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Challenge to £670,00 'bailout' for Tunbridge Wells leisure centres fails

A decision to speed the re-opening of Tunbridge Wells' three leisure centres following Covid-enforced closure by providing financial support to the management company running them, was the correct thing to do, a council scrutiny committee has decided.

On September 10, cabinet members at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council agreed to provide up to £670,000 support for Fusion Lifestyle to enable the company to re-open the Tunbridge Wells Sports Centre and the satellite centres at Putlands in Paddock Wood and at The Weald in Cranbrook.

Tunbridge Wells cabinet made its decision correctly
Tunbridge Wells cabinet made its decision correctly

The 'bail-out' saw the council agree to waive the annual management fee of £249,634 that it was due to receive from Fusion Lifestyle and also to underwrite 5% of any future operating losses incurred by the firm before April of next year up to a maximum of £420,000.

Although all councillors were keen to see the sports centres and pools re-opened, some thought that the cabinet had been too hasty in its decision and had not properly considered all the alternatives nor consulted with stakeholder users of the centres.

In particular, there was concern that Fusion was asking long-term users of the centres such as the Monson Swimming Club to pay additional fees - while receiving a financial "bail-out" from the borough.

Seven councillors put down their names to initiate a call-in procedure to ask the cabinet to reconsider.

The council's overview and scrutiny committee considered the call-in request during a virtual meeting last night.

Cllr David Hayward proposed the call-in
Cllr David Hayward proposed the call-in

Speaking for the call-in Cllr David Haywood (Tunbridge Wells Alliance) said: "The sites are now all open, which is great."

But he said, the cabinet had received an email the day before from the swimming club raising concerns about proposed fee increases, which could put the club's viability at risk, but had not considered the club's concerns at all in their discussion.

Other possibilities such as only waiving the management fee, or returning the centres to direct council control had also not been considered.

Nor had a proper risk assessment been carried out.

In reply, Cllr Jane March, (Con), cabinet portfolio holder for culture, leisure and economic development, said the cabinet had considered the re-opening of the centres to be beneficial for the whole borough and with the reduced customer capacity required to meet Covid social distancing regulations, and the consequently reduced income, it was inevitable that support would be needed.

Cllr Jane March
Cllr Jane March

But when asked repeatedly by Cllr Ben Chapelard (Lib Dem) whether she had been aware of the proposed fee increases, she declined to answer directly.

Instead she said that under the existing contract, fees were determined by Fusion, and it was "not relevant" to the decision.

She agreed there had been no consultation with stakeholders but again said that it had not been necessary to determine the specific question of whether to grant financial support to re-open the centres.

The council's legal officer, Patricia Narebor, confirmed that consultation on that question was not mandatory.

Cllr Chapelard said he was not asking whether the proposed price rise was relevant, but only whether she knew about it, yes or no, but Cllr March merely repeated her first answer.

Cllr Ben Chapelard couldn't wring a yes or no answer from the cabinet members
Cllr Ben Chapelard couldn't wring a yes or no answer from the cabinet members

Cabinet member Cllr Tom Dawlings (Con) took issue with the term "bail-out" and said: "It is far better that the centres be used than moth-balled."

In any case, the council expected to regain 70% of the sacrificed management fee from the Government under a scheme to compensate local authorities for earnings lost due to Covid.

Cabinet member Carol Mackonchie (Con) also insisted that "supporting Fusion was in the best interest of all the centre's stakeholders."

Cllr Sean Holden (Con) urged the committee to reject the call-in attempt, saying the centres would not have re-opened "without this quick, bold decision by cabinet."

He said: "This call-in is an opposition roadblock for purely political reasons. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance have ganged up to throw a spanner in the works."

Councillor Sean Holden: "Opposition roadblock"
Councillor Sean Holden: "Opposition roadblock"

"They don’t worry that legalistic hold ups and delays arguing about opening under contract might stop the opening of our leisure centres.

"Good Conservative management in this cabinet has saved – I don’t think that’s too big a word – saved these vital community services for our people."

Cllr Andy Fairweather (Con) said: "Exceptional times require exceptional measures."

He said people had been calling out for the leisure centres to be re-opened and said they were "essential for the health, well being and metal stability of the community."

The three centres were closed by the government on March 20. Some dry-side sports activities resumed on September 1, and the two pools re-opened on September 4.

Cllr Andrew Fairweather (42374123)
Cllr Andrew Fairweather (42374123)

The committee voted by six votes to five not to proceed with a call-in, with members dividing on party lines, with Tories in one camp and Lib Dem, Labour and TWA councillors in the other.

It was the first time there had been an attempt to challenge any of the Tory cabinet's decisions since May, 2017.

The 48-seat council currently has 28 Conservative members, nine Lib Dems, four each of Labour and Tunbridge Wells Alliance and two Independents. There is one vacancy.

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