Posted: 29.07.20 at 20:46 by Tom Avery
Cheshire East Council has decided to pause the Congleton Leisure Centre redevelopment project with a review into the plans earmarked for Autumn.
The £8m redevelopment scheme was due to start in January, but to date there has been no progress.
The plans include replacing the existing swimming pool with a new six-lane swimming pool, creating a new learner pool, community meeting spaces, a soft play area with café access and gym facilities over two floors.
Speaking at Thursday’s Congleton Town Council meeting, which was conducted via Zoom, Cllr Suzie Akers Smith told councillors that she had spoken with Cllr Mick Warren, Cheshire East Council cabinet member for communities regarding the Congleton Leisure Centre redevelopment.
Cllr Akers Smith stated that she was informed Cheshire East has decided to pause the town’s leisure centre project to review it, due to the cost of undertaking the project rising by £3m.
Cllr Akers Smith said: “They want to review what the proposal is currently, to see if it’s the best we can get for Congleton with the money that we have or whether we would try and get more money to get something else.”
Cllr Russell Chadwick asked Cllr Akers Smith whether under the “current climate” the leisure centre project would go ahead or if Cheshire East’s decision was “just a smokescreen” to save £10m and due to the delays the town may have “lost” the revamped leisure centre project.
The cycling and walking champion for the borough assured councillors that the leisure centre would go ahead, but she told the meeting that it may not well be the project that has currently been put forward.
Cllr Akers Smith added: “If anything it will be bigger and better, nothings been set in stone a review is happening and they’re going to make a decision later in the year about October time.”
The meeting was told by Cllr Akers Smith that the budget for the project was £8.2m, which was agreed between 2015-18, but now the budget cost is £11.4m, which is a “substantial difference for what is effectively the same project”. A planning application for the redevelopment of Congleton Leisure Centre was approved by Cheshire East in March 2018.
No decisions have been made on the project, according to Cllr Akers Smith it would still go ahead if Cheshire East decided not to change anything, but with Covid-19 and the growing Congleton population, Cllr Akers Smith added: “More and more people are encouraged to do fitness, so they only expect the leisure centre to get more and more use, they want to make sure that it’s right for Congleton because Congleton is growing by 25%, it’s just looking at options at this stage because of the situation we’re in.”
Cllr Margaret Gartside asked Cllr Akers Smith whether there was anything the town council could do “in order to get the best we can for Congleton”.
Cllr Akers Smith responded: “One of the questions that has come up is the location the best place for it, if you build a brand new leisure centre on virgin land where it is bespoke you would probably get better value for money.
“If there’s any land you may think could be potentially used for a project like that then definitely let us know, it’s another opportunity if someone is interested in selling some land.”
The Cheshire East councillor stated that if the leisure centre project were linked to Sport England or British Cycling and “enhance what the original plan was” match funding worth “extra millions” could be acquired.
Cllr Akers Smith added: “It has blown it wide open, I’m not going to say it’s definitely going to happen but it is an opportunity to reflect on what has been proposed and to see whether we can get a leisure centre for the growing population of Congleton.”
Cllr Kay Wesley stated that the town council had a long discussion about the leisure centre project last year based on some concerns from both councillors and residents about certain things that had been requested were not included in the project. Examples included not having enough squash courts and having an Olympic sized swimming pool.
Cllr Wesley added: “There were significant potential changes that certain people would have liked to see that we discussed the feasibility of or not, at that time I think the general consensus was if we started demanding a very different leisure centre project from what had already been approved we were in danger of losing the project altogether.
“The vote came down to making some minor alterations rather than some sweeping changes. Now Cllr Akers Smith you seem to be saying the mood at Cheshire East has changed and there is potential to make dramatic modifications to this project, on what basis is that assertion being made?”
Cllr Akers Smith responded: “The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted problems within the leisure centres and it’s clear that Congleton Leisure Centre isn’t a very popular leisure centre and because leisure is going to get bigger and bigger because of people wanting to get fitter and more active it’s an opportunity to revisit all of those aspects.”
Cllr David Brown said: “If you delay a project by a year it puts somewhere between 5 and 10% on so it’s a million pound a year, so not starting in January going to now has probably accounted for £600,000 of that cost.
“The council did go out for tender and received tenders and they awarded provisional contracts to Pulse Fitness, those contracts are still under negotiation in terms of price and the facilities
“The original site of Hankinsons Fields and why the leisure centre was put there was a social reason predominantly to provide those sort of facilities for the Bromley Farm estate.
“The historic reason for putting it there is probably gone now and if the relocation was going to be in a big country sports park with cycling, football and rugby, it would be a major asset to the town, but that would probably cost between £25million and £30million.”
Cllr Paul Duffy said: “I have real concerns, all I read in the papers and all over social media is how Cheshire East has got a £70million blackhole of finances and I just cannot see them wanting to put money into Congleton Leisure Centre above the £11m that has been requested.
“I share Cllr Chadwick’s real concerns that if we don’t get something, we’re going to have nothing at all and that would be real loss. I think we should really try and salvage what we can get at the moment.”
Cllr George Hayes said: “It would appear that this is a delay by the Labour/Independent administration, which is unfortunate, any further delay will only seek to increase the cost.
“I agree with what Cllr Duffy said, the council cannot on one hand go to the government with its begging bowl suggesting that its budgets are stretched to the point that they cannot afford key frontline services whilst then gold plating Congleton Leisure Centre with increases to its capacity.
“I think we have to be mindful that there may well be other sites, but there would also be land costs associated with those, which would then in turn detract from the capital available to be spent on the facility itself.”
Cllr Duncan Amies said: “The current plans for the current leisure centre was actually a reduction, we were losing the squash courts, we were having a reduction of certain elements, an increase in the gym and a café. Is it going to meet the needs going forward because people are walking, running and doing more? No.
“Modifying a building is always going to be more expensive then building one fresh on a greenfield site so maybe we take this opportunity to have a quick look again, see if it is the best need or see if we can do something better with that money.
“If the money is there can we do something better with it. I think we should do a review again.”
Cllr Amies told the meeting that earlier in the year, councillors did a strategy and business plan with a number of councillors mentioning their desire to have a sports field facility to try and replace some of the things that would have been replaced in the leisure centre.
Cllr Amies added: “Maybe we could merge the two, so let’s look at this. If we don’t look at it and lose it, we only get one shot at this.”
Cllr Robert Douglas said: “Speed is of the essence because during recessions it doesn’t matter what political party is running what show, projects like this have a nasty habit of being cancelled.
“We had a long discussion; the decision was clear cut and we as a council should stick with that. We should continue with that decision and push through as soon as possible to ensure that the people of Congleton get not necessarily the perfect leisure centre, but a leisure centre then rather nothing at all.”
Cllr Brown concluded: “If we are going to find a new location, if it’s going to be a big sports facility the chances are it won’t be within the confines of Congleton town it will be outside and there might be a price to pay for that, which is housing on Hankinson’s Field, which could raise a lot of money and provide the facility. There all the things that Cheshire East will be looking at.”
Congleton Leisure Centre's gym and swimming pool will reopen on 1st September.
The leisure facility on Worrall Street is one of four centres in Cheshire East which will form the last part of a phased reopening by Leisure charity Everybody Sport & Recreation.
Councillor Mick Warren, Cheshire East Council cabinet member for communities, said: “The leisure industry in general is facing uncertain times in view of the pandemic and, unfortunately, the council has had to take the difficult decision to pause this project for the time being.
“However, it will be reviewed again in the autumn.
“In line with government guidance on the reopening of leisure facilities, Congleton Leisure Centre – managed by Everybody Sport and Recreation (Esar) – will open its doors again on 1 September.
“In view of the new restrictions on indoor leisure activity, the council will be in a position to better understand the impact of the pandemic on Congleton and our other indoor leisure centres across the borough.
“Naturally, we hope that any impact on visitor numbers and activity is minimal and the council is committed to the continued improvement of the borough’s leisure offer.”