Cabinet member defies outrage at meeting to defend centre axe

AN ONSLAUGHT of intense questioning was thrown at the councillor defending the potential demolition of Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre on Monday.

At a public meeting called by the parish council, Jonathan Chowen (Con, Cowfold, Shermanbury and West Grinstead), cabinet member for Arts, Heritage and Leisure, told protesters: “I wish the centre wasn’t so well used and I wish it wasn’t as well loved because it would make everything easier”.

Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre has been recommended for decommission and demolition next year by an independent consultant’s report commissioned by Horsham District Council and costing £6,000.

On Monday night, around 100 athletes, parents and residents from across the district crammed into St John’s Community Hall in Broadbridge Heath to tell Mr Chowen why the popular centre should be saved, not scrapped.

Defending his position, the councillor said: “I’m a sporting fanatic so for me this is no fun. We have mended and patched for five years but we can’t continue to do it.

“There is going to be a significant amount of money set free to be reinvested back into the district and the sporting community.

“I ask you to join us to seize this opportunity to take this challenge of change – because people don’t like change – to show leadership, responsibility and some confidence in our joint endeavour to find an amazing legacy for the 21st century.”

But the explanation was received with a hostile backlash of groans.

Tearful mother of three and village resident, Hilary Garside, pleaded: “You can’t take it away from us.

“The children have just been involved from day one all the way up to now.

“I’m so upset because what facilities are they going to have? We’re going to have to get three kids in a car and drive to Horsham.”

To which Mr Chowen replied: “I hope that in the next 12 months we will be able to address that and find some way of dealing with it. I haven’t got all the answers and that’s one I haven’t got answers to.”

He acknowledged the fact that the leisure centre is home to The Tube - the only indoor athletics training track in a 50-mile radius - but said it was underused and the area often hosted children’s parties instead.

He said: “We do not need a £1 million building to have a trampoline and a kids’ party in - we do not need a building 72 metres long.”

Mr Chowen assured club users that they could be rehoused and relocated to other venues across the district which have agreed to take on more members.

But a comment from a student at The Weald School in Billingshurst indicated the wide-ranging demographic that would be affected by the closure.

Dan Pettitt, aged 16, said: “You say go up to Crawley but I have enough trouble convincing my mum to take me to Broadbridge Heath.

“The reception amongst my fellow peers is everyone’s against it.

“I have done surveys and spoken to so many people against it and it’s really disheartening for younger people to feel that they’re not being listened to.”

Others felt they had not been kept well informed of the entire process with decisions being made ‘behind closed doors’.

One resident said: “The general feeling from the town I have lived all my life in is that the council have done most of this in secret. I feel that you are doing this completely regardless of 95 per cent of people who live in the Horsham district.”

However, Mr Chowen rejected these claims and branded the earmarked site ‘Broadbridge Heath’s worst kept secret’.

“Nearly everyone that’s come to see me about Broadbridge Heath knew there was something in the winds for years - that there was a major retailer interested in it,” he said.

Throughout the questioning Mr Chowen maintained that he hoped many concerns would be addressed in the next 12 months, with ongoing consultation ‘against the background of the financial situation’.

The councillor made it clear that he would be taking into consideration the ‘smaller groups that don’t get the big voices’.

But Malcolm Curnock (LDem, Broadbridge Heath) said he was ‘sceptical’ to ‘only have one voice on the cabinet’.

“I’m sorry,” he told Mr Chowen, “I don’t have the same belief in you as I do in other cabinet members.

“It’s all right to make promises but where is the commitment and guarantee?”

Despite the public outcry at the meeting, Mr Chowen told the County Times afterwards that he believed residents “might have lost the battle but they’ve won the war. And that’s for future sport and leisure in Horsham and keeping that at the top of the agenda”.

He continued: “I hope we can look back some time in the future and think it was a job well done and worth all the pain.

“It doesn’t keep me awake every night, but it has taken up a large amount of my time and my thoughts because it is a very important decision to make for a lot of well meaning people.

“But at the end of the day it’s the right decision to make.”

David Hide, Horsham Labour Party chairman, told the County Times after the meeting: “I was appalled at the dismissive and complacent tone of Cllr Chowen who seemed totally uninterested in delivering quality affordable leisure facilities for the people of Boradbridge heath and beyond.”

Viv Edwards of Broadbridge Heath Parish Council later confirmed in a statement: “Broadbridge Heath Parish Council is opposed to the closure of the Leisure Centre until public information is made available regarding the guaranteed provision of equivalent or better local facilities for all residents of Broadbridge Heath.”