Councillors have capped an increase in leisure facility fees at 3.5% after hearing a planned 20% rise could have a “major impact” on usage and membership numbers.
It followed a robust debate at the first ever meeting of Aberdeenshire Council’s new Culture and Sports Sub-Committee which met earlier today (Wednesday).
While the committee approved the 2019-20 Live Life Aberdeenshire pricing policy, not everyone agreed the increase was appropriate.
Inverurie councillor Lesley Berry questioned why officers believed it was now acceptable to cut the previously agreed 20% increase to just 3.5% – claiming the council would be going “in the wrong direction” in terms of income generation by taking such a massive cut.
At a time when the council had just gone through a major budget process which will impact on some services, she said: “I am not convinced this is the right way to go. It raises more questions than answers in my opinion.”
Officers had argued that continuing with the previously-approved phased increases would be “counter-productive” in terms of encouraging usage and generating income.
They also stressed that the proposed 3.5% increase would generate an additional £172,000 against the £147,000 under the initial pricing policy and steer the authority towards recovering some 60% of its costs.
Councillors heard that while the new pricing policy had been successful in meeting income targets in recent years – with facility usage remaining comparable in 2018/19 to the two preceding years – the latest review had identified a number of key areas where usage trends caused some concern.
The current year’s membership sales have “significantly reduced” by 16% with the only area of growth being membership types which restrict users to either ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ services for a reduced rate.
Membership is also the only area where actual income is predicted to be less than the previous year – down by £11,500.
From a business perspective, Cllr Colin Pike urged caution on the introduction of any increased charges which, he said, people would notice “instantly”.
He commented: “We understand that we have to make money but you don’t do that by putting prices up.”
Initiatives such as incentivising existing customers to bring along a friend or relative to an activity, he said, would boost user numbers and increase revenue.
The North Kincardine councillor also questioned why the sub-committee was, in his opinion, effectively being steered by both officers and its own ‘parent’ body the Community Committee to increase prices.
He stressed the sub-committee had been appointed to lead the council’s Live Life Aberdeenshire leisure programme in a bold new direction, with fresh ideas and a new working philosophy for the future.
Turriff councillor Alastair Forsyth, meanwhile, said he was content with the 3.5% increase option provided it reduced the amount of subsidy and managed to “wash its face”.
He said the proposals offered a “rolling, dynamic” approach which provided opportunities to introduce enhanced offers and savings for various users in the coming year.
And he stressed the need for the council to use its pro-active leisure facility staff as a “thermometer” to assess whether the frontline changes were “too hot or too cold” as the programme is run out.
While members approved the 3.5% price increase, they also instructed officers to provide them with a breakdown of income and usage figures in three months time against a comparison of at least one year.
How the charges will affect you
Under the new charges, the current joint membership (two adults) and the small family membership (one adult and two children) will be merged into one ‘small group’ ticket priced at £48.
There will be a 1.6% increase to standard memberships and family group memberships, but it was agreed to hold the price of the ‘Learn 2 Swim’ membership at £18 to encourage users to move from paying ‘over the counter’ for lessons to direct debit payment.
It was agreed to only apply a cost of living increment of 3.5% to prices for 12 to 18-year-olds to encourage greater participation and income.
Similarly, in terms of the over 60s, feedback indicates that users are finding annual significant price rises a barrier to regular usage which may then impact on the ability of the service to promote regular exercise and healthy lifestyles to this group.
After councillors heard that the proposed 20% price rise for 2019-20 was likely to exacerbate this trend and result in reduced usage, they again agreed to apply a cost of living increment of 3.5% to prices for the over 60s.
They hope that this approach coupled with a variety of promotions aimed at this group will reverse the current trend with the result of promoting healthy lifestyles, increasing usage and maximising income returns.
Macduff Aquarium pricing
Macduff Marine Aquarium will keep a special price for the over 60s and disabled not on low income, which was due to be phased out in 2019/20.
They will enjoy a £1.25 discount off the standard rate of £7.50 which will enable the aquarium to align itself with local partners, assist with joint ticketing and positively market the price to meet customer expectations.
But again a 3.5% cost of living increase will be applied to all other prices except for the family group ticket which will be retained at £21.75.
Councillors heard that retention of the price at the current level would enable staff to promote the product and increase take up and subsequent income.
Poor take-up for the ‘aquarist for a day’ activity which attracted two users coupled with just four child annual membership has prompted a reduction by 25% and 35% respectively to assist in developing the products and generating future sales.