Published Friday, 21 February 2014
Unions fear the move will lead to staff cuts. (© Presseye)
The council's strategic policy and resources committee has decided to place the operation of its 10 facilities into the hands of an arms length not-for-profit trust.
The move has been designed to deliver £2m in annual efficiency savings in the service and forms part of a £100m investment programme.
Belfast ratepayers, according to council figures, on average pay a subsidy of almost three times more than the UK average for each visit to a leisure centre.
The council says it needs to cut around £1m from the yearly £7m staff wages' bill at the leisure centres.
It is understood the savings will be used to fund part of the investment programme.
It is considering its options because of decreasing customer numbers at the centres which are struggling to compete against the private sector fitness industry.
A paper presented to committee members at their meeting last month stated: "The professional analysis and advice is that the only model that will deliver the required £2m savings by 2016 is the non-profit distributing organisation."
We are confident that this major investment will improve leisure services and benefit employees and, most importantly, the ratepayers of Belfast.
Alderman Gavin Robinson, DUP
However, unions have expressed concern that any cuts will have a negative impact on the 300 plus workforce and potentially lead to job losses.
Ahead of the council committee meeting unions staged a protest over the move.
Bumper Graham, assistant general secretary with union Nipsa, said his organisation was opposed any move to "externalise" public service work.
Following the meeting alderman Gavin Robinson, DUP chair of the committee, dismissed the union's fears.
He said: "Nowhere in the UK, Republic of Ireland or Europe is any local authority making a capital investment of £105m in its leisure services.
"And this is in addition to the council's £150m investment programme for 2012-2015, which sees the council investing in major and local projects and creating job opportunities - taking total investment in the city to around £255m.
"A Belfast Leisure Trust will not only secure the jobs, basic terms and conditions ,and pensions of existing employees, but will be a good employer for anyone joining the Trust in the future."
Before the trust can be established, the committee's decision will have to be ratified before the full council.
The SDLP said it supported the move, while Sinn Féin said it was the only party to vote against it, describing it as "a bad decision".
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey tweeted: "Leisure provision should be kept in house and run by council. Hopefully it can be overturned at full council".
© UTV News