This year, the future of St Crispin’s Leisure Centre has been in doubt, after the Liberal Democrat administration put out a consultation on whether it should remain open or be put to an alternative use.
To begin with, the Liberal Democrat Executive were not forthcoming in explaining why this was necessary.
It’s clear that St Crispin’s is important to many residents. It’s used by a variety of people and clubs, including as a venue for The Ark Trust, who hold a weekly social event for people with learning disabilities and autism. As a leisure centre, St Crispin’s is popular with older users and it provides the only local squash courts in Wokingham.
Questions like how many people use the leisure centre or even why St Crispin’s is faced with closure went unanswered. In the Summer, emails from the Executive Member for Finance said “it is less about costs but more about conflicting demands for space”. She told a resident St Crispin’s needed some maintenance and investment, but she was “not clear what that would involve”. She didn’t have the leisure centre usage numbers but it was “something she would also like to see”.
Some information came out via Facebook. The ARC, a major charity, said they also only found out from social media.
Over the last few weeks, Conservative councillors have been able to scrutinise the Liberal Democrats’ plans.
The initial paper we reviewed at an Overview and Scrutiny meeting was a shambles. Conservative councillors were concerned about the lack of detail and clarity in the Liberal Democrat report, along with the inclusion of options and information that were not in the public consultation. We tried questioning the Liberal Democrat Executive Members present, asking whether the community could continue using sports facilities and why the school needed a 125 year lease on the leisure centre, rather than simply being given use during school hours. The answers we got were vague at best.
Conservative councillors led a vote that sent the Executive away to come back with a new version of the paper at another meeting where more information could be provided. The updated report was more promising.
The key issue is ensuring public use of the leisure facilities. Many residents are deeply concerned about losing access to St Crispin’s, and simply using the leisure centre at Carnival Hub isn’t an option. Conservative and Labour councillors spoke on this subject at the meeting, putting meaningful questions about how sport would evolve over time and how current users could be incorporated into the plans.
St Crispin’s School currently use facilities at the leisure centre, and handing over the site to the Academy Trust means young people will benefit from the school accommodating more pupils. We heard directly from the School and the Academy Trust, who are keen to maintain community use outside the school day. This was reassuring, but organisations change over time.
We’ve extracted a promise from the Liberal Democrat Executive that sport and community usage will continue at St Crispin’s. The Academy Trust has agreed to accommodate activities that take place at St Crispin’s while Places for Leisure, who run the current facilities, look at other locations it could use. Cllr Pauline Jorgensen asked if all users apart from daytime squash would be accommodated for the length of the lease and was assured they would.
Our constructive opposition, as Conservative councillors, questioning and probing, ensured residents’ preferences and concerns were taken into account in coming up with a solution to this problem. The administration – and the Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee – like to repeat the phrase “a consultation isn’t a referendum”. But the Conservatives take your opinions seriously. This is your community, and your Council – your voice should be heard on community assets.
We’ve had the promises, now it’s time to see the delivery. We’ll be watching progress on St Crispin’s carefully, and holding the administration to account for implementing what you said you wanted.