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Scathing review of leisure provision in Northumberland

Changes to leisure-centre memberships pricing sparked criticism.
Changes to leisure-centre memberships pricing sparked criticism.

Another of Northumberland County Council’s arm’s-length organisations has come in for scorching criticism.

Last year, it was announced that the authority’s development company Arch was to be dissolved following a ‘complex and comprehensive’ independent strategic review, which had found ‘failings in relation to the operating principles and fundamental purpose of Arch’.

The building housing Seahouses Tourist Information Centre had to close, much to the dismay of the community.

The building housing Seahouses Tourist Information Centre had to close, much to the dismay of the community.

Northumbria Police also confirmed it was working with the county council on matters relating to finance and governance issues at Arch.

A police spokesman said: “A number of matters have been raised relating to finance and governance issues at Arch. Police are working with the county council concerning these matters but they are not yet subject to a full criminal investigation.”

Now, a similar review into Active Northumberland, which runs leisure services on behalf of the council, has produced a scathing report, which is also critical of the council’s involvement.

A summary report of the key findings was circulated to councillors ahead of next Wednesday’s meeting of the full council.

It says the review ‘identified significant failings of governance and numerous gaps in the expected level of strategic and operational capability and capacity in Active Northumberland.

‘These poor oversight arrangements have severely impacted on the organisation’s performance and day-to-day operational capability.’

The conclusion explains that the issues have been ‘significantly detrimental to the organisation’s effectiveness to deliver high-quality services for the residents of Northumberland’ and that the county council’s involvement has ‘significantly hampered Active Northumberland’s operational ability to achieve their own strategic destiny’ and it should not have been at the level that it was.’

Some of the only praise in the report is reserved for the staff, with the conclusion stating: ‘The staff of Active Northumberland have contributed significantly to continuing to provide services to the residents of Northumberland with extreme resilience and it is important that this is noted.

‘It cannot be underestimated the difficulties that staff have encountered and that they have continued to put their customers and residents at the forefront of their duties despite the unethical and negative organisational culture which staff been working in.

‘The environment for staff has been challenging and dysfunctional with a fundamental lack of positive attributes which could create a healthy organisational culture.’

Back in November 2016, Active Northumberland faced a backlash over major changes to its pricing, which had just come into effect.

The report says this decision was made ‘with limited consideration as to the impact and operational difficulties that any such changes would make to both staff and residents of Northumberland’.

It goes on to say that it ‘had a significant adverse and detrimental effect both operationally and reputationally for Active Northumberland’.

Significant customers were lost and many have not returned, it explains, although some have returned due to amended pricing approaches being implemented.

Then, last year, there were concerns over the future of several tourist information centres in north Northumberland, with, for example, the building housing the Seahouses facility having to be closed.

On this aspect, the report highlights that Active has acquired responsibility for a number of services, ‘together with significant budgetary reductions’ from the council.

It adds: ‘This has resulted in significant redundancies from Active Northumberland and changes to the provision of services to residents of Northumberland across the county as a whole. Such changes have been made without any clear rationale or evidence to support Active Northumberland to successfully deliver and redesign a service that has clear positive outcomes for residents.’

A county-council spokesman said: “Active Northumberland plays a key role in promoting active lifestyles and in improving health and wellbeing in the county. The council fully supports these aims and recognises the need to work with the trust to ensure both a more strategic approach and a clearer direction for the services it provides.

“This comprehensive strategic review was jointly commissioned by the county council and Active Northumberland and has enabled both organisations to listen carefully to the views of managers, employees and other stakeholders of Active Northumberland to develop a clear framework for improvement.

“There are a number of important issues that Active Northumberland needs to address and, while progress has made been made, there is an action plan in place to ensure all the recommendations within the review are carried out. As a core funder, the council will seek regular assurances these commitments are being met.”

Council leader, Coun Peter Jackson, added: “The comprehensive review of Active has confirmed the criticism previously made by the auditors. There have been failures of governance, a lack of a clear business plan and issues with the financial management.

“I have been shocked to find such a degree of mismanagement and I can assure the public that we are acting decisively to put things right.”