The Bickerstaffe Record
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Leisure and culture

West Lancashire Leisure Trust – a study in failure

08.07.08 | 2 Comments

A short while ago I attended the Annual General Meeting of West Lancashire Leisure Trust, the not-for-profit company set up as part of the privatisation of leisure services in West Lancashire.  Their job nominally is to administer the contract with Serco Leisure Operating Ltd, though as far as I can see to all intents and purposes the (very good) Council Leisure Services Manager still does this at no cost either to the Trust or to Serco.  At the outset I should make clear my view that the Trustees of the Leisure Trust are all honourable people committed to public service.  This includes the Conservative Councillor who represents the Council on the Trust, who seems to me like a genuinely decent bloke.   The key problem is that they simply do not have the power that should they need to do the job required of them, and as a consequence end up being part of a shell of an organisation with no proper function and no direction. 

So here’s how the evening went….. First, the agenda was out of keeping with the Articles of Association of the Leisure Trust.  I’d taken the precaution of asking to see an inspection copy of the Memorandum and Articles at the AGM because I had sense that something might be wrong.  This was confirmed when I compared with the agenda, which said the Chairman would be elected at the AGM, and the Articles, which state that the Chairman should be elected at the first meeting of the board AFTER the AGM.   Though this sounds an oddity, it is quite normal for this legal form of organisation, and marks it out from forms with shareholders, where voting decisions like this can be taken at the AGM. 

Now all this may seem a bit anally retentive on my part, and when I raised the matter later I was told that the election would be ‘confirmed’ at the next board meeting to be sure on the matter.  Certainly it doesn’t affect day to day affairs of the trust, and I’m not enough of a legal eagle to know whether in the event of a dispute between the Trust and Serco the fact that the Trust may have made decisions while not operating in abidance with its Articles might be of importance. On the other hand, it is a pretty basic mistake for a Trust charged with overseeing a multi-million pound contract to make, and one which reflects, in my mind, an institutional shoddiness and the fact that the organisation only really exists at all as a front for Serco. 

The other strange bit of the agenda was right at the end, where it was made clear that questions from the public would be restricted to a maximum of 15 minutes.  I’ve been to a lot of AGMs in my time, and I’ve never seen such a restriction.  Very odd, I thought, resisting the temptation to think it had been put there simply to curb my enquiries.  Perhaps they were expecting a very large gathering. Perhaps not surprisingly though, I was the only member of the public there.  I was also the only person to ask any questions, apart from one trustee who asked why the AGM was held in Banks (up the northern end of West Lancs District near

Southport) when it was only accessible by car (I don’t think he noticed that I’d actually got there by bike). He did have a point about public transport access, though of course there is an argument for circulating the AGMs round the district. – not that it really matters as it hadn’t been advertised well enough to attract anyone other than myself; ( didn’t get an invitation even though I’m the Shadow Cabinet member covering leisure services,  so I had to find it out for myself. I asked as many questions as I could squash into my 15 minutes (to be fair the Chairman gave me a bit of leeway, perhaps because he realised the questions were all quite reasonable and measured). The Qs and As went along the following lines. Q1:  I asked what the trustees’ attitude to the marketing of sunbed use undertaken by Serco, given the health issues associated with sunbed use? 

A1: The chairman didn’t have a view, so passed it straighrt on to the Serco manager, who defended his corner by saying Liverpool John Moores University advocate sun bed use for some people with dermatological problems.  Though I doubted the relevance for people without such problems, I’ve searched for it since but not found it, but I’m waiting for the view of the PCT Director of Public Health on the whole matter anyway, and have been for about 7 weeks now).  At the time I countered with the fact that the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health are campaigning for local authorities to remove sunbeds form their facilities.  The Leisure Services Manager intervened on behalf of the chairman, saying that the issue of whether sunbed should be in local authorities was a matter for the local authority.  I concurred, though I still think it’s a bit strange that neither the Chair nor any trustee had any kind of response to a legitimate question not about sunbed use perse, but about the aggressive marketing it has had from Serco.  I’ll be coming back to that one for sure. 

Q2: I asked what deadline are the trustees might be working to for a decision on whether they should contract with Serco to operate the new wet/dry facility to be built in Skelmersdale, particularly given the decline in 2007 in swimming pool usage under Serco’s stewardship. A2: The Chairman seemed surprised by the question and stated that the Trust had a 15 year 3 month contract for the delivery of services.  I respectfully suggested that this is not in fact the case, that the contract with Serco is for the management of the current 5 sports facilities, and that the question of who manages the new facility is quite a different matter. 

The Council’s Leisure Services Manager was again very helpful and tactful in indicating that I was right, but that another important part of the process was for the Council to decide whether it, in its turn, wished to contract with the Leisure Trust for the management of the new facility.  I’m not certain if this was news to the Chairman (it wasn’t to me as I had debated it fairly heatedly one week previously at the Overview and Scrutiny meeting), but I suspect it was.  Of course, I hadn’t made that point as it was the trust AGM, not Council meeting. Now, it might be considered bizarre that the Chairman of an organisation set up with one role in mind- to manage the contract with Serco – should not actually understand the basics of what the current contract is.  Certainly it is unacceptable, and it is something I will be raising again and again and again,  but it is understandable given the way the power structure works.  As noted above, the Chairman is a perfectly competent gentleman, and in other circumstances he’d be well on top of any contract he’s responsible for.  In this case, though, the organisation he runs has no real power – in reality there’s an acceptance that Serco will get the new contract in spite of their huge failings, all of which have gone officially unnoticed and unremarked despite  my efforts to get them on record.  The Chairman knows he can’t change anything, and in these circumstances why would he bother to invest time in reading and understanding a contract with Serco which he has no power to control.  It’s not hiis fault – it’s the Tories fault for delivering a contractual arrangement which is rotten to the core and the consequence of which is that the people of West Lancashire are getting a much, much poorer service than three and a half years ago. 

Q3:  I asked what steps the trustees are taking to arrest and reverse the decline in swimming take up A3: The Chairman responded that they are checking to the figures to see if they are wrong, and that they’ll do some marketing!  What?  They suffer a major downturn in 2007 and six months after the results are released they say they’ll check them to see if they are accurate?  Then what?  Why marketing?  What about the actual service?I rest my case…… 

Q4: I asked about how the development of management information systems, capable of giving some useful information about who was actually using the service and how regularly were coming along, some three and a half years after the start of the contract. A4: The IT man form Serco intervened at the request of the Chairman and said the new system linked to the till was in place and that they were working on the development pf appropriate management reports from it.   After some discussion about what might actually be useful, I said I’d look forward to asking the same question next year, just as I had asked in 2008. 

Then the 15/20 minutes were up. 

So…..in short, the Leisure Trust is a shambles, unable to meet its obligations as a contract supervisor, and consequently unable to get anywhere near meeting its (laudable on paper) objectives.  It is not the fault of individual trustees, who have been put in an impossible position.  It is the fault of a Conservative Council which rushed into a contact on the basis of its narrow-minded ideology, and it is this which is making the people of

West Lancashire suffer.  I will keep on campaigning for remedial action, and this will include calls for the contract with the Trust to be stopped. It is not working for people’s benefit, because it cannot work. 

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