A bid to get Tendring District Council (TDC) to continue to provide funding for Brightlingsea Sports Centre while options for its future can be explored more fully was defeated at a meeting on Tuesday (February 15).
With the future of the centre – and the one in Harwich – in doubt after TDC decided not to renew a joint use agreement with the buildings' owners, the Sigma Trust, Brightlingsea district councillor Mick Barry asked the full council to extend its committment beyond March 31 to the end of the year to give local councillors and other interested parties more time to find ways to keep the centres open.
Cllr Barry – who had sent a briefing document to all councillors in advance of the the budget and council tax setting meeting – said that the council's decision to pull out had caused "high levels of anxiety and outrage" in the two towns. "Over 30,000 residents are in danger of having their sporting facilities curtailed or withdrawn," he said. But despite several impassioned pleas from councillors against move, Cllr Barry's motion was defeated by 23 votes to 20, with two abstentions.
TDC will save around £76,000 by not renewing the 30-year agreement for the Brightlingsea centre, but the move has already placed the future of long-standing sports clubs in jeopardy. Shorter opening hours at the centre after March 31 mean that the Brightlingsea Sledgehammers basketball team, which was founded in 1993 and plays in senior leagues, will be unable to play evening games on the Brightlingsea courts, and weekend closures will affect the town's cricket and football teams' work . Occasional use of the fitness suite is also likely to be curtailed.
Urging councillors to give time for "full and proper dialogue" about the centres' future, Cllr Barry said: "There are some community benefits that cannot be quantified by a simple balance sheet. Local facilities for local people are the best way to achieve their quality of life." He added: "This is a simple cost-saving excercise which takes no account of the impact on our community or the long term impact on health and welfare,"
Brightlingsea councillor Graham Steady said that Sport England had agreed to fund a team of consultants to help draw up a five-year business plan for the centres, and pointed out that provision of sport is a TDC policy. This was echoed by Dovercourt councillor Garry Calver, who pointed out that just three weeks ago the council' local plan was approved, which he said stated: "This council will maintain, expand and improve local sports and leisure facilities."
"If we meant what we said we should support this amendment," said Cllr Calver. "It is vital to show to show the wider community that we did mean what we put in our own local plan."
Oakleys and Wix councillor Michael Bush called the withdrawal "shortsighted" and "based on purely fianancial grounds. "Little consideration has been given to the public need and wellbeing in the long term," he claimed.
Council leader Neil Stock denied that the council was withdrawing funding, and said that it wasn't closing the centres, just not renewing the agreement with the Sigma Trust. "I absolutely do not want to see these facilities close, but they are not our facilities, that's the key thing," he said.
Brightlingsea Info understands that although local councillors have had two meetings where representatives of the Sigma Trust were present, the organisation's position on the long-term provision of sports and leisure facilities on its premises is unclear. TDC portfolio holder for leisure and tourism Alex Porter's claims at the meeting that the Trust was content with the new arrangement was refuted by Cllr Calver, who said that it was "absolutely not happy" that the agreement was ending. It's understood that more meetings are to be sought with the Trust.
TDC leisure team staff are contacting users of the sports centre to help them make bookings. The council says existing bookings are being honoured, and block bookers and hirers will be contacted about transferring their regular sessions to any new agreement. Racquet sports users will be asked if there's any interest in forming a local club as casual use of the racquet courts will not continue.
- The situation – and how to move forward – is due to be discussed at a full Brightlingsea Town Council meeting on Thursday (February 17).