Unsurprisingly, I’ve been contacted by various would-be users of the leisure centre asking “What’s happening with the Leisure Centre”. Consequently, I’ve written this blog-post to bring you up-to-date with progress (or lack of it) with the proposed new Deeping leisure centres.
This blog concerns the legendary ‘New Deepings Leisure Centre’. I am planning to write another blog within the next few days about the lack of progress in re-opening the existing Deepings Leisure Centre (and pool) now that the Covid Lockdown has been eased and the government has given permission for Leisure Centre and swimming pools to be opened.
Just before publishing this blog, I received an e-mail in relation to questions I had asked at a Finance Committee meeting. This contained the ‘official position on Leisure centres‘ as provided by the Cabinet Member and I have published it, in full. I think you will find my interpretation (below) is more comprehensible, credible and correct. I apologise if it appears somewhat acidic which is due to my continued frustration at not being given clear answers nor access to information.
Regular readers will be aware that new Leisure Centres for the Deepings and Stamford were announced by SKDC Leader, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) back in October 2017. Since then, Cllr Lee has resigned, the Stamford idea has been abandoned but the Deepings Leisure Centre is still a ‘work in progress’.
The Conservatives have repeatedly promised that ward Councillors will be kept up-to-date with progress. The last update meeting with ward Councillors regarding the new Deepings Leisure Centre was on 30th January before the responsibility for Leisure Centres formally passed to Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) who is now Deputy Leader of SKDC as well as County Councillor for ‘Deepings East’ (even though he lives in Thurlby).
On 21st May, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Independent Councillors
“We are expecting the plans along with costings for the new centre to be ready shortly. Once we have these and have looked into the financial solutions, I will get together with our Deepings group. The present situation hasn’t helped in expediting the proposals, but I am pleased to say that good progress is being made”.
On 23rd May, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Councillors “I look forward to sharing the options with you very soon”.
On 26rd May, when pressed for a specific timescale, Cllr Dobson told Deepings Independent Councillors “Consultation should be in June – I certainly hope so” and “June – end of probably”.
On 27th May, I challenged Cllr Dobson about working groups and consultants’ reports the Council had commissioned (one of which cost over £250,000) and he reiterated as follows:
“Although I thought it would be useful to have an overarching group at the beginning, it would only delay and possibly confuse the situation. The new report will show proposals to upgrade the three centres at Grantham, Bourne and Stamford and a completely new facility for the Deepings.
“As soon as the report is ready, we will have a meeting so that we can all contribute to its success by putting the plans in motion: planning and finance will need to go hand-in-hand so that we can expedite the realisation of the new centre. You will be informed at every step of the process – I promise.
“Next step: Show and discuss the plans with relevant members for each of the centres, including facilities and finance.
Date: Before the end of June 2020.
Method: MS Teams through invitation”.
So, having promised three times to hold a meeting with Ward Members before the end of June, what do you think he delivered to us before the end of June? … Correct – Nothing at all: no plans; no strategy; no meeting.
Undeterred, local Independent Councillors Phil Dilks, Virginia Moran and I have persevered with questions about the plans for the new leisure centre at every opportunity. These have included formal public meetings including Cabinet as well as written requests for information and informal conversations with officers. When I was first elected as a Councillor I didn’t expect to take on the role of an investigative journalist but that’s seems to be an essential part of the role.
At a SKDC Cabinet meeting on 16th June, I asked about the Leisure Centres and Cllr Dobson, Deputy Leader, responded that “before the September meeting of the Cabinet a meeting would be arranged with the Chairman of the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services OSC to confirm a date for a joint meeting to discuss the leisure programme and the options available to the Council”.
He also added that “consultation had been carried out with an architect who had undertaken design for Sport England projects”.
The Cabinet minutes also record that “The Leader of the Council stated that the leisure programme would be the largest expenditure that the Council had confirmed that engagement would take place with local Ward Members (sic). There would be opportunity for Members to debate the issue at the joint OSC meeting, Cabinet and Council, which would make the final decision”.
Further questions were asked at the following Cabinet meeting of 7th July for which the minutes are not yet available. At that meeting, a workplan was presented which stated that Cabinet meeting of 8th September would “consider the Procurement Strategy and Investment Proposals for the Leisure facilities within the District Leisure Centres” and “agree the approach to delivering the programme to enhance leisure opportunities for everyone”. I challenged the Deputy Leader over whether this time-scale was realistic and he admitted that it was extremely unlikely that the necessary consultation would be completed by that date; nevertheless the workplan was approved.
Questions about the existing Leisure Centre were asked during the extremely chaotic Full Council meeting of 16th July but unfortunately the agenda item concerning Leisure Centres was held in closed session so I am forbidden to report the questions and answers at that meeting.
Full Council usually allows for 45 minutes of open questions to the Cabinet but due to the incompetence of the Chair, and the party politicking of the Conservatives, there was no time for councillors to ask questions or debate motions but that’s another story.
Meanwhile, after a lengthy exchange of e-mails, I had managed to obtain a redacted copy of the aforementioned expensive consultancy report produced by MACE. I can confirm that I agree with Cllr Dobson’s opinion that it is inadequate. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to share any of the detail as the report is still regarded as ‘confidential’.
I have also asked for the second consultancy report, produced by the ‘Sport England’ consultant. At time of writing I have been refused access to the report because it is still in ‘draft’ form. I have protested stating that if the Deputy Leader is able to cite reports at Cabinet meetings then, as an elected Councillor, I have a legal right to see them.
The Council’s Monitoring Officer has responded with the view that I am not entitled to view the Sport England report until the Conservatives are willing to publish it. The Independent Group Leader and I have immediately responded by quoting section 100(f) of the Local Government Act 1972 which clearly states:
“Any document which is in the possession or under the control of a principal council and contains material relating to any business to be transacted at a meeting of the council or a committee or sub-committee of the council shall … be open to inspection by any member of the council.”
Is now a good time to remind you of the Conservative Council Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke’s comments during his inaugural speech that he wanted “a more open, transparent and collaborative style of council that welcomes constructive challenge and respects differences”?
Despite the procrastination and prevarication by Cabinet Members at SKDC, I am pleased to say council officers are speaking to some interested parties behind the scenes. This includes some of the current leisure centre users and also Deeping St James parish council.
Actually, the district council has no choice but to speak to the parish council because the latter owns a significant part of the land which comprises the school playing field and the intended site for the new leisure centre. Before the leisure centre project can proceed to formal stages of planning procurement, it is required that all the landowners ie. the parish and the county councils will need to have signed an ‘in principle’ agreement to co-operate.
Informal negotiations led to a more formal meeting last Thursday to which all 15 parish councillors were invited. I requested permission to observe that meeting but was refused access, therefore I cannot report what was said. What I can say with confidence is that Cllr Dobson, for all his promises of collaboration, has shared more information with the parish council than he has with his district council colleagues.
One of my district council colleagues has speculated that the leisure centre project is being timed to align with the county council election process, i.e. we should expect another big announcement towards the end of February so that the Conservatives have something to put on their leaflets. Having spoken to officers, I am not so cynical. I believe there is a genuine will to make progress but the secrecy and naivety of the Conservative cabinet members is more of a hindrance than a help. Certainly, nothing they have said or done since January has been of any tangible use.