CONTROVERSIAL plans to privatise the management of leisure centres across the New Forest have taken a major step forward.

The scheme has received the backing of the district council's ruling cabinet and is almost certain to be approved at a meeting later this week.

Welden Leisure, trading as Freedom Leisure, wants to runs the centres at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton.

If the scheme goes ahead it will run the facilities for at least 11 years. Civic chiefs say the council save up to £8m, which would be spent on improving the centres.

The proposal was supported a meeting of the leisure committee earlier this month.

Council officers said the centres were struggling to compete in an ever-changing market that included private leisure centres and the emergence of low-cost gyms.

The officers outlined the lengthy process the authority had gone through to select the preferred bidder.

They said Freedom Leisure was a not-for-profit organisation that would invest in the buildings and equipment. It also had the expertise to take the service forward.

But the plans 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 members of the authority recently resigned from a working party.

Liberal Democrats Caroline Rackham and Mark Clark 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 the proposal has been defended by Cllr Mark Steele, cabinet member for health and wellbeing.

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

The scheme is expected to be approved at a meeting of the full council on Thursday.