Councils defend claims they hastened leisure provider's closure

Nirvana Health and Fitness in Lowestoft, which has been closed following Sentinel Leisure Trust's decision to cease trading.

Nirvana Health and Fitness in Lowestoft, which has been closed following Sentinel Leisure Trust's decision to cease trading. - Credit: Mick Howes

A charity which ran leisure facilities and has begun winding down has said the termination of council contracts "compounded" lockdown struggles.

Sentinel Leisure Trust (SLT) has confirmed almost 100 members of staff have been made redundant by the move to close, and alleged decisions by East Suffolk Council (ESC) and Great Yarmouth Borough Council (GYBC) to terminate contracts early "compounded" the impact of lockdown enforced closures.

ESC, however, said they do not believe SLT are due the amount they are seeking, while a spokesperson for GYBC said the trust had "many months" to prepare for the end of the contract, adding thoughts were with the staff and customers affected by the "failure of the company".

A sign on the gate of a Sentinel Leisure Trust facility in Lowestoft.

A sign on the gate of a Sentinel Leisure Trust facility in Lowestoft. - Credit: Mick Howes

In a statement released on Monday evening following a directors meeting, SLT confirmed the financial situation "rapidly worsened" last week.

The statement highlighted the fact that, because of coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, facilities were closed for nine of the past 24 months.

A spokesperson said: "Covid-19 has had a significant and detrimental impact on SLT, as it has with all leisure operators and the majority of businesses.

"Lockdown meant no income, but ongoing costs.

Raw Soccer and Adventure Island on Pinbush Road, Lowestoft.

Raw Soccer and Adventure Island on Pinbush Road, Lowestoft. - Credit: Mick Howes

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"SLT was able to access the government's Job Retention Scheme which meant we were able to continue to pay staff.

"However, all other ongoing costs were met from SLT's now depleted reserves.

"Post-lockdowns, SLT continued to trade but, while the sites are improving, they are not performing at pre-Covid levels - a trend experienced across the country.

"To compound this position, both ESC and GYBC elected to terminate our contracts early. SLT was not in default of these contracts.

"Their reason for taking this action was to 'carry out a competitive tender exercise to test the market' following which, in the case of ESC, saw a private sector leisure operator appointed to run its services."

Barnards Meadow Soccer Centre in Lowestoft.

Barnards Meadow Soccer Centre in Lowestoft. - Credit: Mick Howes

The charity claims the termination of the contracts entitles it to an exit payment, adding while discussions are ongoing, no agreement has yet been reached.

The spokesperson added: "SLT has continued to bear the significant costs arising from the early termination of these contracts.

"This has put a further significant strain on the very limited reserves SLT had left, to the point where it became impossible to continue trading."

In January 2021, ESC confirmed Everyone Active would take over the day-to-day running of the Waterlane Leisure Centre in Lowestoft and the recently refurbished Waveney Valley Leisure Centre in Bungay.

Now, an ESC spokesperson said: "We are disappointed to learn that SLT has ceased trading and our thoughts are with all those who have been affected as a result of this decision.

"The trust previously managed leisure facilities on behalf of East Suffolk Council until the decision was taken - in October 2019 and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic - to seek a new provider for leisure services in the north of the district.

"This was undertaken, as per the agreed terms of the contract, to ensure we secure the best possible value for money, and quality of service, for our local taxpayers and communities.

"Staff at the facilities in question subsequently transferred their employment, by TUPE regulations, to the new provider.

"Discussions with representatives of Sentinel regarding a financial settlement had been continuing recently and they are aware of our position.

"We do not believe they are owed the amount they are seeking and, as protectors of the public purse, the council cannot pay out money it does not believe to be due.

"Meanwhile, representatives of Sentinel are also aware, as part of these discussions, that we are pursuing recompense for money we consider to be owed by the trust to the council.

"This matter had not been resolved prior to the trust's announcement."

In October 2021, SLT confirmed it would no longer be operating Bradwell's Phoenix Pool and Gym or Great Yarmouth's Marina Centre after deciding not to bid for a new operational contract to run the sites following the latter's £26m ongoing revamp.

A spokesperson for GYBC said: "Our thoughts are with the staff and customers of Sentinel Leisure who have been affected by the failure of the company.

"Sentinel had many months to prepare for the end of their contract with GYBC and it was the company's own choice not to bid for the new contract to run both the Phoenix Leisure Centre and the new Marina Centre, which opens this summer.

"We now have a new contractor, Freedom Leisure, operating the Phoenix, which remains open as normal, and together we are finalising preparations for the opening of the new Marina Centre."

'Very sad day'

The official confirmation came after days of speculation over the charity's future, which saw a number of sites they operate closed over the weekend.

Andy Wilson-Sutter, chair of the trust, said: "It is a very sad day for Sentinel.

"The situation has come to this through circumstances beyond our control.

"Our first thoughts are for the staff who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

"They have been part of the Sentinel family for many years and have worked so hard to make the charity a success.

"Also, our loyal customers who have supported us over the years.

"The situation rapidly worsened last week and, as a result, we had no option but to quickly cease trading and close all sites on Friday.

"Sadly, due to the time constraints on us, we were unable to inform all customers of these closures."

Mr Wilson-Sutter confirmed the board of trustees passed a motion on Monday, March 14, to take steps to wind down all of SLT's activities, making almost 100 members of staff redundant.

Water Lane leisure centre, Lowestoft

Water Lane leisure centre in Lowestoft. - Credit: Nick Butcher

History of Sentinel Leisure Trust

Formed in 2008, Sentinel Leisure Trust became a registered charity whose prime objective was to improve the health and wellbeing of the local community.

It was initially established by Waveney District Council, who would later merge with Suffolk Coastal Council to become ESC, to manage and operate leisure facilities in Waveney.

Its success led to it being appointed to manage and operate facilities across the border in Norfolk following an agreement with Great Yarmouth Borough Council.

Its sites included a number of facilities offering leisure, play and education opportunities, encouraging healthy recreation.

SLT is managed by a volunteer board of trustees from the local community.