Irony as liquidated Brentwood Leisure Trust is nominated for its ‘endless contribution’

The liquidated Brentwood Leisure Trust (BLT) has been nominated for its “endless contribution” towards an apprenticeship programme that helps young people not in education, employment or training build a career in sports.

The decision to liquidate BLT has also been questioned given the decision to appoint Everyone Active as the new operators, given the company operates facilities in Southwark and which received £4.2 million from the local authority there – support which Brentwood Council said was not available to BLT.

BLT ceased to exist on November 6 after it was unable to pay wages given heavy debts owed to Brentwood Council totalling £350,000.

The day before it was told it had one of the best apprenticeship schemes in the country.

A letter from Coach Core Foundation said: ““BLT has been nominated because of the valuable contribution made to the Coach Core Essex Consortium and the significant impact made to your apprentices.

“Your hard work, initiative and endless support has been highlighted as exceptional.

“We welcome you, friends and family to our online awards evening on Thursday, December 3.”

Questions have been raised why Brentwood Council said it couldn’t support BLT given rules over state aid.

And why Everyone Active, which received £4.2million from Southwark Council, has been chosen to run the Brentwood Centre.

A source close to BLT said: “Everyone Active are the same people who operate Southwark and got £4.2 million from the local authority. This local authority is doing what Brentwood Borough Council said was illegal.”

The Brentwood Centre was closed on October 28, threatening almost 140 jobs, after a deal to keep solvent BLT was rejected by the council when the trust realised it could not meet its payroll obligations for October.

Brentwood Council leader Chris Hossack had earlier explained that BLT wanted funding from Brentwood Council to pay staff because it did not have enough.

BLT still owes the council £350,000 and the council said it cannot legally give the trust any more.

Key to its decision are rules around state aid – where councils are restricted in the amount they can support organisations.

“Brentwood Borough Council is a publicly funded local government authority and there are various legal rules and regulations that means the council cannot lawfully provide any further monetary, or other assistance that would give them an advantage in the market, to the trust,” Brentwood Council said in a statement.

But there are other examples around the country of local authorities supporting their leisure operators, including leisure trusts.

The London Borough of Southwark decided to continue with its contract with its leisure management contractor, Sports and Leisure Management Ltd (SLM), until June 2023.

To date, the council has agreed a package of financial support to SLM of£4,227,000. And specifically a report to Southwark Council’s cabinet said this proposal was consistent with the guidance from the government in its public procurement policy notes in response to the pandemic.

Everyone Active has previously been criticised by Southwark Council leader Councillor Peter John in a meeting in July.

Southwark Council entered into a seven-year contract, with an option to extend for a period or periods of up to a further seven years at the council’s discretion, with Sport & Leisure Management Limited (SLM) for the management of the council’s eight leisure facilities and for the operation of the sports booking service.

SLM operates under the name of Everyone Active (EA).

Cllr John said: “SLM is owned in a very convoluted way by a number of other companies but it all leads back eventually to Mark and Caroline Bell who are the two shareholders.

“As two shareholders they received dividends in the last two years of £15.5million which is a substantial amount of money, anyone would agree.

“And at a time when Everyone Active is telling us they can’t pay us a management contract and they are effectively holding us to ransom over our leisure contract going forward, I think it is important to know what contribution they really will be making where a company that apparently has sufficient cash to pay out £15.5million in dividends to two shareholders isn’t able to offer further financial support.”

Duncan Jefford, Everyone Active regional director, said: “The pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant impact on Everyone Active, after all the centres we manage on behalf of local authorities have been forced to remain closed for prolonged periods.

“Consequently, we are negotiating with all our local authority partners to find the best way to move forward and the support we have requested as part of our discussions – including those with Southwark Council – does not go beyond the terms that are detailed within our partnership agreement.”

A spokesperson for Brentwood Borough Council said: “The legal advice was given on the facts of the case before Brentwood Council, we cannot comment on the legal advice given to Southwark based on different evidence.

“Again the engagement of Everyone Active, which has not yet been confirmed, is on different terms and therefore no comparison can be made.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter