Leisure & Tourism Infrastructure Working Group Bite Back
The Consultants' main conclusion was that the best possible option is to move the Facilities to land north of the Littlehampton Academy - a proposal chillingly like the original proposal, except it now would have no multi-purpose Hall.
The Working Group did not greet the report with enthusiasm, and at the end of the meeting passed a resolution 'noting' the presentation and Report, but also recommending that an alternative Proposal to consider fuller options in North Littlehampton should be fully envisaged and evaluated before any decision or final recommendation is made; and that whatever recommendation does emerge should be put to proper and meaningful and binding Public Consultation which must shape the final policy.
Although the Consultants' Feasibility Study is hailed by its promoters as 'Bold and Visionary', a much Bolder and far more Visionary - and far more Relevant and Justifiable - proposal emerged from Cllr Northeast on behalf of the North Littlehampton residents, suggesting that the Facility could be placed in the new Commercial Area of the North Littlehampton Development Area, and be grouped with open Playing Fields , and could attract-in a number of other Leisure and Sports Activities, possibly including new Cinema / Theatre uses to form a proper Sports and Leisure Complex or Zone. While this is bound to be controversial, all the same it embodies some really interesting possibilities which could offer real improvements to the growing town.
The Consultants' Report for Publication (Littlehampton Swimming and Sports Centre Feasibility Public Summary report) is a slim de-natured document which unfortunately tends to give the impression that only a superficial study was carried out. This may be because there is a huge underlying body of work that someone - either the Consultants or those who commissioned the study - thinks should not be put in the public domain, but the resulting feeling once again is that nobody took the trouble to familiarise themselves with specifics of our situation - like:- who exactly are the users, what activities do they need facilities for, where the shortcomings exist (other than in number of swimming lanes, which had been laid down in the preceding Colliers International proposal), and how removal of the existing Swimming and Sport Centre would impact on other loosely associate activities at the Mewsbrook Site.
The comparisons that are set out in the short public document seem neither fair nor balanced - possibly because they haven't been rigorously reviewed or challenged at the research stage - and so conclusions are drawn that don't seem to square up to the problem under discussion. Very similar in fact to the way original Leisure Strategy proposals were presented. Particularly notable is a list of Pros and Cons which is clearly intended to give the impression of comparing the existing site to any or all alternatives. There are four Pros listed for existing Mewsbrook site, and twelve cons. Now if you were to apply the same test to the proposed alternative sites, then you would find that the position is not reversed at all, with all the Cons becoming Pros. Instead, there are a number of the Cons for the existing Centre that would also be Cons for the Consultants' recommended proposal - for instance, there would be no Sea Views, and as there would no Sports Hall it could hardly meet Sport England requirements. Two of the Pros for the existing building become Cons for the new. And 'Detachment from Main Population Hubs to the North' gets replaced by 'Detachment from Main Population Hubs to the South and South East'.
All the other nine 'Cons' would - or could - be eliminated in a new building, either at Daisyfields OR at Mewsbrook. So, if the existing seafront Mewsbrook site were re-developed, using the Consultants 'bullet points', there would be Fifteen Pro points, and One Con. But the recommended development at the inland Daisyfields site would result in Eleven Pros and Five Cons. That doesn't seem to be said anywhere in the Feasibility Study, at least not in the Public Summary.
So while the pros and cons matrix makes the case that a brand-new facility would be better than the existing one (which was built as cheaply as possible at the time) - which we knew anyway, but thought we might not be able to afford without throwing the baby out with the bathwater - it certainly doesn't fairly make the case that the existing site is a poor site for a new facility. It seems more like a cynical attempt to misrepresent the facts.
One important assertion that has never been properly demonstrated is that the existing site could not include the two additional swimming lanes and enlarged beginners pool.
And when questioned about the non-inclusion of a multi-purpose Sports Hall Area (in earlier Cabinet Meetings, inclusion of a five-pitch Hall was promised), instead of referring to their research and evaluation exercise, which one would have hoped was deep, exhaustive and definitive and would have including compelling reasons for proposing the particular mix of facilities, the Consultants quickly back-pedalled and said they could take a further look and see what more could be included.
Once again, the 'Evidence Base' tends to look like an assembly of challengeable unsupported assertions, more like preliminary discussion points than irrefutable conclusions.
Unlike in the Arun Cabinet, where there are no representatives of Littlehampton Wards, several of this committee are Littlehampton representatives, some being on both Town and District Councils. But the response of the Working Group as a whole was practically a Consensus, so although there was a noticeable Littlehampton interest group, by and large Councillors from other parts of the District agreed with the validity of the principal points...
a) The Public Summary Document reveals very little of the Evidence Base and Evaluation Process on which the Recommendation is said to stand. Councillors who had seen the entire document prior to the meeting felt that almost all of the documentation, apart from some small sections relating to finances, were fully suitable for public distribution, and should be made available.
b) The Consultation made absolutely no acknowledgement of the clearly expressed wish of the Town's population - including the clear results of surveys carried out by the District Council itself - that the existing Location was ideal and overwhelmingly preferred.
c) The Consultants' Recommendation involves Development of the existing Swimming Centre site - and so ignores both public feeling on this specific issue, and also fails to recognise the vital and essential Value of the virtually unique connecting Open Spaces along the Littlehampton seafront. Worse still, one of the sites suggested by the District Council, that was rated 'worth further consideration', was part of those Open Spaces which had been gifted to the people of Littlehampton to be used as public open space in perpetuity.
d) Although great concern about the Littlehampton Hospital fiasco has resulted in the population and Town Council demanding that any alternative new facility should be in operational before the existing one is demolished, there is nevertheless a feeling that the users of the Swimming and Sports Centre would tolerate an 18 month break so long as completion and commissioning of a new centre on the Seafront Site was ring-fenced and ensured.
e) If the case is inescapable that a new Swimming and Sports Facility cannot be accommodated on the existing seafront site, and is re-located to a larger site, nevertheless the importance of the Seafront and its Open Spaces is so great to Littlehampton as a Resort Town, that the existing site should continue in Leisure-Related use only.
f) The Recommendation proposes that no multi-purpose hall space will be provided in the New Facility on the Daisyfields (or strictly, Cornfields) Site. The main consideration seems to be based on demand for Badminton Courts (although initially described as merely a standard basis for measurement, the Document appears to base its conclusion on actual demand for Badminton). This fails to recognise the multiplicity of uses that the current 'dome' accommodates, which serve a far wider range of interests and age-groups than the facilities that are being proposed would allow.
g) The proposal allows for providing carparking at the relocated Centre, while the existing carpark would become the site for new Housing development. However the existing carpark also provides much-needed Peak and Over-Spill Parking at the busiest times of Seafront use, another vital requirement for a Seaside Town.
h) In spite of specific undertakings before the Consultation was commissioned, there is no reference to providing for the continuing existence of the Arun Youth Aqua Centre in its foreshore location.
Cabinet Members Paul Dendle and Ricky Bowers attended the meeting and contributed to the discussion.
Cllr Dendle pointed out that the Swimming / Sports Centre is 30 years old, and had come to the end of its useful life. He compared it to a car - he said when a car is four or five years old, it becomes uneconomic to keep or repair, so at that point we all get new ones.
He also said that the Local Objections to redeveloping the Swimming centre site with multi-storey Flats had been recognised, so the proposal is now to sell part of the site, mainly the carpark, as Low Rise High Value Housing, raising around £2 million, while extending the Mewsbrook Park as a 'tongue' all the way to the seafront, presumably over the site of the swimming pools. This sounds like a group of three, or maybe five, High-Specification houses, with the convenience of an immediately adjoining Sewage Works and 24-hour traffic between the houses and their Marine Outlook. Rather different to seafront sites at Kingston Gorse or Coastal Road. Maybe there's a Plan B waiting in reserve for when it comes clear this isn't a site for High-Value Houses - perhaps a plan for smaller and more houses, or how about some Flats? At some point Cllr Bowers reminded the Working Group that the Council has a Statutory Duty to obtain best value when disposing of assets.
But however the details pan out, this is the same old proposal to Sell the Family Silverware (or maybe, to people who dispose of their cars every four years, the 'little Canaletto that used to hang in the hall' which that Man of the People Harold Macmillan once referred to).
Cllr Bowers explained how the beauty of the proposal was that the land identified could be acquired by a simple exchange, so there would be no cost.
The land required belongs to West Sussex County Council and is part of a School Playing Field, and was previously good quality farm land. It will have good access from the Fitzalan Road Extension, and has been allocated as potential Housing Land. The land owned by Arun District Council was formerly a Brickworks and includes former claypits which were later used a rubbish tips and which are evidently still subsiding. Maybe a straight swap is possible, but WSCC may not see the two sites as having equal values.
He pointed out that the existing Seafront Site isn't directly accessible by Public Transport from the north of the town, people trying to travel from Wick need to change buses en route. What he failed to point out is that there is currently no bus route to the proposed site either (because the road that will pass the site does not exist yet). He also didn't seem to remember that when the Swimming Centre was opened on its Seafront Site the bus service was quite different to what it is now, and that by the same token, existence of a service now by no means guarantees it will continue for 30 years into future. And contrariwise, a larger Swimming and Sports Centre could encourage operators to modify routes and timetables to serve the increased usage.
Cllr Bowers also warned the Working Group that Leisure isn't a Mandatory Service that Local Authorities must provide, it's Optional. So it would be best to accept this proposal as otherwise the may be no Leisure Facilities at all. This threat was a surprise coming from a Politician, as it's been widely recognised for around two thousand years that the easiest way to win votes from the Plebs is to provide Bread and Circuses, the 'Circuses' being the buildings where the fun took place.
But in a Seaside Town, surely it goes a lot deeper than that. The Town needs these facilities to perform its essential function as a Resort, not just to provide for the health and recreation needs of an increasing population.
The members of the Working Group showed they had the wider interests of the whole District at heart, and where not just thinking - literally - Parochially. In response to the proposal by Cllr Walsh that any finalised proposal should be put to the test of Public Consulation, Cllr Daniells said "I was not elected to be Bold or to Lead, I was elected to Represent, and so I support the move to consult the Electorate".
So what next? A decision on the Swimming and Sports Facility requires assent of both Cabinet and Full Council. How will the Cabinet and Full Council respond?