CROYDON IN CRISIS: Cash-strapped council’s case for closing down leisure centre depends entirely on made up figures and abandoning terms of a 20-year management agreement. EXCLUSIVE By STEVEN DOWNES
Inside Croydon’s exclusive report two weeks ago about proposals to cut another £38million from council budgets provoked a peculiarly Croydon-style version of Groundhog Day.
For here we are again, witnessing the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the swimmers, gym bunnies and primary schools in the south of the borough over the announcement that Purley Leisure Centre, which has been closed since the start of lockdown in March last year, will never open again.
Purley Pool has been under constant threat of closure for the past decade, the building seemingly the option of first resort for the council’s Tory administration as their government’s austerity bit in 2012, and then again for Labour in 2015, and ever since when there’s a review of Town Hall spending.
There’s been local campaigns, petition upon petition and colourful and cute kids’ posters galore, as we saw again on local television on Monday night. The arguments put forward have barely changed.
But the existential threat to the pool has never really gone away, and this time, with the council bankrupt, that threat seems more real than ever before.
Opened in 1982, and given a modernising upgrade in 2002, Purley Pool has been showing its age for years.
The closure 20 years ago of the adjoining Sainsbury’s supermarket makes the piece of town centre real estate potentially hugely valuable for the cash-strapped council.
It does not take much reading between the lines of the report going to next week’s cabinet meeting to sense that the site sale is the real reason that the council wants to close down the centre.
There have been vague noises made by senior Town Hall sources (that is, Lewis briefing the telly reporter) about the possibility of a replacement pool being included in any multi-million-pound deal with a property developer to build housing on the site. But that is the very definition of “jam tomorrow”, and liable to take years to deliver.
Indeed, there was something extremely disingenuous about the excuses offered up on Monday night by Max Headroom, who was on local TV news doing a very passable impersonation of Oliver “Ollie” Lewis, the council cabinet member for sport and shit.
Confirming our original story that the Purley Leisure Centre had made losses in each of its last two full years of operation – £187,000 in 2018-2019 and £123,000 in 2019-2020 – Lewis, who has held the cabinet portfolio for three years, somehow doesn’t seem to understand that there is a cross-subsidy model in place for the borough’s sports and leisure facilities.
Lewis and the interim exec director for “place”, Sarah Hayward, have adopted a position over Purley Pool which could yet bring tumbling down the council’s multi-million-pound, borough-wide leisure centre management contract with Greenwich Leisure Ltd, GLL. It was a 20-year agreement which Lewis himself, as the then deputy cabinet member, was party to when it was signed in 2017.
Four years ago the council promised, “a bright future ahead” for Croydon-owned leisure facilities, including Purley, which woould receive “major investment”.
Then, the council said, “The new arrangements will see the council make savings of over £1million by 2021 and there will be no further public subsidies for the duration of the agreement.” Those are our italics. For emphasis.
The clear intention was that GLL would manage the sports and leisure centres in such a way whereby they generated enough income to cover their costs, with anything left over split between the company and the council.
That agreement is still current. It still applies to Purley.
But on Monday, Max/Ollie said, “In recent years Purley Leisure Centre’s considerable running costs have been propped up by money from the borough’s other centres.”
But this was exactly how the council’s operating agreement with GLL was always intended to work: a cross-subsidy, so that the leisure centres that made more cash could keep open those that made less.
The revenue issue raised now by Hayward and Lewis, therefore, is a fallacious one.
Their report going to cabinet next week states that the council’s agreement with GLL, who operate under the Better brand, does not “provide value for money”.
The report makes an argument to close Purley Pool, to remove this subsidy, just so that GLL can repay a £279,000 loan it received in 2020 during lockdown from… Croydon Council.
Yes. That’s right: they want to close Purley Pool because GLL, the pool managers, owe the council money.
“Keeping the facility closed would remove a financial drain from the leisure contract,” the report states. “The impact of this would be an increased likelihood of the contract operating at a surplus… Once the loan was repaid, any surplus would be shared between the council and operator, Greenwich Leisure Limited.” Yay!
Lewis has also plucked from thin air a £3million figure for the maintenance bill for the Purley centre, a cost which campaigners maintain did not exist at the start of 2021.
A reading of the report suggests that officer-led Lewis and Hayward have indeed just made up the figures to support their somewhat shaky case.
Blaming “broken obsolete mechanical and electrical equipment” for the continuing closure (Croydon’s other leisure centres opened in July), the report states, “Estimates to replace the broken air handling unit are £200,000, but form part of a total replacement
of the mechanical and electrical equipment in the building estimated in 2019 to cost £1,600,000.”
So not £3million, then, as Lewis has tried to use to scare off reasonable opposition.
The report makes it clear that the capital spending numbers are pure fiction.
“With inflation and contingency,” the report says of that £1.6million estimate, “this is likely to be closer to £2,000,000. In addition, there are also building repairs and maintenance required to make the leisure centre operational, estimated to cost a further £1,000,000.”
Another think-of-a-figure-double-it piece of guesswork, then, from one of Newman’s numpties who did so much to bankrupt the borough. Lewis’s part in the council’s financial collapse has been particularly stellar: he has been in charge of “culture” in Croydon since 2018, and so has presided over the £70million Fairfield Halls fiasco. What with that, the borough’s libraries and now this, it really is a case of the Midas Touch in reverse.
It becomes increasingly difficult to invest any credibility in anything that Lewis signs off on for issue from the council’s propaganda bunker.
Lewis reckons it won’t be any great hardship for swimmers from the south of the borough to travel all the way to New Addington or Waddon for their daily dip.
But schools in Purley, Kenley and Coulsdon say this is unfair, and could see them traipsing with 30 youngsters on two buses there and back, a journey which will eat up half the school day and undermine their National Curriculum responsibility to have every pupil a capable swimmer by the age of 11.
A consultation opened this week (it runs until November 23), “to get feedback from Purley users to understand the impact of the closure and ensure they can access the council’s five other leisure centres”.
The council appears determined on its course of action. Instead of waking up to another Groundhog Day, the people of Purley, Kenley, Coulsdon and the borough more widely, might want to consider what actions they can take which really could challenge this latest piece of bad management by their council. This time, another round of posters and petitions might not be enough.
- Click here to take part in the council’s Purley Pool consultation. You know they will ignore its findings…
- Click here to read the council report to cabinet in full
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