A decision that could have seen Brightlingsea sports centre close at the end of this year has been deferred for three months – but only to give the local community time to come up with a plan to keep it open.
Tendring District Council's (TDC) ruling cabinet decided today (December 17) that it will no longer fund the sports facility at the Colne Community College – jointly run with the school's operators, the Sigma Trust – when an agreement between the two comes to an end. The council – which has just completed a £575,000 refurbishment at Clacton Leisure Centre – says the move will save £76,000 a year.
The plan to stop funding the Brightlingsea centre was contained in a report released a week ago and came in for fierce criticism by the town's three district councillors for the lack of consultation and short notice. The threat of possible closure stunned users, especially as a consultation exercise earlier this year revealed overwhelming support for the centre and contained no suggestion that it might be closed. A petition against the Brightlingsea closure has now gained over 1,000 signatures.
In a statement, TDC said: "The council will invite representatives from the relevant town councils (funding is also being withdrawn for Harwich sports centre, also owned by the Sigma Trust ) and the Sigma Trust to join an engagement group to meet during the transition period to work through the operations of providing community use from the facilities."
But speaking after the meeting, Brightlingsea councillor Mick Barry suggested that TDC is trying to "offload" the sports centre to Brightlingsea Town Council. "It will be a really tough ask to come up with something for the long term," he told Brightlingsea Info. Cllr Barry, who managed the transition of the Lido from TDC to community ownership, said that project took over a year. "It really is a big, big ask to get us to take on the challenge in three months," he added.
During the meeting, Cllr Barry said that the message appearing to come from Tendring was that Brightlingsea residents "don't matter". "People are angry and perplexed at losing sports halls, gyms and dance studios," he added, pointing out that the facilities have "never been more critical and necessary".
"It was such a shock to receive this report giving two week's notice and with a bank holiday in between," said Cllr Jayne Chapman. She said a previous meeting about the Brightlingsea Centre had been so positive that councillors left discussing ways to redesign its foyer.
Cllr Chapman said that the centre was "an absolute lifesaver" for a local mental health group, while patients requiring physiotherapy were being referred there by local doctors. She also pointed out that there would be no saving in wages if the centre closed, as the report said staff would be relocated. Cllr Graham Steady added: "This should be about providing facilities for future generations, not cuts."
Alex Porter, the TDC cabinet member for leisure and tourism, said the decision would allow further investment in the council's amenities. "We can deliver high-quality sports facilities, on a sustainable footing and at a reasonable cost to the tax payer, by focusing our investment in the leisure centres we own and run – rather than operating out of other buildings," he said after the meeting. "We also know the way people get active is changing, from customer trends pre-pandemic, how we exercised during lockdown, and from the work of the Active Essex Sport England Local Delivery Pilot which we are part of – so working with partners in the community will be important going forward."
A spokesman for Sigma Trust said: "We note the decision of Tendring District Council and we will be working with the council during this transitional period to accommodate as many bookings as possible, focused on the community use of facilities."
TDC has said that will be in contact with clubs and users in the New Year to develop future arrangements. All existing bookings made for January will be honoured.