I am writing in response to the statements quoted in the ‘County Times Comment’ column and the article ‘Council attempts to defuse row over bowls club future’ (page 21) in last week’s County Times, attributed to Jonathan Chowen, cabinet member for Arts, Heritage and Leisure.
Although I am a member of the board of Horsham District Indoor Bowls Club, I am writing in a personal capacity and my views do not necessarily reflect those of the board.
I was present on 20 February when Cllr Chowen attended a meeting of the directors and informed us of the way that he was thinking in terms of the development of the ‘Quadrant’ and provision of a new leisure centre. He advised us that there was a possibility that our bowls club was not going to be moved into the new leisure centre unless we could put up a good case for our moving to a new home.
To say we were stunned is an understatement but this quickly turned to anger as we realised that despite the council’s acceptance of the so called ‘Option 7A’ in 2012 and our positive co-operation since, Cllr Chowen was proposing to tear up that democratically arrived at decision and effectively destroy our bowls club.
He emphasised that no final decisions had been taken, but by then his credibility had been shot to pieces – and the directors became highly sceptical. When confronted, he explained it would not be his decision alone but that of his ‘Cabinet’ colleagues and they had to be persuaded. It was pointed out to him that he himself would play a major part in any discussions and his recommendations were likely to ‘carry the day’. It would then go to a meeting of the full council and likely as not, will be subject to a ‘whipped vote’.
He clearly has been trying to find ways of justifying - what would inevitably be - the destruction of a good facility and our club. He has focused on the membership of the club and his sole reasoning was a decline from when we were formed 19 years ago. He also refers to Sport England and the so-called decline in bowls nationally.
But what he fails to understand is that the decline has been predominantly in the playing of outdoor bowls, much of which has been due to local councils closing clubs to use the land for building. Now he appears to want to switch the focus to closing indoor bowls clubs too.
Not only is his reasoning suspect but he has taken a disingenuous position on the grounds of convenience once it was realised that inherent in the Westrock proposals for the Quadrant is the demolition of our building in order to accommodate the new leisure centre, thus preventing the seamless continuity that is paramount to our club’s survival.
Our membership is about the same as it was in 2012 when the consultants’ report on the available options to the council was published, but more importantly his focus solely on membership numbers, takes no account of both the usage of the facility nor its financial position.
As I said to him at the meeting of 20 February, our club is perfectly able to meet its financial obligations and membership is only one factor in determining the financial viability of a leisure facility. The facility is used by a whole range of organisations, societies and groups not all of which are members but use the facilities.
It is now well known that we pay Horsham District Council a sum not far short of £50,000 per annum and we maintain the facility at our expense and pay the running costs. Not bad for a club that he seems to want to put out of business. Why should we have to put up yet another business case? We were commended by the council for our 2012 submission and most points in that submission still apply.
In meetings with Cllr Chowen and Natalie Brahma-Pearl (the officer assisting Cllr Chowen) it was quite evident that neither had any understanding of the sport of bowls and the part it plays in the sports scene and the community and therefore had no interest whatsoever in taking a positive attitude to the future of our club. Accordingly, I have serious doubts about the judgement of the council.
Cllr Chowen advised the directors at our meeting that the cost of accommodating our club in the new leisure centre was estimated at £1.4 million and that the value of the land on which our present building sits has been estimated at between £3 million and £4 million. Accordingly, there is a financial benefit to the council of between £4.4 million and £5.4 million. I would suggest to Cllr Chowen, his officers and councillors at HDC that in the absence of providing a new facility in the new leisure centre, they use some of this money to identify (probably on the commercial market) an alternative building suitable for conversion, at the council’s expense, into a new bowls centre which our club would then lease.
Finally, I call upon each and every HDC councillor to recognise the strength of feeling among the members of our club and the wider community and to press for an outcome which preserves indoor bowls in the Horsham District.
Buchan Hill, Pease Pottage