Am Bratach No. 245
March 2012

High Life not so high
by Mandy Haggith

Sport centres and other public facilities, since October of last year in receipt of local authority grant-aid from a so-called independent charity, High Life Highland, instead of directly from Highland Council, are worried that the change may threaten their survival.

Kelly Standlick, manager of the Assynt Leisure Centre, said: “Before High Life Highland came on the scene, there was just ourselves, Poolewe Swimming Pool, the Lochalsh Leisure Centre and North Coast Leisure, as Highland community leisure organisations applying for funding from the big charitable trusts. Now High Life Highland could potentially seek funding from the same sources, and it definitely feels more competitive. They’re so much bigger than we are, and the cushion of finance from Highland Council they have is far greater, so it all feels a bit uneven”.

The Assynt Leisure Centre’s core funding from Highland Council is eroding. Ms Standlick said: “We have a service level agreement with the council of around £25,000 to provide sports facilities, but this has not been increased for five years, and so it is losing value against inflation. We also provide learning and youth opportunities but we don’t get anything from the council for these, yet if we close and Highland Council had to run these services, they would have to spend far more money than at present to provide them”.

Kelly Standlick says Assynt Leisure is very happy to work with High Life Highland to help provide services locally. She cites High Life Highland’s recent “Move It to Lose It” campaign, promoting exercise for weight loss, which Assynt Leisure were not initially asked to take part in. She said: “They need to include us and bring us in a bit more, let us benefit from their sheer size, for example, in advertising and promoting healthy activities”.

All the arts, learning and leisure assets such as sports centres, buildings, library and museum collections and archives still belong to the council but High Life Highland is paid a management fee to provide services. The same model has been applied in Edinburgh and Glasgow to leisure centres, but this is the first time such a huge portfolio of services has been passed over to private management. It covers nine areas: libraries, adult learning, leisure centres, sport, youth, outdoor education, archives, museums and galleries. NW Sutherland has few of these facilities, but High Life Highland says it wants to work with local bodies to increase access to arts, culture, sport and learning.

A fundamental question is how High Life Highland is held accountable to the tax payers who fund it. Ian Murray, chief executive of High Life Highland, said: “High Life Highland will still be accountable in the same way as the council. We will comply with the rules for procurement and tendering and as a publicly funded body we will be subject to the same Freedom of Information laws, and aim to be transparent in the way we do business”.

However, unlike the council, High Life Highland’s decision-making bodies are not democratically elected (with just four out of twelve board members from the council), and membership of High Life does not confer voting rights.

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