COMMENT: Vote to close Broadbridge Heath leisure centre may be abandoned on Wednesday

Is Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre really saved?
Is Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre really saved?

By Head of News Mark Dunford. THERE was a glimmer of hope this weekend that Horsham District Council will abandon a vote on hugely controversial plans to close Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre this side of Christmas.

The council is due to vote at its meeting on Wednesday for a phased shut-down of the facility.

But sources suggest growing unease by many backbench Conservative councillors who are appalled that no formal financial assessment and business case appears to have been put together to justify such a change.

There is now enormous pressure on the cabinet - which looks increasingly isolated from its own party - to water down its proposal for Wednesday’s meeting to something the whole party can unite behind.

No decision will be taken by Conservative councillors until a private meeting of their group on Monday evening, but there is now an expectation that while Wednesday’s meeting will be asked to remove the centre from the leisure contract, closure will not be agreed until after there has been a full financial appraisal early next year.

By then, a new council leader will have been installed following the shock resignation of the previous leader Robert Nye this week.

Mr Nye, whose departure was unconnected to the leisure centre issue, was nonetheless a key campaigner for closure - and his sudden loss caught councillors and cabinet by surprise.

It gave fresh hope to campaigners seeking to save the centre, one of whom said it was “Christmas come early.”

The County Times has already criticised a consultants’ report into alternative leisure provision in the district.

The council has argued that closure of the centre will enable the site to be part sold and part let as a DIY retail park - generating a capital lump sum to be invested in other leisure provision as well as £1.5m a year income to the council.

But inquiries by the County Times to date has failed to establish any formal valuation of the site or any formal appraisal of the costs of closure. There have been suggestions that in real terms, closure might save less than £30,000 per year - a tiny amount in the context of the council’s overall budget - and that renovation costs could be phased over several years.

Yesterday, the Editor In Chief of the County Times Gary Shipton wrote on this website that while he fully understood that the council had to exercise tough budget controls it had failed to make the case for closure at this stage - and that it should defer any closure decision on Wednesday.

Today he wrote to the council.

He said: “We are struggling to understand the justification for closure.

“In our opinion, the consultants’ report was at best vague and at worst disingenuous, as our recent coverage pointed out.

“More than that, I still see no evidence of a formal business case having been prepared, although I cannot believe you would be looking to proceed if this were not so.

“I have been left with the impression that the valuation of the site, the potential revenue income, and the possible future uses were all educated guesswork and no formal valuations had been conducted for this proposal. Is that so?

“Nor am I aware that any potential DIY tenants have been identified or any formal research conducted on the viability of such development there.

“It would not reflect well on HDC if the leisure centre was closed, albeit in phases, and the site then stood empty and derelict for many years like the old town hall.

“Finally, I have seen no formal appraisal of the real subsidy of running the centre - after depreciation and similar costs are taken into account - and the actual annual impact of phasing repairs.

“What are the options that have been explored, including status quo, and what is the financial impact of each?”

The council is yet to reply to his questions.

The newspaper has made clear that the public opposition to the closure has been unprecedented.

This evening, Mr Shipton said: “I am not unsympathetic to the needs of the council to make savings and I fully agree that some tough decisions may need to be taken in the current financial climate.

“However, the leisure centre is a popular facility. If it is to be closed it should be done so only after the full financial implications are fully investigated and explained to the public. As far as I am aware, they have not even been explained to some of the council’s own Conservative councillors - and may not even be known in a clear and formal way.

“The public needs to understand the costs of keeping it and the resulting benefits of closure.

“They should also be given guarantees that alternative facilities will be provided as part of the west of Horsham development including a state of the art replacement running track.”

Privately, many Conservative councillors are appalled at the way in which their council has handled the proposal.

Many were unaware that it was even being contemplated until it was announced to the media and there is a feeling that it has been a huge public relations disaster.

Councillors will want to find a position behind which they can all unite on Wednesday - but going forward they are likely to demand a clear explanation of the financial position, an undertaking on alternative leisure facilities, and a commitment that controversial proposals like this in the future will not be handled in such a cavalier way.