THE Pembrokeshire branch of public service trade union Unison has hit out at cash-strapped Pembrokeshire County Council’s proposals to out-source the running of its leisure, tourism and cultural services which could bring savings of more than £700,000 a year.

The council has employed a specialist firm, London-based Winckworth Sherwood, which has come up with five options for culture and leisure services, and two options for tourism.

A consultation, seeking the public’s views, runs until Friday, September 16.

Winckworth Sherwood favours the creation of a charitable trust to deliver culture and leisure services, including leisure centres, swimming pools, libraries, museums, and support for the arts.

The trust would be independent from council, which would only be able “to influence rather than control” it.

The charitable trust option would see annual projected savings of £637,000 on business rate relief, and £65,000 on VAT, with potentials for further savings, access to private finance, and for donations and income generation.

A board of trustees, including two county councillors as members, is proposed.

Unison Pembrokeshire launched a petition against the outsourcing and has been collecting signatures and support at the Pembrokeshire County Show, in workplaces and across the community.

Branch secretary Vic Dennis said: “The council has just spent thousands of pounds getting another consultant in, this time to recommend they form a charitable trust to run these services and give away the services that they currently fully control.

“The changes will affect as many as 400 people and we know a charitable trust will look to make savings by depressing wages and weakening employment conditions.

“We believe that services are best delivered directly by the council. These services contribute to the health and well-being of our community, give people free access to knowledge as well as helping us understand and appreciate our heritage and culture.

“We are preparing a campaign on social media and encouraging people to write to their county councillors. We know that Welsh local authorities are under intolerable pressures because of the Conservative government’s cruel austerity cuts and we will also be lobbying our MPs. However, outsourcing is a short-term solution to budget pressures and it will sacrifice popular services that serve people of all ages.

He added: “We want the entire community to get behind the campaign to Save our Local Services. If we lose these services to a charitable trust they will be gone from local democratic control forever.”

In its consultation, the council states: “Between now and 2020 we estimate that we will need to reduce our spending by some £52.5 million.

“This is in addition to the millions that we have already saved in recent years. A series of changes made to leisure, cultural and tourism services over the last few years have contributed towards meeting overall budget pressures.

“All council services, including leisure, culture and tourism, are expected to continue to help us respond to the financial pressures we are facing. We are keen to find a way to operate these services more efficiently and to avoid the closure of facilities, wherever possible.“We are proposing to deliver leisure, cultural and tourism services in a different way. This means we are proposing to change the way these services are managed and governed rather than changing the way customers will receive these services.”

Responding to the Unison claims, Pembrokeshire County Council’s Deputy Leader, Keith Lewis, said: “I am disappointed that Unison has responded so prematurely in this negative manner.

“The consultation process has only just started and there is some way to go before any final decisions are taken.

“However what is clear is that such are the financial pressures being faced by the Authority in the next few years and in order to maintain a quality service to our customers and safeguard the future of staff, then we do need to examine different ways of delivering these services.”

Alternatives to a trust include creating a co-operative, owned by employees, with potential £65,000 VAT savings; a council-controlled trading company, with estimated savings of £628,000; outsourcing to the private or voluntary sector, or maintaining services in-house.

It also proposes a separate subsidiary to manage tourism marketing services.

Public meetings are taking place, including Milford Haven Leisure Centre, tomorrow, August 25; Fishguard Leisure Centre, September 1; Haverfordwest Leisure Centre, September 5; and Pembroke Dock Library, September 12; all between 6.30pm and 8pm.