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Independent and Labour councillors have clashed on a proposal about the future of leisure services in Merthyr Tydfil.

The opposition Labour group’s motion, which called on the authority to start a consultation with the public, leisure trust and trade unions with the aim of returning control of leisure services to the council, was passed at full council on Wednesday, September 7.

But independent councillors questioned its legality and accused Labour of “political posturing” and said that the motion was “reckless and irresponsible.”

The motion submitted by Councillor Kevin Gibbs said full council previously decided to remove leisure services from council control and set up the MerthyrTydfil Leisure Trust (now known as Wellbeing @ Merthyr).

It said the rationale for this move was to give control of leisure services to the trust allowing it to apply for external funding and operate in a manner that would benefit and improve leisure services for the residents of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough and the trust started operating formally in April 2015.

The motion added: “One of the six pledges published in the Labour Group’s election manifesto was ‘in the first six months of a new council to consult on the changes and implications of brining leisure services in Merthyr Tydfil County Borough back under the control of the local authority.

“The staff of the leisure trust have worked tirelessly to deliver the best possible level of service for our residents and this was evident during the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

“However, we cannot ignore the fact that from the outset, poor decisions made by the trust board and senior management, negatively impacted on how leisure services were delivered.

“The swimming pool at Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Centre has been closed to the public since December 2019.

“There have been ongoing issues with the splash pad in Cyfarthfa Park, the condition of Cyfarthfa Castle has continued to deteriorate and the current financial model of the trust is not sustainable.”

They want a report on the consultation results to come back to full council no later than January 11, 2023.

Former leader says everyone needs to work together on this

Councillor Lisa Mytton, independent, said that: “At the time we all thought it was really what was best for the public of Merthyr Tydfil and a positive decision for Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council.

“I think what we must also remember is that it’s no good pointing fingers as to who is at fault here.

“What’s important to remember is this should be about collaboration, what is best and what is right for the people of Merthyr Tydfil.

“It should be about what we as a council, full council, do with the leisure trust and the CEO there and everybody involved in order to support them to get this right.”

She said the swimming pool and the contracting for the swimming pool “obviously failed us” and that it was not built for the purpose it was meant for.

Cllr Mytton said a report came to council in 2021 under her leadership in relation to the leisure trust about what officers were trying to do and they all supported that.

She said everyone knew the legal implications, the TUPE (The Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment Regulations) implications and that unions were being consulted.

She said: “I support what you wanted to do in your manifesto because we all want to get it right.”

She said the splash pad has been delivered and that the Cyfarthfa foundation has objectives in place to deliver a “fantastic programme for Merthyr Tydfil” which includes Cyfarthfa Castle.

She said they all know about it so she’s a little bit perplexed about the notice of motion.

Cllr Mytton said: “We have to work together. I don’t understand what consulting and the implications will actually achieve. It’s about us working together with the trust and our officers to lead on that, to make that work. That has already started.”

She said they are talking about jobs, TUPE and massive financial implications which she said need to be checked.

Current leader says they need to check the motion’s legality

Councillor Geraint Thomas, the independent leader of the council, said it’s the legal aspect they have to check and whether they can go to public consultation on this for a commercial entity.

He said: “Let’s not take this notice of motion forward tonight but give our officers time to investigate the feasibility of bringing the leisure trust back in house. I think that’s what we need to do first.

“And if it is possible, then consult with the public because it may not be possible during these times.”

Labour councillors make the case for the motion

Councillor Anna Williams-Price, Labour, said as a new councillor her first speech in the chamber was to discuss the availability of leisure services and play for young children to the extent that a large number of residents feel they need to go outside of the borough to access those services.

She said: “This model is not delivering quality leisure services for residents and their children.”

She said she believes it has support from the trade unions from her personal experience but the purpose of the motion is to understand what residents and trade unions feel on what is the best way forward.

Councillor Clive Jones, Labour, said he was “absolutely amazed” at the line of questioning from independent members.

He said he’d be astounded if any of them said that, during canvassing for the election, leisure services didn’t crop up as an issue of real interest.

He said: “We as a Labour group want to carry out consultations with all those involved and to find out what the feedback is coming from them.”

He said the answers that Labour candidates in the run up to the election had were that the council needed to do something about the workings of leisure services.

He said: “If this motion was illegal I am sure that the legal officers of this authority would’ve ruled it out of order and put that advice in writing to councillors before the meeting tonight.”

Cllr Jones said Labour members see nothing wrong with what they’re doing and that the public, trade unions and leisure trust would be very interested in giving their view point.

Independent councillors label the motion “reckless” and “irresponsible” and accuse Labour of “political posturing”

Councillor Andrew Barry, independent, said the Labour group know they are dealing with this next week and highlighted that they have brought a notice of motion where they “openly criticise the board prior to opening negotiations with that board.”

He said there have to be negotiations and although he appreciated it was brought forward in good conscience, “what it needed was due diligence and support of the leisure trust.”

He said Labour didn’t want to consult to transfer leisure services out but now they do to bring them back and asked whether it is “political posturing” because it was in their manifesto.

Councillor Michelle Jones said the independent administration are not ignoring it and they’ve got workshops in place about leisure services.

Councillor Declan Sammon, independent mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, said independents want what’s best for residents but they want to do this properly.

He said an invite was sent out for a meeting of all councillors and officers and that this notice of motion was submitted about 40 days after this invite.

Cllr Sammon said: “What the Labour group have done by submitting this notice of motion is reckless and irresponsible.

“By publicly blaming the board and senior management for poor decisions which have negatively impacted on how leisure services have been delivered, you have just made any future negotiations with the leisure trust, and possibly trade unions, a whole lot more difficult and awkward.”

He said there are 120 full time employees at the leisure trust adding that the families will be “extremely worried” about their futures following Labour’s public comments.

He said for councillors to take the moral high ground on this issue they need to be 100% sure that the council has done everything it possibly could to rectify issues at the earliest opportunity.

He said it’s so important that councillors attend the workshop so they better understand what has happened previously, what is currently happening and what can be done going forward.

Cllr Sammon said: “This meeting was supposed to be the springboard for better leisure services in Merthyr Tydfil.”

Labour councillor responds

Councillor Brent Carter, Labour, said their manifesto went out about five to six months before the email inviting councillors to a workshop.

He asked if the independents were playing politics, where their manifesto is and why they haven’t done something about leisure services themselves because they’ve been in power since 2017.

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