CONTROVERSIAL plans to privatise the management of leisures centres in the New Forest have been given the go-ahead.

The district council has approved proposals to allow Freedom Leisure to run the centres at Applemore, Lymington, New Milton, Ringwood and Totton for at least 11 years.

Members of the ruling Tory group said Freedom Leisure's involvement would result in a raft of benefits.

But Liberal Democrat councillors voted against the move, saying lockdowns and the resulting closure of leisure centres meant now was not the right time.

The plans have proved controversial since they were first put forward in 2018.

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."

The proposal was supported at meetings of the leisure committee and the council's ruling cabinet.

Council officers said the facilities 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.

The proposal was rubber-stamped at a meeting of the full council.

The authority says the new operator is prepared to invest a total of £4.6m in the centres over the life of the contract.

Freedom Leisure must meet a host of targets and will be subject to monthly checks to ensure it is making satisfactory progress.

The council can impose financial sanctions on the operator if performance measures relating to customer experience, memberships, staff and asset maintenance start to flag.