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Councillors call for decision on future of Maidstone Leisure Centre amid rising costs

Plans for the future of an ageing leisure centre need to be made urgently, before it is forced to close due to safety reasons.

That was the warning as borough councillors heard the costs of maintaining Maidstone’s swimming pool and gym at Mote Park had rocketed by £1 million in the last year.

Maidstone Leisure Centre
Maidstone Leisure Centre

Cllr Paul Harper (Ind), told colleagues the centre was rapidly deteriorating and there would come a time when it was not economical or safe to continue to open it.

He urged the cabinet member for leisure, Cllr Claudine Russell (Con), to draw up a timetable of when decisions would need to be made on the future of the centre – and stick to it.

He said the council had previously expressed an ambition to have either a new purpose-built centre or to completely refurbish the existing one by 2031, but warned: “That is only just over seven years away and there is a lot of work to be done."

The council has taken the decision to proceed with a “minor improvements plan” for the centre that is going to cost £2m. The changes will include separating the entrance hall from the pool area, which it is hoped will reduce heating costs.

But Cllr Harper said: "That is not enough.”

The pool at the centre
The pool at the centre

In the spring the centre came under fire after it emerged lots of the facilities, including flumes, slides and the wave machine, were regularly closed to visitors due to lifeguard shortages.

The 1970s building was previously described by councillors at “the most polluting building in Maidstone” due to its energy inefficiency.

Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem) agreed a decision on the centre should be taken at the earliest opportunity, but said now was too early.

He said the council did not yet know how much money it would receive from central government next year and did not know how much the borough’s plans to secure 1,000 affordable homes would eat into the council's budget.

He said it would be “pretty meaningless even to draw up a timetable”.

Council leader David Burton
Council leader David Burton

The leader of the council, Cllr David Burton (Con) said: ”Providing 1,000 affordable homes and a new leisure centre are not necessarily mutually exclusive.”

He said each would need to be judged on its business case.

But he said the "gamechanger” was the price of money.

He said: "If we had to borrow £50m or £60m for a new leisure centre that could bankrupt this council.

“We have to be financially sensible.

The money for a new centre is not there at present
The money for a new centre is not there at present

“Let’s be honest with the electorate and not go promising things that we can’t provide.”

Cllr Dave Naghi (Lib Dem) said when the council had first considered a new centre, the cost of borrowing money had been cheap.

He said: ”We could have done it then but we didn’t have the plans in place.”

He urged the council to take the decision on where a new centre should go and what the design should be, so that at the first opportunity, the scheme was ready to go.

Cllr Maureen Cleator (Lab) suggested the council should consider co-locating a new centre with another body such as the NHS, to reduce costs.

Cllr Margaret Rose
Cllr Margaret Rose

She said there was “a need to look creatively”.

But Cllr Margaret Rose (Lab) said: “Whatever money we do have we should think about using it to help the homeless.

“Having a home and having a roof over your head is probably more important than going to the leisure centre.”

Cllr Russell assured her colleagues that work was continuing on the design of a new facility, but said: “You can’t commit to a date when you are spending this much money.”

She said she would like to investigate the provision of a new centre designed to the highest energy efficiency standards, but she warned: “That would be more expensive and take longer.”

Cllr Paul Harper
Cllr Paul Harper

Cllr Harper was unhappy with the decision “vacuum”.

He said evidence supplied by Sport England had suggested a new energy-efficient leisure centre would save the council £2m a year in running costs. He said: “That would service a lot of debt.”

He said: “It's disappointing that we seem to be heading for a situation where people will have a house in Maidstone, but won't have the opportunity to do any exercise in Maidstone.”

The issue will be passed to a policy advisory committee to consider in February.

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