Councillor Mason welcomed Councillor Clark, Matthew Wickham, Phil Hughes and Carol Pilson to the meeting.
Members asked questions, made comments and received responses as follows:
· Councillor Yeulett asked what the Council’s financial contribution was to Freedom Leisure and whether the money would be paid back to the Council. He asked where the funds had come from within the Council’s budget and questioned whether the service had returned to normal levels of activity following the easing of restrictions and if the service was now financially feasible. Carol Pilson noted that the support provided to Freedom Leisure had been reported to Cabinet and committed to circulating this report with the panel. She explained that the management fee owed to FDC by Freedom Leisure had been deferred since the start of the pandemic and that once a certain threshold had been hit, they would begin to repay the Council. She also explained that FDC had covered the cost to keep the service functional over the course of the pandemic. Carol Pilson informed the panel that support had been sought via the National Leisure Recovery Fund to help offset some of the costs which may have fell on the Council due to contractual obligations. She noted that the Government also provided Councils with a scheme related to income so that 75 pence in every pound was recovered from losses during the pandemic. Carol Pilson noted that the balance paid to Freedom Leisure had been taken from reserves and that the affect on the overall budget will be reviewed at Council in February.
· Councillor Mason asked whether there were any concerns over Freedom Leisure’s ability to repay the money owed. Carol Pilson explained that they were due to begin paying back some of the management fee in January showing that the sector was beginning to recover from the pandemic.
· Councillor Yeulett asked how Freedom Leisure planned to compete against Pure Gym in Wisbech as they had recently lowered their prices. Matthew Wickham stated that this was a challenge that Freedom Leisure experienced across most of their gyms in England and Wales and that rather than lower prices they compete by selling a more rounded package than their competitors including all facilities not just the gym.
· Councillor Hay echoed Councillor Yeulett’s concern regarding Pure Gym and asked whether Freedom Leisure believed that the removal of the daytime membership option would have a negative effect on the service. Matthew Wickham explained that the change had been made in the best interests of as many people as possible. He noted that if there was sufficient feedback that it would be open to review as their goal was to help as many individuals stay active as possible.
· Councillor Hay noted that there seemed to be very little consultation with users when the daytime membership was initially ceased and expressed the concern that the effect of the change would only be seen when individuals decided not to sign back up. Matthew Wickham accepted this point but explained that consultation would always result in a recommendation to reduce the price. He noted that reducing the cost would have a knock-on effect on other areas and that the price had to be weighed against the services provided. He explained that they could not make alterations based on specific demographics as the service was designed to attract customers from all walks of life.
· Councillor Booth asked whether the grant received was masking the true extent of the issue being faced. He questioned the confidence that Freedom Leisure had around returning to a positive position by January. Matthew Wickham noted that the forecasting undertaken since the beginning of the pandemic had proven fairly accurate and there was no reason to expect this to be far off for January. He remarked that areas such as learn to swim had experienced a boom and were 51 percent up from pre-pandemic levels. He noted that Fenland membership numbers were the highest within their own internal league tables albeit 12 percent down on pre-Covid figures. He explained that communication had improved across the sector and that Freedom Leisure were confident that they were in similar situations if not better off than other operators in the country. He also noted the importance for Freedom Leisure to return to pre-Covid levels as the financial margins within the industry are small. He noted that there were challenges due to price rises in utilities and goods which they were attempting to offset as much as possible.
· Councillor Booth asked what negatives there where from the feedback and complaints and requested that more information be provided around complaints analysis. Matthew Wickham agreed that the report was very one sided in terms of the feedback from customers included. He noted that most feedback around staff was exceptionally good but agreed that they could improve further by continuing to take complaints on board. He agreed to provide a complaints analysis going forward.
· Councillor Miscandlon asked whether Freedom Leisure had considered moving to solar power due to the rise in utility prices. Matthew Wickham stated that Freedom Leisure were focused on improving their environmental footprint as a corporate priority. Phil Hughes explained that work had been undertaken in 2016/2017 to put PV on all leisure centre roofs and combined heaters in all centres with swimming pools. Matthew Wickham noted that they would take the point onboard and discuss how further improvements could be made.
· Councillor Wicks asked what recovery maintenance plans were in place with regards to the swimming pools that had laid dormant during the pandemic and noted issues reported at Whittlesey swimming pool. Matthew Wickham stated he was not aware of any specific issues and that he would provide an update to the panel after the meeting. He stated that ahead of reopening’s Freedom Leisure undertook full maintenance plans like those undertaken when starting from scratch. He noted that issues arose as the machinery was not designed to be turned on and off.
· Councillor Mason thanked Councillor Clark, Matthew Wickham, Phil Hughes and Carol Pilson for their time.
The report was noted for information.