COMMENT: Council u-turn on leisure centre

Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre
Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre

By Head of News, Mark Dunford. BACK bench Conservative councillors have asserted their authority and forced Horsham District Council’s cabinet to drop a motion to go before full council on Wednesday agreeing to the closure of Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre.

At a private meeting of the party on Monday, councillors outside the cabinet seem to have made clear that no decision about the future of the popular centre should be taken until there had been a full business appraisal of all the options and a public consultation.

The row started brewing last week as councillors grew increasingly alarmed that no formal business case existed for closure even though they were being told by their cabinet to support a motion doing so.

On Thursday, the Editor In Chief of the County Times group Gary Shipton personally intervened writing a comment on this website stating that the closure clause must be dropped at this stage. He also wrote to the chief executive of Horsham District Council Tom Crowley posing a series of detailed questions about the formal business case for closure - not least, if there was one.

Clearly there was not.

With mounting back bench anger, key members of the cabinet worked through the weekend to amend their proposals.

The deliberations were lead by the cabinet member responsible Jonathan Chowen as well as caretaker leader Ray Dawe.

Many backbenchers are furious with the cabinet - which now stands largely isolated within its own party - at the way the whole closure issue has been handled.

They feel they were not properly consulted from the outset, that it has been rushed, that overwhelming public opinion and protest has not been fully evaluated, that a consultants’ report on alternative leisure provision was less than perfect, and that it has been a public relations disaster.

Worse than that they are appalled that there appears to be no formal business case in place to justify the way forward.

They want to see fully costed options as well as evidence of the real commercial value of the current site.

The motion that they finally hammered out at their Monday meeting removes Broadbridge Heath from the leisure contract - not in itself a barrier to keeping it open - calls for a full business case to be prepared and consultation by May, and says that no final decision will be taken until it goes before full council in May.

By then, a new leader will be in place following the shock resignation of the previous leader Robert Nye last week.

And a new leader is likely to put in place a new cabinet - and one that will want to look afresh at all the issues surrounding the leisure centre.

This is good news for campaigners seeking to save the leisure centre - because despite tough financial pressures on the council, many key backbenchers believe the council must be responsive to the needs of the electorate and maintain its reputation for providing excellent services as efficiently as possible.

The County Times has been lobbying hard both through its columns and outside the newspaper, to ensure that the view of residents is properly taken into account and that all the financial evidence for closure is in place and fully understood before any decision is taken.

Our website has kept users abreast of all the behind-the-scenes developments throughout the weekend - and has accurately predicted every fast-changing twist of events.

But the paper has also been clear that it is not seeking credit or wishing to claim some kind of “victory”. Any change of heart will be due to the Conservative councillors themselves - as well as the unprecedented campaign by council tax payers.