Posted: Wed 27th Mar 2024

Staff at Aura under stress over funding uncertainty, chief executive speaks out /

STAFF at a charitable organisation which provides leisure services in Flintshire are said to be suffering “significant stress” due to uncertainty over its funding.
Aura Leisure and Libraries Limited has managed most leisure centres in the county since 2017 as part of an arrangement with Flintshire Council.
The employee-owned company also runs libraries, museums and play areas on the local authority’s behalf.
However, it was revealed last week that council officials are considering withdrawing financial support when the current agreement ends on Sunday (March 31, 2024).
It comes as the authority is understood to be looking to bring the running of libraries, museums and play areas back in-house, whilst exploring an “alternative delivery model” for leisure services.
The issue has cast doubt over the future of Aura’s services and more than 250 jobs that it provides.
The organisation’s chief executive Mike Welch has now hit out over the situation after the company was previously told the council wanted to agree a new long-term deal.
In a letter seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he said the reasons for the authority’s change of heart were “unclear” and rejected the offer of a short-term extension.
Writing to Flintshire’s chief executive Neal Cockerton, Mr Welch said: “The current uncertainty and in particular the short-term change in the council’s position, is causing significant stress and concern for Aura employees. Aura considers this is being overlooked by the council.
“In our letter of March 20, Aura indicated that it was minded to accept the proposed short term funding arrangement but this was subject to understanding the offer and a number of assurances.
“The council’s response of March 22 regrettably gives limited assurance to Aura and is not something that the Aura board is in a position to accept.
“This leaves Aura in the very unpalatable situation of considering what happens if a short-term arrangement is not agreed and the impact upon staff and service users.
“Whilst it is welcome that the council wishes to use the transition period wisely to avoid the parties being in the same position, no detail is provided on how long that transition period will be for which places Aura in difficulty in seeking to make a decision.”
When the arrangement with Aura was first announced in September 2017, senior councillors said it would help to secure the future of Flintshire’s leisure centres and libraries.
It was reported it would allow the authority to make a 30 per cent reduction in the annual budget for leisure services, whilst investing in improving facilities.
In his letter, Mr Welch said the council had offered the company £1m to continue delivering leisure services in the short-term from April, which would last for approximately three months.
But proposals in relation to libraries, museums and play areas were said to be “less clear”, with Aura unwilling to use its reserves to fund services.
He said further discussions would be required between the two parties over transferring buildings and other assets.
Mr Welch added: “Aura would like to put on record again that it has remained and remains open to exploring a longer-term arrangement for all service elements and how this might sit with the council’s subsidy control and public procurement obligations.
“That is the position Aura felt both parties were in at the beginning of this month for all services and at this stage still remains unclear why the council’s position has changed.
“Aura is disappointed that it has not been possible to engage fully with the council on the possible options up to now and in particular on the reasons why a grant-based approach has been ruled out by the council.”
The authority’s decision is understood to have sparked concern from some councillors in Flintshire.
An emergency meeting was held at County Hall in Mold on Monday night to discuss the issue, which was attended by around 50 politicians and council officials.
A Flintshire County Council spokesperson said: “Flintshire County Council has been in discussions with Aura over future arrangements as the current funding agreement ends soon.
“An interim solution has been offered to enable further negotiations and to ensure services continue to be delivered.
“The Council is keen to maintain a working relationship with Aura but is unable to provide any further details at this time given the sensitive and confidential nature of the matter.” ‌​‌​‌​​​‍‌​‌​​‌‌‌‍‌​‌‌​​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌‌​​

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