The council’s ‘Better’ leisure centres have been forced to abandon plans to charge the carers of disabled people for use of the facilities. But those on low incomes are still expected to pay £28.50 for a membership scheme they probably have little need for. KEN LEE reports
Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Croydon’s recently appointed operators of the borough’s leisure centres and sports facilities, must have known they were asking for trouble when they chose to re-brand themselves, and Croydon’s pools and gyms, as “Better”.
“Better than what?” many people might ask.
Better than their predecessors, Fusion, wouldn’t take much doing, after years of benign neglect of facilities (often through a lack of capital expenditure falling to the council) and of the services provided, which gave most of the borough’s leisure centres a run-down, uncared-for feel that would not encourage too many return visits.
But few might have anticipated that Better would soon translate into Better financial incomes for the company from the poor, the disabled and the people who look after them.
New charging policies provoked a threat to invoke the Equalities Act 2010 against GLL and Croydon Council, and have forced a rushed U-turn over charges for disabled carers.
But Better’s tariff at the borough’s leisure centres – New Addington, Purley, Thornton Heath, South Norwood and Waddon – has seen the previous price concessions for those on low incomes removed unless the centre-user pays a hefty all-borough membership fee.
There remains a discounted entry fee for the disabled, and angry complaints from residents over the past month have seen plans dropped to prevent carers from using the facilities free of charge.
Carers had previously got free entry and were allowed to use the pool or the gym at the same time, alongside the person they are supporting. “Better” wanted to bring in new restrictions which would see carers only allowed access to the centre, but denied use of the pool or gym. The changes also wanted to restrict free entry to one carer with each disabled person.
As one New Addington resident has pointed out. “This is one of the most deprived areas to be found, with high unemployment and high poverty. If these concessions are removed, there will be swathes of the local population being deprived of local municipal facilities, from children to pensioners.
“We keep on being told there is an obesity crisis. We know that obesity is linked to poverty, so this is a double whammy, really. How can this be remotely acceptable?”
The resident described the proposed withdrawal of the concessions for carers as “petty” and “unlawful”.
“These are supposed to be municipal facilities, heavily subsidised, I believe, through our Council Tax. It is unacceptable that a private company should be allowed to try and raise their profits by removing concessions, and trying to stop carers doing what they do in the best manner possible to handle their client.”
But as one Katharine Street source said, “You can’t take £1million of subsidy out of a contract (regardless of who was appointed) without the operator looking at some normally unpalatable effects…”.
In Labour-voting New Addington, this discovery has proved particularly embarrassing for two of their councillors: Oliver Lewis, a regular golfing partner of council leader Tony Newman and the new cabinet member for sport and leisure and stuff; and Simon Hall, the Labour council’s finance chief, who will have overseen many aspects of the drafting of the terms of the deal with GLL.
Hall was forced to deliver a lengthy explanation of the new leisure centre charges on the New Addington councillors’ Facebook page.
While Hall was able to report that the restrictions for carers would be abandoned, he confirmed that the concession for the borough’s poorest would no longer apply unless the resident can fork out £28.50 for a “borough-wide membership”.
One of the perverse conditions required of those applying for this membership is some form of proof – on a council letterheaded document – that the person is on weekly earnings of less than £95.
It is worth remembering that Councillor Hall, meanwhile, receives £846 per week in council allowances.
“£28.50 is a massive amount out of my weekly budget,” one mother on benefits told Inside Croydon. “And what use is a borough-wide membership to me, when all I want to do is use my local pool once a week?”
Hall tried to put a positive spin on the removal of concessions for the poor by suggesting, “This covers borough-wide membership, as many carers have different persons to look after, so gives them flexibility to use all sites. We are also looking into a single centre option if they are not.”
Hall added that the proposed changes for concessions for disabled people and their carers had been “a misunderstanding”.
The risibly retitled Better, Hall said, “apologise for any confusion caused there and have reiterated with general managers and staff the offer”.
This will now allow a carer free access and use the equipment alongside the person they are caring for, “if that’s appropriate”, although the councillor failed to explain how – or who – would be the arbiters of such appropriateness.
“Additionally if they require more than one carer then this should be permitted if it is a genuine requirement.”
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Perhaps Hall should give up one week’s worth of publicly funded allowances and pay for 30 borough wide memberships for his most disadvantaged constituents. Can’t see that happening though as it would mean momentarily removing his snout from the trough.