Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Leisure Centre can kicked down the road again

It was no surprise that Midlothian councillors decided yesterday not to accept officers' recommendations that Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre be demolished. Given the overwhelming publicity in the media and opposition by MSPs Alison Johnstone and Colin Beattie, to do so would be electoral suicide for councillors voting for it, not to mention the prospect of images of people chained to the building as the bulldozers arrive featuring on national television (a very real possibility, according to my sources).

The council instead agreed the following motion:

"Midlothian Council welcomes the report by [the] assessment panel on bids for [the] former Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre; accepts the recommendations of the assessment panel not to accept either the bid from Bonnyrigg Centre Trust or Midlothian Fitness Academy; considers that in order to support recommendation iv, demolition of the former Leisure Centre be postponed to allow consideration to be given to use all or part of the building; requests a report to the June meeting of Midlothian Council to present outcome of these considerations; and instructs the Chief Executive to write to each of the two bidders to inform and explain the reasons for the decision of the council".

Recommendation iv relates to the panel having identified a need for Soft Play facilities in the town as this was available at the Leisure Centre but is not available at the new Lasswade Centre.

This motion was agreed on a vote by 14-2 (Peter de Vink and Peter Boyes were not present). I proposed an alternative, supported by Cllr Lisa Beattie, which I will come to later.

As I explained at the meeting, I could not support the above motion for two reasons. Firstly, it stipulates that the building will be retained in order to support recommendation iv. This means that all other potential uses, of which the community has identified many, will not be considered valid reasons for keeping the building. It therefore means that when the council comes to assessing bids in June, those which involve providing Soft Play and only Soft Play, will be given equal weight in terms of the Community Benefit they provide to those which incorporate Soft Play within the many uses the building could be put to.

For example, cycle and skateboard repair space (to complement the adjacent skate park being built), youth club, dance classes, community rooms, a function hall, social enterprise desk space, climbing wall, art studios, cafe, after school and sports clubs; none of these will be assessed as being of community benefit as the council has stated that the stay of execution is only to support recommendation iv.

The second reason I couldn't support it is because in three months' time there is no guarantee we will be in a different place from where we are now. By the end of June the building will have been mothballed for a year, at a significant cost to the council. I believe this is largely because the council has refused to sit down with the bidders to try to come up with a Business Plan which the council would have confidence in. I have asked for this to happen, but was told that as there was more than one bidder, they were concerned that one may be seen as being favoured over the other and the safest approach was to co-operate with neither. Yes, questions were answered and information provided to both, but what I would describe as community engagement simply did not happen.

This could have been overcome by simply accrediting the Bonnyrigg Centre Trust (BCT) (whose Business Plan is generally accepted, certainly by me, as the one offering much greater community benefit) with 'Preferred Bidder' status. This would allow council officials to work through the council's concerns with BCT to come up with a plan which councillors could have confidence in.

Secondly, and crucially, it would allow BCT to obtain funding offers, conditional upon its gaining ultimate ownership of the building, thereby overcoming another of the council's concerns, namely that no funding was in place. BCT had been advised by funders that their applications would not be considered without either ownership of the building or Preferred Bidder status.

Frustrated at the lack, yet again, of an end point to this whole process, I therefore lodged my own proposal. This involved accepting the BCT offer to buy the building, with a handover on 22nd September 2014 provided two conditions are met.

The first condition is that a Business Plan is presented to the council which has been appraised by an independent body to have a good chance of success when measured against Third Sector criteria. The second is that funding of at least £60,000 has been secured. If both conditions are not met, then the building will be demolished on or after 23rd September 2014. This would address the concerns the council has about the proposal whilst providing a clear end point to the process.

So in three months' time, councillors will be asked to decide once again on the fate of this magnificent building. After yesterday's debate, my guess is that instead of the community getting a thriving community hub with much needed facilities for a growing town - now the biggest in Midlothian - it will offer a few crumbs in the shape of retaining the back hall for Soft Play and reduce the huge bulk of the structure to rubble.