Shock at lack of records on leisure centre plans

JPCT 100212 Faruq Ahmed - holding the council to account on the proposed leisure centre closure. photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 100212 Faruq Ahmed - holding the council to account on the proposed leisure centre closure. photo by Derek Martin

A CONSULTANT engineer from Horsham was incredulous to learn Horsham District Council (HDC) has kept no written records concerning a key report.

The Leisure Futures Study was the controversial document that last November paved the way for the potential demolition of Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre.

With a career of more than 45 years encompassing marine engineering, hospital engineering services and operational maintenance, two decades in the public sector, and a further eleven years as a private sector engineering and building services consultant, Faruq Ahmed of Chesworth Gardens is well qualified to hold HDC to account.

He could not not understand how the plan to bulldoze the sports centre could come so suddenly out of the blue and he wanted answers from his local authority.

What started as a series of unsatisfactorily answered phone calls, resulted in forensic probing under the Freedom of Information Act, today exclusively revealed in the County Times.

HDC’s answers shocked and angered a frustrated Mr Ahmed, who has now stopped his correspondence with the council due what he terms their ‘reluctance to give him straight answers’.

However, some of the responses he extracted under the FOI legislation did reveal some startling aspects regarding the commissioning of the report – first and foremost that the local authority maintains no central file on the Leisure Futures Study, and that the consultant was given no formal brief, just a verbal instruction.

Mr Ahmed told the County Times: “I feel like the council has something to hide.

“They’re saying they don’t keep any records.

“They don’t have any records of how they commissioned the consultant.

“They don’t have an appointment letter. There’s no brief!

“As far as the leisure centre is concerned and its maintenance, no schedule has been produced.

“I feel they have not actually maintained the building.

“It is that bad!” he exclaimed.

The 71 year old member of the Chartered Institution of Building Services, who has extensive experience of maintaining public buildings, could not understand how £1.5 million was stated to be needed to keep the leisure centre open.

Having worked as a consultant for many years, Mr Ahmed, a chartered engineer who is also a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, wanted to know what academic and professional qualifications the consultant author of the Leisure Futures Study possesses.

Whilst the council has published the consultant’s relevant experience, no details about his actual qualifications have been forthcoming. “They have avoided the question,” said Mr Ahmed.

However, the engineering consultant’s main concern is how, by whom, and why the study’s consultant was initially commissioned last year.

Published in November 2011, the Leisure Futures Study which cost the council £6,400 concluded there is an over supply of sports halls in the north of the district, which justified an HDC cabinet decision to recommend Broadbridge Heath Leisure for decommissioning and demolition.

Mr Ahmed, along with many others, including this paper, wanted to know what formal brief was given to the consultant.

On December 16 last year he wrote to HDC: “Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I am asking to see the contents of the File that HDC maintains on the Leisure Centre Study – from initiation to date; and the maintenance arrangements applied to the BHLC from the time HDC accepted it from the builders.”

A month later, replying to the council’s response that they do not maintain central records, Mr Ahmed wrote: “What records do you keep?” followed by a series of other questions pertaining to the report’s commissioning, such as how was the study initiated?

On February 2, a council respondee wrote: “I repeat my earlier response that no central file is maintained on Leisure Futures Study.”

An astounded Mr Ahmed, who has never appointed a consultant, nor accepted a consultancy on the basis of only a verbal agreement, told the County Times: “I think this is very wrong.

“I am shocked because it is a public body, and they should keep records of what they have said and what they haven’t.”

In the course of his communications with the council Mr Ahmed learned that HDC rules on tendering permit a consultant to be cherry picked for one off assignments if the fee is less than £10,000, but he still believes a formal record should be made of any brief or discussions pertaining to the work.

He posed a hypothetical premise which makes obvious the inherent dangers of not keeping records.

“I’m not saying that they did, but how are they going to prove they didn’t tell the consultant to go and do a study for £9999, and the report should conclude that Broadbridge Heath leisure centre should be knocked down because it does not serve any purpose. How are you going to prove that you didn’t say that?”

HDC has confirmed in writing: “The brief was conveyed verbally in meetings with the consultant.”

An exasperated Mr Ahmed said: “It is a public body. How are they spending our money?

“Is everything done by word of mouth? Are no records kept of anything?”

Told he could not view the council’s file because none existed, Mr Ahmed questioned how the whole sports centre saga began.

Speaking to this paper he remarked: “All of a sudden it happened. How did it happen?

“How do you start on a study without someone saying you should look at the minutes of a meeting of councillors or something? It should be on the file.

“And all of a sudden you’ve got a study, and a consultant has been picked, but no formal written brief has been given to him, and you get a report.”

Is this due process? “I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Mr Ahmed, who worked in the public sector for 20 years.

He added: “I have never come across this, that one person can just verbally say do it and it’s done. There is no record to say how all this started.

“There is only a verbal brief,” the details of which have not been outlined.

Mr Ahmed’s discourse with the council has led him to one conclusion, oft repeated by others concerned about the threatened sports facility.

“I think they are in trouble, with not enough money. They have squandered a lot of money they haven’t got and they aren’t getting enough from the Government so they want to find some money and one way is to get rid of the leisure centre, to help balance the books.

“The site is worth a lot of money,” concluded Mr Ahmed. “They have an agenda to knock it down irrespective of what people say.”