Thursday, 16 May 2013

Will Midlothian's commitment to the community end up in ruins?

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?". It is a quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes, and one which some councillors and officials on Midlothian Council would do well to reflect on from time to time.

A couple of months ago I changed my mind on the issue of whether the Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre should be demolished, and I did so because the facts, and to a large part the presentation of them, had changed and, indeed, continue to change.

A few years ago, a public consultation exercise was carried out as part of the plans for the new Lasswade High School hub, and this included what to do with the building which would be surplus to requirements. The main use of the building comprises the Gym and swimming pool and these facilities would move to the hub. Community organisations were not interested in taking on the building as we were told it would cost £250,000 to bring it up to useable standard and a similar amount annually in running costs.

As the building is in a King George V Park, it can not be sold commercially and if retained must be for community use. It has been suggested that the council was not aware of this until after consultation had closed and that Fields in Trust, who regulate such parks, was not informed.

Midlothian Council decided at its meeting of 23 February 2010 (see 9th item and within which, Para 15(d)) to 'dispose' of the building. Although demolition is one form of disposal, this has never been explicitly agreed by the council and no record can be found of any reference to it in any council documents, including those associated with the consultation exercise. Yet references are being made to 'a decision to demolish'.

Nevertheless, with no one willing to take on the building, and the alternative being a derelict and potentially vandalised building on the council's hands, I could see demolition to be the only practical solution at the time.

Within the last year, the Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust came forward with a plan to use the back hall of the building and negotiations have been taking place for this to be retained and the remainder of the building demolished.

Further, demolition, we were told, had been incorporated into the council's contract for the new High School and a decision not to go ahead could involve additional costs should demolition subsequently be required.

Fast forward to a few months ago, when local resident Darius Namdaran, previously unaware of the plans, and concerned that a sound building with about 20 years' life was to be pulled down, decided to investigate. This revealed that the £250,000 'repair' costs were in fact a little over £90,000 (most of which is cosmetic, the remainder being up to £30k). The running costs include £75,000 for heating a swimming pool (no longer needed) and about the same in rates (which are not applied if the building is run by a Community Trust).

However, I still had my doubts. £30,000 for priority repairs is achievable, but £100,000 a year running costs with no Business Plan? The solution to this is what ultimately changed my mind. Social Enterprises such as this normally break even in 3 - 5 years, and with a cash strapped council, some lateral thinking was required. The centre currently runs profitable soft play in the front of the building with parties in other parts of the building. So why not keep the front of the building up and running with income from soft play and vending machines, supplemented by continuing with the parties? Running costs would be low, the building might be viable from Day 1 and the community can decide over the next 12 months how to develop the rest of the building.

I also discovered that there is no contract for demolition in place; funds (up to £100,000) have been set aside for the job and if the building is retained long term, the council saves the money.

Probably the most disappointing part of this whole saga was the response I received from a council official when I asked if the council could go through the figures with the campaign group (the council, after all, will know if simply continuing those existing services would be feasible). The response? "It's not our job to put together a Business Plan for this group; they need to do it themselves". Community Empowerment and Development?

So much for the figures. What about the intangible benefits? This it seems is where Midlothian Council thinking fails to join up. Soft play will not be provided at the new Lasswade Centre. Longer term plans for the Leisure Centre could include a youth drop-in centre (and there is huge demand in the town for this). Following closure of the Public Hall, Bonnyrigg Seniors' Forum no longer have a place to meet. Many people have come forward with ideas, from community groups, schools' parent councils, school children, parents, and that's before any formal consultation.

Working with the Bonnyrigg and Sherwood Development Trust, I believe this could be a thriving community hub, in a building which will last 20 years and which would cost millions to build from scratch.

Ironically, within a month of the proposed demolition, Midlothian Council will begin consultation on the Bonnyrigg Neighbourhood Plan. This involves asking as many individuals and community groups as possible what facilities they would like in the town. Wouldn't it be ironic if the one facility the community says would provide most value has been reduced to rubble before they were even asked? A consultation on this basis would be a sham and would be seen to be a sham.

At this week's Petitions Committee, Mr Namdaran presented a compelling case. I proposed that before the council makes its decision on 25 June, council officers work closely with the Keep Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre group and the Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust to look for a low risk solution to keeping the building alive for 12 months - to give the whole community breathing space to decide how it can best be used.

My proposal was defeated on the casting vote of the chair. The reason? Because consultation closed years ago and you missed your opportunity. When consultation closed, no-one was interested in the building; today over 600 people have 'liked' the group's Facebook page, 248 people have signed a petition, as a ward councillor I've received about two dozen emails, Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Community Council has given its unanimous backing, and the chair of Fields in Trust has written to the council.

The facts have clearly changed, so isn't it about time some minds did too?