CIVIC chiefs planning to privatise the management of leisure centres in the New Forest have named the leading contender.

Freedom Leisure, a not-for-profit trust, could end up running the five centres at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton.

The Tory-run district council has announced that Freedom Leisure is the preferred bidder.

Launched in 2002 the organisation runs 101 leisure facilities across the country for clients including schools, local authorities and academies.

Cllr Mark Steele, cabinet member for health, said: "Freedom Leisure are a trust where all surpluses are reinvested in support of shared objectives with their partners.

"Their approach to running community facilities really impressed us and they have demonstrated their track record in achieving what we would wish from a leisure service for the New Forest.”

But the announcement has failed to impress Cllr David Harrison, leader of the Liberal Democrat group.

He said: "I see little merit in transferring the management of our well-run health and leisure centres to a new organisation.

"It increases the risk of standards declining at a time when there is so much uncertainty about the sector anyway.

"Certainly the plans aren't popular with local people, customers and unions. I don't think the staff would have chosen it, had they been given any choice."

Plans to privatise the management of the centres have proved controversial since they were first put forward.

A 2,000-name petition opposing the scheme was presented to the council last year and two councillors have resigned from a working party.

Liberal Democrats Caroline Rackham and Mark Clark have accused the authority of flying in the face of public opinion.

Cllr Rackham said: "My colleague and I have had enough of this Conservative administration not listening to anyone - the public, opposition members, even the privately-voiced fears of their own backbenchers.

“A series of public meetings were held when the idea of privatisation was first floated.

"The feeling from the public was clearly against such a move, but the Tories decided to press on with their plans.

But Cllr Steele said: "I remain confident that our procurement process will help us secure a viable long-term leisure service for the district."

The issue will be debated by the community and leisure panel on February 9, the cabinet on February 17 and the full council on February 25.