Welcome for centre decision

Having attended the rally, procession and council meeting last Wednesday to lobby for the People’s Option at Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre, I welcome, at last, councillor Chowen’s proposal to retain a District Leisure Centre in the West of Horsham, at Broadbridge Heath, and also a commitment to re-provide the Outdoor Athletics Track, as close as possible to this site.

Having a district scale facility, as opposed to a parish one, has always been paramount. I also believe that the councillors gave clear direction that there would be seamless continuity of provision regarding the Outdoor Track, notwithstanding the fact that a new site (local to Horsham) has not yet been identified.

I also heard and support the concept that this is the basis of what will finally be provided and not the final definition of what will be built. I therefore congratulate Mr Chowen in his proposal for a Leisure Centre Delivery Advisory Group (comprising members and users) which will be the ideal forum to facilitate identification and evaluation of sensible refinements to the current proposals. The following day Mr Chowen was on BBC Radio Sussex and described the current offering as a minimum. I certainly concur with that!

In the council meeting I heard a number of members refer to the need to balance provision of discretionary services (eg sports and leisure) with council tax levels and sound finance. I agree with that too. That is why I am calling upon HDC to, at the earliest opportunity, explain their incomprehensible decision in reducing the space allocated for gym equipment to less than half the current size. Not only does this contradict the extremely heavy existing usage by around 900 subscribing gym members (plus extra to come from the new housing development population), but it is a very poor financial decision.

The Joint User Group have established (using the HDC consultants financial model) that for a further capital investment of £0.5m in the gym, the annual return on that would be virtually 25 per cent.

So the annual profit (net of all costs, including maintenance and renewal etc) generated from the new leisure centre, would increase from around £87,000 (Option 7A) to over £210,000 per year. What alternative investment could possibly give that rate of return, not to mention the provision of services that people want? I really don’t understand this aspect of Option 7A at all. It appears to be letting down the council tax payer, never mind the gym user.

As the project goes forward, the Joint User Group will be promoting adequate MUGA (outdoor floodlit) space and also that a dual purpose Crèche/Sensory Room, together with a separate Meeting Room be provided. These additional rooms will cost relatively small amounts if designed and built at the outset.

However they will help enormously with the scheduling of ancillary functions to ensure that the main spaces (Multi-Purpose Sports Hall and Dance/Exercise Studio) are always available for the prime activities. Remember that there are currently four prime spaces at BBHLC (Badminton Hall, Table Tennis Hall, the Tube and the HDC Studio) and so with just two replacements they will need to be intensively programmed to meet demand. This is only feasible with these extra and separate rooms providing space isolated from the main (and often noisy) activities.

Am I content with the outcome? Yes, broadly speaking and subject to the above. However I am concerned about the Indoor Bowls Club. It seems to me that either HDC should properly cater for their needs in the new centre or simply not bother to move them just 25 metres and leave them to enjoy their independence in their existing excellent facilities.

Am I content with the process? Well it certainly got off to an appalling start with the previous leader of the council adopting a dictatorial position, thankfully reversed by overwhelming public opinion. The worrying thing was that it now seems clear that this stance was the culmination of a long-term ‘unwritten agenda’ to let BBHLC ‘run down’ and then inevitably, demolish and redevelop.

How else can you explain some of the HDC planning decisions and land sale agreements? Of course, don’t forget the verbal brief for the Leisure Futures Study with its ‘unsurprising’ conclusion of ‘surplus to requirement’.

Also, around £22,000 has been spent on leisure consultant’s reports. I personally challenged a number of key metrics eventually eliciting that many were crudely based on old 2001 census information and also included private facilities with no community access. As the consultants preferred Option 6, was soundly rejected in the Consultation Ballot, coming last with less than two per cent of the vote, will they forfeit part of their fee? I doubt it.

Timely and genuine engagement with the public and users may well have avoided unnecessary ‘confrontations’, saved some consultancy fees and enabled an earlier consensus. HDC needs to embrace the spirit of ‘localism’ and not over-rely on consultant’s reports which even they are not always able to fully scrutinise. True consultation is not just a procedural step arising at the end of the process, having ‘locked out’ the community beforehand. It is a genuine two-way and on-going dialogue.

But we are now where we are. I look forward to the current proposals evolving into a final set of detailed plans to give Horsham the new District Leisure Centre it deserves, as a reasonable (but rationalised) replacement for BBHLC (interestingly, this is exactly what the Joint User Group said back in December 2011!).

So, in around three years’ time, as the old BBHLC finally closes its doors, I look forward to seeing the new BBHLC2 and also using it on 50-plus day, of course!

Hopefully the end will then have gone (at least) some way to justify the means.

PAUL KORNYCKY

BBHLC Joint Users Group, Cox Green, Rudgwick