5 minutes with Dominic MacAskill, UNISON Cymru/Wales head of local government
Why are libraries and leisure services such a prominent feature of the #unisonmanifesto?
Libraries and leisure centres, like other local services are the bedrock of our society. We need decent libraries and leisure centres. If our communities are healthy that takes some pressure off other public services. Libraries and leisure centres must not be cut.
Why are they under threat?
Welsh councils are under intolerable pressure after years of savage UK Conservative Government spending cuts. Some authorities are considering outsourcing libraries and leisure services as a quick and easy way to save money in the short term but the long term consequences are terrible.
Why is outsourcing libraries and leisure services the wrong decision?
Outsourcing leisure services spells disaster for local communities and the leisure centre workforce.
Removing a sports centre from local council control and democratic accountability, means people have no say whatsoever about the quality of the service. If gym prices are cranked up, or opening times restricted, or a sports centre is shut down, you are powerless. There is no-one to complain to because no-one has a duty to listen.
Inevitably, the new company would look to make savings by sacking workers or not replacing staff who leave and squeeze wages and employment conditions — that means cutting the pay of people who live in your community. Our experience tells us a new company would make wider use of exploitative zero hours contracts. Leisure centre staff are generally low paid young women who work around childcare.
Outsourcing is a short-term economic fix and cannot benefit people in the long term. The new private company would have a free hand on profits, money that would otherwise have been reinvested in the community for the public good. Councils are left with no power to intervene to positively shape the lives of their citizens.
So what’s the best option?
If libraries and leisure services are ever in difficulty, the best solution is to devise an in-house improvement plan with staff, trades unions and users, which places the quality of service and users at the core
A peculiar tax anomaly allows charitable trusts running leisure centres up to 100% relief on business rates, whilst councils pay the full rate. This discount is clearly wrong and it also means there is less money coming into the public purse.
What’s your message to councillors?
Our kids are inspired by the Welsh aces at the Euros, gold medals in Rio and six nations’ stars. Why shouldn’t we be demanding world class leisure facilities to help them — and the rest of us, emulate their heroes?
Let’s nurture our libraries too. Think of all those great things our libraries provide to people of all ages in the community: story-telling classes for young children; internet access for those who can’t afford it at home; IT training and adult education and job advice for the unemployed, not to mention the wonderful availability of free books.
We need sustained investment and libraries and leisure services run directly by councils, focused on the well-being of their communities.