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The public meeting in Brightlingsea Community Centre

Go out of town to use a gym, Brightlingsea residents told

If you want to use a gym, go elsewhere.

That was the blunt message given to Brightlingsea residents by a Tendring District Council (TDC) officer at a public meeting about the council's decision stop funding the town's sports centre at the end of this month.

The decision not to renew a long-standing joint-use agreement with the Sigma Trust, which owns the centre at the Colne School, means that from April 1, the gym facilities will close. The Sigma Trust will take over the running of the centre, but evening closing at 8.30pm and no weekend or school holiday opening will leave some local sports clubs without a venue and the future of others – including activities for children and those with special needs – in doubt.

Around 70 people attended the meeting in Brightlingsea Community Centre on March 8 – with the audience made up of sports centre users, sports team representatives and members of Brightlingsea Town Council. Interim corporate director Lee Heley represented TDC, but pointed out that the decision to pull funding was made by councillors, not officers. When asked by one pensioner who'd been using the gym for 25 years where she was supposed to go once it was closed, Mr Heley suggested she could use facilities at Clacton Leisure Centre or Essex University.

Tendring and town councillor Mick Barry – whose bid to get TDC to extend a three month "transition period" to a year to give more time to explore ways of keeping the centre funded and open for more hours was narrowly defeated last month – said TDC's decision to pull out was "an indecently hasty process".

The decision followed a consultation of centre users in the autumn of 2021 – which was heavily criticised by many at the meeting for failing to make any mention of the end of the agreement, which saw TDC pay for the staff at the centre – or give any suggestion that council would pull its £76,000 annual funding. TDC – which has just funded a £575,000 revamp of wellbeing facilities at Clacton Leisure Centre – has said that it did not want to spend money on a facility that it didn't own.

Mr Heley had no answer to a question put by Brightlingsea resident Gary Hill. "Are you saying that Brightlingsea is not worth £76,000?" he asked.

After pointing out that the council's subsidy for the centre amounted to £1.37 per user in 2018 (the last full non-pandemic year for which figures are available), against up to £1.81 for other centres in the district, Cllr Barry said: "We're not asking for hundreds of thousands of pounds, we're just asking for a fair crack of the whip."

Cllr Barry said no blame was attached to the Sigma Trust, which had been very supportive, but "in some respect had been dropped in it" by TDC. As a result, it was havng to train staff and take on extra liabilities. "There is funding out there and we want to access it, but it takes time," he said. "Brightlingsea Town Council has limited resources and we can't take on TDC's role."

Town councillor Ben Smith was one of several to claim that it was hypocritical of TDC to say that it was promoting health and wellbeing in its recently-adopted local plan while removing facilities for Brightlingsea residents. "This is just a cost cutting exercise," he said. Another councillor, Bev Maltby, pointed out that making people drive to out-of town facilities was doing nothing to lower the district's carbon footprint – not to mention the difficulty and expense of using public transport. This was neatly summed up by one resident: "I can't get two buses to play table tennis with my son."

Shambles

Brightlingsea Cricket Club's youth development officer said bookings had already been affected by parents' evenings and exams."The loss of weekend and holiday bookings is going to be a shambles," he claimed. He said that cricket for disabled youngsters" who have virtually no other physical activity" was in doubt, while a supported adult would no longer be able to access the gym on his own. "He will lose that independence," sad Mr Hunt.

Referrring to the short notice of closure from TDC, he added: "If this had been done properly Sigma Trust would have known what it was doing. It's just been rubbish so far."

The meeting heard that other youth teams had been forced to relocate to the town's recreation ground for training, where facilities are coming under increasing pressure. With the earlier evening closure, the Sledgehammers basketball team – which has been in existence since 1993 – is unable to play matches at the centre, leaving its men's team "high and dry".

Earlier in the day, TDC issued a press release which claimed that 90 per cent of users at the sports centres in Brightlingsea and Harwich (also owned by the Sigma Trust and losing funding) had been "accommodated" during the transition period. On being questioned, Mr Heley admitted that the figure was more likely to be around 50 per cent, as it only referred to organised team bookings and not gym users. At least one team representative told the meeting that he had yet to be contacted about new booking arrangements.

Other users said that the Sigma Trust was looking for much more documentation – such as insurance, formal constitutions and association affiliations – than the council had, placing yet another hurdle in the way of using the centre under the new arrangements.

The lack of spending by TDC on the centre – was raised at the meeting and the ageing gym equipment was frequently referred to by respondents to last year's consutation. Former Sigma Trust CEO Jeff Brindle claimed at the meeting that although the agreement between the trust and the council was supposed to see investment by TDC, "that had never happened" in the last five years. "All upkeep has fallen on the school," he said.

Closing the meeting, Cllr Barry said that the plan was to form a working group to look at how the sports and leisure facilities could be maintained in the town. "We'll be calling a meeting after the transition period ends to take stock of where we are," he said.

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