleep at the wheel", as they had been accused of last night.
"We were in constant contact with Aspire," he said.
As for the future, he said they were going to steadily reopen all of the facilities.
"We will by the end of this month select an interim service provider who will work with us for the next 12 to 18 months while we go into long-term procurement to provide a long-term provider for our leisure services.
"We are going to put the money we offered Aspire which they rejected into the pot to enable us to provide all those services. I'm sure before the end of this year we'll have full service back as normal."
Cllr Jeremy Hilton, leader of the Lib Dems on Gloucester City Council, told Punchline: "There's a lot of problems that went on. We've still got a lot of questions to ask over the next few weeks to find out what went wrong so we need to learn from that. and we need to make sure that we don't make the same mistakes again
"I'm not convinced that outsourcing every council service is the best way to run services. It makes it very difficult to keep a tab on it."
Asked about the financial side of things, Cllr Hilton said he didn't feel the wage rises was necessarily the main issue.
"The real issue was not being able to get new bond for their pensions that they needed to have to carry on trading. The company was quite clearly in the red. The council over the years has been squeezing and squeezing the funding that it provided to the point that it got to zero and they were hit hard by the pandemic and heating costs.
"It might have been better to run it in house - that's something we need to consider in the future."
Gloucester's leisure facilities are gradually being reopened. GL1's swimming pool is still closed to the public but Gloucester City Swimming Club has been able to use it from the start of this week.
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