Labour confirm Willfield closure at Overview and Scrutiny Committee

Tony has written an account of this focused mostly on Sheila Pitt, but invited my blog also.

On 21st July 2011 the Adults and Neighbourhoods Overview and Scrutiny Committee met to consider the cabinet decision to close the Willfield centre, gym and pool.
The committee membership was Bagh Ali (chair), Sheila Pitt (vice chair), Kath Banks, Randy Conteh, Matt Fry (late), Ann James, Shaun Pender and Debbie Wheeldon. Gurmeet Singh Kallar sent apologies for absence.

Gwen Hassall attended as portfolio holder and Dave Conway attended as he, Ann James and Lee Wanger had called in the decision. The public audience included gym campaigner Carol Harrison and a good turn out of others campaigners. Councillors in the audience were Olwen Hamer, Ruth Rosenau, Paul Shotton, Lee Wanger and Alison Wedgwood. Ex-councillors Steve Batkin, Rita Dale and John Davis were also there.

Council Officer Tony Oakman acknowledged Carol Harrison’s passion and the uniqueness of Willfield. Then came the “”¦however”, he said there were other alternatives, primarily at the Wallace centre. He also said in 18 months time the Discovery Academy would be built and have gym, sports hall and dance facility, but no pool. He said Willfield should close because of the council decision in February for £36million budget cuts and £20million more next February.

Dave Conway then gave reasons for the call-in; that the closure had not been properly costed, had not included the cost to decommission the pool, partnership funding had not been considered and it was contrary to the Sports and Physical Activity Strategy 2009-16. He said of the 4 options “Ëœconsidered’ options 2, 3 and 4 were essentially the same as they all closed Willfield. He said goal posts had moved, the academy was not mentioned in the February budget but was now being used as reason to close Willfield and the Sports Strategy at Willfield to help people become healthy and active was being taken away.

Legal officer Carmaine Whitehouse said 2 rounds of O&S had considered the detailed impact of the proposals.
Randy Conteh questioned the decision making process and asked if the decision had already been made in procedure or law and they were all wasting their time. He said councillors are there to represent communities, so as well as discussions on value for money, “what about value for people?”

Carmaine Whitehouse stated that the decision had not yet been made.

Randy Conteh contended that already users had been moved out, the pool emptied and the site handed over to contractors.

Council officer Tracy Penrose said contractors had been allowed onto the upper site, funded by BSF, but the council had to “Ëœmake good’ the lower site, funded by the council – highways, not BSF.

Tracy Penrose stated that the pool had not been emptied!

Ann James questioned why they were all there if the closure process had already been started. She asked if the closure was occurring before August so demolition costs could be included in BSF. She said she was annoyed; council should provide a service and council tax payers should have a say. She said she was most upset we have a constitution not being upheld.
Bagh Ali asked if the centre had been closed.

Tony Oakman said the Willfield Fitness Centre was still running and no equipment had been removed. It was my impression that a group of members of the public were stifling apoplectic rage at this point, but of course were allowed to say nothing.
Ann James asked who was responsible for the swimming pool but appeared to get no answer.
Tracy Penrose uttered her usual spiel that the new schools, although they hadn’t done so “Ëœyet’, would “Ëœsoon’ be signing a community use agreement. (This “Ëœsoon’ has been going for years – I have been hearing this from the BSF board since 2008/9 and the Trentham High campaign.) She said contractors had been allowed on site early for a 2013 academy opening date and if O&S uphold the cabinet decision their contract can be extended to “Ëœsave’ the £31,200 it would cost to demolish the Willfield gym and pool at a later date.

Ann James reported that the Willfield working group had a business plan to continue running the centre for far less than the costs reported to the meeting. The accountant (Tom?) said £90,000 would be needed to transfer costs currently in the CYP budget and £60,000 accounts for falling usage over the past 18 months (because of the planned closure!) He criticised the business plan primarily because he thought about £0.5million start up costs would be needed.

Ann James and Randy Conteh both asked if officers had talked to the group about the business plan. Tony Oakman conceded this was a point well made but the business case had been given “Ëœserious consideration’ and the realities are that demolition will have to take place.

Sheila Pitt then spoke, Tony covers this in detail in his article.

Ann James asked what it would cost for equipment for the disabled to be installed at the Wallace centre. Officer Michelle Adams initially said no expense would be incurred but the accountant then conceded £5,000 had been allocated for removal costs.

Tony Oakman in summing up said it was a “Ëœdifficult decision’, but there were alternative facilities, this was a discretionary area of funding, the business case for Willfield did not stack up and in 18 months time the new academy would be offering facilities.

Dave Conway summed up that people had been misled. He showed photographs taken three days earlier of items packed up at Willfield ready to go and the pool being emptied with only a small amount of water left at the bottom! He had talked to workers at Willfield who were ready to go and reported that 14 user groups had already been moved out of Willfield. He had a barrage of other criticisms; the call-in had no effect, goal posts had moved on the sports strategy, costs in children and young people’s voted on by council then moved to adults and neighbourhoods, Keir had a contract to maintain buildings but hadn’t. He said photos do not lie and he would take the matter further. Bagh Ali said he wanted more than this. So Dave Conway held up a petition signed by hundreds of people wanting Willfield kept open, mentioned the £62,500 the feasibility study had quoted for decommissioning the pool and said we can’t keep closing pools. He said “the council is doing an injustice to people”.

Randy Conteh proposed a recommendation to approve option 1 ““ retention of Willfield, that council should work with the Willfield Working Trust to assist with the business plan and external funding and that BSF should support this option. Ann James seconded the proposal.

THE VOTE to save Willfield:

3 FOR: Randy Conteh, Ann James, Sheila Pitt.

4 AGAINST: Bagh Ali, Kath Banks, Shaun Pender, Debbie Wheeldon.

Result – defeated.
Sheila Pitt was absolutely right in my view to vote against her Labour party line. Randy Conteh and Ann James made a valiant attempt to support the gym users but under such a Labour majority they can do nothing more than speak out. Kath Banks, Shaun Pender and Debbie Wheeldon said not a word, clearly there just to vote. Matt Fry said nothing and didn’t vote, why was he there?

My view

Labour was intent on closing Willfield all along. They indulged in shenanigans by introducing the Willfield closure as an urgent cabinet item supplementary to the original agenda, then made a point to allow a call-in but it seems did not pause the closure process. O&S were therefore wasting their time as Randy Conteh, Ann James and Dave Conway pointed out. A bit of theatre had Sheila Pitt voting with the independents against closure but that didn’t matter to Labour as they had enough stooges to vote it closed anyway.

I take issue with the site boundary deception described on previous occasions. I take issue with the mix and match shenanigans between children and young people’s budget and adults and neighbourhoods “Ëœscrutiny’. I do not agree with Carmaine’s assertions about clarity of the decision making process. The budget documents had no clarity for me at the time, it was not obvious whether the savings (4CYP-14) meant closing the gym and pool or just the education centre at Willfield, although I am but a mere member of the public. The Willfield closure was considered by Children and Young People’s O&S on 6th December 2010. This seemed to refer to the education centre, to be closed in August 2011, not apparently to the gym and pool. In fact it was stated “if the decision is taken to retain the lower site for community & sports use, the projected saving would need to be reduced by approx £75k”. Whilst the closure (upper site?) was supported, councilor at that time Ellie Walker required more information.

I am outraged the shutting down of Willfield continued whilst it was claimed on the one hand that the decision was not finalised before scrutiny had considered it and on the other hand it was made back in February. Although it was clear all along this was the tactic, it always is.

What really annoys me was that people were messed with and given false hope. They were incredibly upset after a lot of hard work and I think some belief they may get somewhere. I’m too much of cynic of course to have had any hope, I could see clearly all along how it was panning out. On the one hand I think if people will keep voting in these Labour councils then they are asking for this treatment and get what they deserve. Labour use the same tactics time and time again and get away with it and all the people do is vote for more of the same. On the other hand I think that Labour have a party structure, propaganda and powerful connections on their side and well paid officers working on their plans, whereas ordinary people have other jobs and lives to attend to and little resource. It’s not a fair fight.

I’m not a Willfield gym or pool user (although I have attended meetings held in the ““ rather nicely decorated ready for demolition ““ education centre). So why should I care? The reason I care is that I find the disrespect with which the Labour led council treats the citizens of the city an utter disgrace.
A very sad day for Willfield users, but I for one am not the slightest bit surprised.

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