A FORMER director of Horsham District Council has contacted the County Times this week to break his silence and launch a scathing attack on his former employer and cabinet member Jonathan Chowen (Con, Cowfold, Shermanbury and West Grinstead).
After months of declining to make a public comment, Chris Dier, who retired as the local authority’s director of community services in 2010 after nearly two decades running the district’s leisure services, has decided to speak out about the council’s ‘unbelievable’ proposals to offer an ‘extremely poor replacement for the current centre’.
And Mr Dier, of North Parade, Horsham, who accuses the council of ‘dumbing down’ provision in a letter to the editor published in full on page 10, is not alone in his criticism of the recommendations made by council consultants last week and revealed in the County Times.
The Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre joint user group (JUG) has also contacted this paper to register its disappointment at the ‘wholly inadequate’ options proposed for public consultation which suggest the current centre be replaced with what it terms to be a ‘parish facility’.
In a statement released to the County Times JUG declares the council consultants’ preferred option for a new smaller centre would sacrifice a ‘bustling and lively facility’ to ‘just a minimalist drop-in venue’.
Last week the County Times reported that the proposed new centre under preferred consultation option 6 would provide a 30-station gym, two court multi-purpose hall, cafe, and a six-rink indoor bowls club, on land to the south of the existing bowls club.
However, neither the indoor nor outdoor running track would be replaced, and the sports hall facilities, HAODS and Theatre 48, and Sensory Room would all be relocated to an alternative site.
And unlike the current centre at Broadbridge Heath, the new one would not provide meeting rooms, a dance studio, beauty salon or sports therapy.
For Mr Dier, who was ‘always very proud that the Horsham district has been the envy of every other council in East and West Sussex for its range and quality of leisure provision’, the paucity of the proposed replacement facilities is a sad indictment of the council’s vision and capabilities.
Citing the district’s excellent leisure facilities as a significant factor that makes Horsham special, he said: “What we are witnessing is a gradual ‘dumbing down’ of this provision, and whilst I recognise that the financial times are tough, Mr Chowen and his cabinet colleagues should not underestimate the impact of their decisions.”
Suggesting the cabinet member for Arts Heritage and Leisure Mr Chowen no longer believes health, wellbeing and quality of life of the residents is a priority, Mr Dier asks: “What next… a major housing development on Rookwood Golf Course? The museum exhibits put into storage in Park House? I dread to contemplate what plans he has for the Capitol!”
Representing a diverse range of user groups at Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre including Juniors, 50+, Blue Star Harriers, Horsham Joggers, Horsham Arun Badminton, Broadbridge Heath Football, HAODS, Semka Karate, Sussex Thunder and Ladies Morning, the JUG is equally dismayed at what the council is suggesting should replace their beloved leisure centre.
The group is also frustrated at how it was ‘locked out’ from helping to determine the consultation options.
Whilst recognising they were initially consulted regarding use, they feel deliberately excluded from the next stages in the consultants’ process when crucial decisions were made about what the council should replace, after the decommissioning and demolition of Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre.
Criticising the public consultation that will start on Saturday if, as expected, the council’s executive cabinet approve the four proposed options at a meeting tonight, JUG representative Paul Kornycky said: “They see consultation as engaging consultants, locking out the public, coming up with some proposals that they agree with, and then letting the public have their say.
“Often however because that is right at the end of the process, the options that people
want or want to talk about have already been ruled out.”
The retired systems analyst, who has already held the council to account over a number of its figures and methodology used to determine leisure provision, said, if the consultation goes ahead as planned the JUG is officially ‘at loggerheads with the council’ and will be ‘fighting their decision to only provide a minimal replacement’.
In the statement JUG states: “The Horsham public should be given all the option facts and costs. They should not just be given a very limited range of options, pre-determined by HDC.”
While recognising the need for ‘some rationalisation’, it also highlights the HDC’s estimated £20m land value, asserting ‘there is money available, without increasing council tax, to invest in a sensible facility for the long term future’.
Former HDC leisure services director Chris Dier agrees, declaring ‘it would seem to me that the council will be trying to spend as little as possible of the funds that they can achieve by selling the existing leisure centre site’.
In his letter Mr Dier states: “The proposed new leisure centre appears to be an extremely poor replacement for the current centre and contains nothing more than would be have to be provided for the residents of the new homes being built to the west of Horsham.”
He adds: “I find it unbelievable that Jonathan Chowen has declared the proposed new leisure centre as a triumph for leisure planning.”
Defending his council’s latest policy, yesterday Mr Chowen stood by his assertion made in last week’s paper that this is a good news story for the district, with the council intent on providing new facilities fit for the 21st century.
Responding to Mr Dier’s crticisms Mr Chowen said: “I am not surprised he wants to protect his much valued legacy, but these are difficult times.
“We are listening to residents views. They are ringing in my head, and that is why we are still consulting and have not made any decision yet.”
The cabinet member remained adamant he has been both listening and hearing, demonstrated by the regular meetings he has been holdind with user groups, clubs, the public and press.
He refuted JUG’s assertion they have been ‘locked out’ of the latter stages of the process, but wanted to explain how this might have been percieved to be the case while the consultants compiled their ‘very detailed 500 page report’ which had to be carried out by the professionals alone once they had assessed use in conjunction with the user groups.
Finally, Mr Chowen reiterated that no decisions have yet been taken as to the extent of what will replace Broadbridge Heath Lesiure Centre.
Answering the criticism that the council is just proposing a ‘minimal’ facility, more akin to a parish centre as opposed to district facilites all residents can be proud of, Mr Chowen said: “We have not made a decision, we are in consultation.
“We’ve had the professional report and the consultant’s conclusions, with facts and figures to back it up, showing what is ‘essential’.
“But they have also shown what is ‘desirable’, and now it is for us with the consultation to confirm what we think is essential and then decide if we want to move some of the desirable in with the essential.
“I don’t think anyone should panic at this point until they see the final conclusions.”
Full information about the consultation is available online at www.horsham.gov.uk or by calling 01403 215259.
Background information about the future of Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre, including the business case and other Council reports, can be found online at www.horsham.gov.uk/news/2010/14640.aspx