Track where Olympic stars Donna Fraser, Martyn Rooney and Lawrence Okoye began their track and field careers is under threat after covid-19, as senior council figure claims it could cost £200,000 to reopen
Oliver Lewis, the council cabinet member, last night broke his two-month silence over the status of Croydon Arena to admit he has no idea when the venue might reopen after the covid-19 lockdown, and blame the borough’s financial meltdown on the delays.
Lewis even suggested that it could cost at least £200,000 to reopen the council-owned athletics track and football stadium – at a time when Croydon Council is axing hundreds of jobs and slashing all spending after a £65million overspend during the coronavirus emergency.
Croydon Arena, close to South Norwood Country Park, sits in the Woodside ward of council leader Tony Newman.
Sports clubs in the borough had been seeking guidance from Lewis, council officials and venue managers GLL since the end of May, when other athletics tracks and open-air sports venues were first allowed to reopen after the lockdown. Answers there came none.
Only after Inside Croydon reported on the situation yesterday and an open letter from Croydon Harriers did Lewis, the council cabinet member for arts and sport, finally break cover.
Responding to questions on Twitter, Lewis wrote, “We are also keen for Croydon Arena to reopen [as soon as possible]. The finances of doing so are difficult. Works are planned to support Arena [to] become sustainable and enable reopening.”
Asked to elaborate on the financing being “difficult” and how much of a loss the Arena will make, Lewis replied, “It’s around £200,000 per year.”
Which is a figure which will surprise anyone familiar with the operating contract Croydon Council agreed with GLL – Greenwich Leisure Ltd, trading under the brand of Better – just four years ago which, after providing a £1million capital investment in the borough’s leisure facilities to upgrade public gyms, meant that the council would not have to provide any funding to GLL for the day-to-day running of Croydon’s sports facilities.
GLL also operate several indoor leisure facilities for the council, some of which have managed to reopen, apparently without incurring such heavy costs.
Which makes the £200,000 figure plucked out of the air by the councillor seem odd.
“This sounds like Ollie’s been given a scary figure by a council officer about the cost of reopening the venue to try to justify the delay and deter him from pushing for a date,” a Katharine Street source said.
“Not for the first time, he’s not across his brief. Either that, or GLL are holding out the begging bowl for some extra cash to underwrite their operation.”
If the figure is the annual operating cost, then Lewis’s lack of understanding of his brief is worse than many might fear: the operating costs are GLL’s, and the longer the Arena stays closed, the greater will be their losses, as ought to be obvious.
As with the owners and operators of many public facilities that were forced to close during the coronavirus lockdown, GLL will have taken a significant financial hit for more than two months, denied any entry fee and subscription income while still having to meet maintenance costs and pay some wages to furloughed staff.
Significantly, of other publicly-owned athletics tracks in south London that have yet to reopen, two others, at Sutcliffe Park in Eltham and Crystal Palace, are also operated by GLL.
In Croydon, GLL began what it describes as its “phased reopening” of the council-owned leisure centres last Saturday, with the gym, swimming pool and exercise classes at New Addington and Thornton Heath. The gyms and running classes (you need classes to go for a run?) recommenced at Waddon and South Norwood, where the pools closed until September. Indoor sport facilities, such as sports halls, at New Addington, Thornton Heath, Waddon and South Norwood will be open from August 8.
“New normal” covid-19 precaution measures have been introduced at all the venues, and the cleaning and sanitising regimes “stepped up”, according to the council.
“Purley, Ashburton Hall and Monks Hill leisure centres will begin to reopen in due course,” the council press release issued a fortnight ago, which carefully failed to make any mention at all of the borough’s largest, outdoor sports facility.
Croydon Arena is used by a local archery club, the cycling charity Wheels for Wellbeing, and non-league football side Croydon FC, who were hoping to play their home fixtures at the stadium from September.
It is probably best known as the home track of Croydon Harriers, who would usually expect to have dozens of youngsters training there every Tuesday and Thursday, with track matches staged there at weekends and in midweek throughout the summer. Croydon Arena is where Olympic stars such as Martyn Rooney, Donna Fraser and Lawrence Okoye all started in their sport.
But £200,000 would seem to be a prohibitively high figure to pay to reopen the facility, and although asked to elaborate on what works need to be done to make the Arena more sustainable, last night Councillor Lewis wasn’t saying.
“Please let’s meet as soon as possible to discuss,” was the message from Wheels for Wellbeing. “This is urgent for hundreds of disabled residents.”
In the past, Councillor Lewis appears to have had little difficulty in authorising £180,000 grants to be in a grant to private commercial enterprise Boxpark. Boozepark, which received a £3million loan from the council to build next to East Croydon Station, has received council grants of £180,000 a year for at least three of the four years it has operated.
Lewis also earned a degree of notoriety when he supported £50,000-worth of cash and in-kind support from Croydon and the Arts Council for an “interactive performance” in the Town Hall which used “a series of modified butt plugs… in an effort to demystify the anus”.
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