THEATRES, museums, libraries and leisure centres owned by taxpayers could be handed over to be run by a charitable trust, under a radical shake-up being considered by council chiefs.

Facing cuts of nearly £150m over the next five years, Labour-led Durham County Council is contemplating placing dozens of leisure and culture assets into a not-for-profit trust as early as next year.

Click here for a detailed map of the facilities included in the council's proposed transfer

The huge list, obtained exclusively by The Northern Echo, includes flagship venues such as Durham’s Gala Theatre, Freeman’s Quay leisure centre and Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Museum, Bishop Auckland Town Hall, Consett’s Empire Theatre, Killhope: The North of England Lead Mining Museum, in upper Weardale, and Hardwick Park, Sedgefield.

Click here for a detailed map of the facilities included in the council's proposed transfer

In all, there are 39 libraries, 15 leisure centres, two theatres, two museums, an arts centre and an outdoor learning centre, in Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Sports development, arts development, countryside and outdoor sport and leisure services could also be “outsourced”.

The new as-yet-unnamed trust would be a not-for-profit charitable group known as a Non Profit Distributing Organisation (NPDO).

One of the biggest of its kind in the country, it would have a budget of more than £30m.

The council would retain ownership of the facilities but the trust would be responsible for managing and running them. It would be run by trustees and a management board, although who might sit on such bodies remains unclear.

Council officials believe the change, which they say has been successful elsewhere, is a simple way of saving at least £1m a year in business rates and VAT, and would allow leisure and culture bosses to tap into funding pots closed off to local authorities.

Next week, the authority’s executive cabinet will be asked to agree “in principle” to transfer into a trust the first batch of these facilities, known as Phase A.

Councillors will also be asked to sanction further research into putting into a trust a second batch, known as Phase B.

Councillor Maria Plews, Durham County Council’s cabinet member for leisure, libraries and lifelong learning, said: “In these difficult times, the status quo is almost certainly unsustainable and a trust like this could prove the best way to protect and even improve these services.

“While we are currently considering the full range of sport, leisure, cultural and library services, further consideration will be given to exactly which areas will transfer prior to a final decision in the autumn.

“In depth research will ensure we follow a tried and tested line which will deliver the best service for residents and the financial savings we have no choice but to make.”

The council’s cabinet will discuss the proposals at County Hall, Durham, on Wednesday, January 25, at 9.30am.

Final decisions are expected this autumn and the new trust could take over as early as April next year.

Trust would be one of the biggest

DURHAM County Council’s proposed leisure and culture trust would be one of the biggest of its kind in the country.

From a 350-year-old country park to a £12.3m state-of-theart swimming pool; from tiny village libraries to a county’s premier theatre.

The new charitable trust Durham County Council wants to run its leisure and culture services would boast an impressive portfolio.

Thirty-nine libraries from miniature Belmont to landmark Bishop Auckland Town Hall; 15 leisure centres from little Abbey to flagship Freeman’s Quay; all facilities run by Leisureworks in Derwentside and Leisure Connection in east Durham; and the £14m Gala Theatre, in Durham City.

All of these are in Phase A – effectively being fasttracked for handover.

Phase B, for which more research is planned, includes the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Museum, Killhope: The Northern of England Lead Mining Museum, Middletonin- Teesdale outdoor learning centre, Sedgefield’s Hardwick Country Park, various picnics and playgrounds, sports development services including coaching and arts development services including festivals.

Some will likely move over without visitors noticing any change. Certainly, council officials hope so.

They are playing down the shake-up as a “no brainer” – an easy method of saving money without frontline service cutbacks and getting cash from bodies such as Sport England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

But others could prove more controversial. Bishop Auckland Town Hall is a much-loved landmark dating back to the mid-19th Century.

Hardwick Park recently underwent a £10m revamp. Freeman’s Quay, which cost £12.3m, only opened in July 2008. The military treasures of the DLI Museum would no doubt attract both legal and emotional argument.

Of course, the trust idea is not entirely new. Durham council chiefs believe it has been successful in Stockton, Redcar and Cleveland and further afield.

Even within County Durham, Leisureworks has run the Lamplight Arts Centre and the Louisa Centre, in Stanley, and the Empire Theatre and Belle Vue swim and leisure centres, in Consett, since June 2007.

Leisure Connection has run Peterlee and Seaham leisure centres since April 2003.

Councillor Mark Wilkes, Liberal Democrat shadow portfolio holder for regeneration, said putting leisure centres into a trust could potentially save a lot of money, but asked why the authority hadn’t moved sooner – before closing two leisure centres last autumn.

Terry Collins, the council’s corporate director for neighbourhood services, said a trust offered communities much better opportunities to decide how their local services were run and there was a great deal of evidence to suggest trusts protect services and enhance their chances for improvement, via new funding sources.

“It’s important in the current climate that we remain open-minded about new possibilities.

The savings to the council are not in doubt, the non-domestic (business) rate and VAT relief alone would deliver much-needed savings,” Mr Collins added.

However, questions still remain.

Who will run this new trust? How accountable will it be to voters? How much freedom will it have from County Hall? Who will set its budget and spending priorities?

What happens when spending cuts bite?

Before final decisions are taken, taxpayers will want reassurances their museums and libraries are not being privatised by stealth.