Labour Scrutiny Councillors Uphold Decision to Close Willfield Fitness Centre

Labour councillors today [Thursday] forced through the decision to close a popular fitness centre despite the gallant efforts of two of their own councillors.
The cabinet had already voted to close Willfield Fitness Centre but their decision was called in by City Independent Group Leader Cllr Dave Conway along with Cllr Lee Wanger.

A meeting of the Adult & Neighbourhood Overview & Scrutiny Committee were told that despite the call in work was already underway to close the facility.

The pool was drained, staff had left post and 14 fitness groups had been transferred to other locations across the area.

Opposition councillors led By Dave Conway were furious that the City Council officers had broken a long standing rule of halting any work until the call in process had been exhausted.

City Independent Councillors Conteh, James and Conway were always facing an uphill battle to overturn the cabinet decision, but they were buoyed by support from Labour Cllr Sheila Pitt who with assistance from fellow Labour Councillor Alison Wedgwood tabled the following statement and proposal:

Firstly I would like to say that both myself and Councillor Alison Wedgwood worked together on this statement and these questions because we both feel that this is a very important decision we are being asked to review.

There are six points to consider. The gym receives over 70,000 visits per year from people whose only goal is to lead independent healthy lives; this is now one of the four new pillars on which the whole Mandate for Change agenda rests so closing a well used and relatively inexpensive sports facility doesn’t make sense on so many levels.

We believe the underlying reason why the Council want to close it down is because the gym is housed in a not very attractive building which will soon be situated next to a brand new academy. I think you all agree when I say that we in the Council cannot go around knocking down useful, productive buildings, simply because they are ugly. Especially buildings that the Council invested £1 million pounds in only five years ago.

The financial reasons for closing the gym do not make sense. We did not receive a full breakdown of the costs in the options appraisal, so Councillor Wedgwood asked for a breakdown and has recently received this table, which I would like to show my fellow committee members.

In TABLE 1 you will see that £133,000 is included to clad the outside of the building to make it more attractive. However, if I now draw your attention to the Public Options Appraisal report which was used to justify closing the gym which is included as Page 7 of your agenda , in the notes it says clearly that the £133,000 is not part of the £398,500 capital item.

It says “This does not include “¦ a further anticipated £133,000 to clad the building due to planning conditions”
This doesn’t make sense and understandably gives me little confidence in the rest of the figures and data presented in the options appraisal; therefore, I find it difficult to make such an important decision when I don’t trust the figures.

TABLE 1 also includes a cost of £27,000 to repair or renew windows, in this age of austerity, why can’t the gym cope with its current windows? Again I would argue that this is an unnecessary expense.

In our Agenda on page 22 we have a comparison of the number of users at the gym compared to other council sites. I think this was intended to show how little used the gym is. We think that this data actually shows how important our decision is today ““ the gym represents 5% of all sports usage in this city – all in only 398 square meters! It has the same number of users as Northwood sports stadium. I wonder if a better analysis wouldn’t be to show the number of users per square meter, or the number of users per pound subsidy?

Similarly, the table of postcodes, on page 22 was intended to show that the gym isn’t really a community gym., Well firstly as 22% of the table are invalid entries the table is deeply flawed. Secondly, the fact that there are also many users from Longton, Blurton and Meir shows that shifting these users across to the Wallace centre would not work and that this is not just an issue for Bentilee, but for many citizens of Stoke on Trent.

Is the Wallace centre really as suitable for Disabled Users? We know a disabled user went to the Wallace recently and found that it hasn’t got disabled showers like the Willfield has, what use is a gym without a shower?

Finally, and very importantly, we feel that the options appraisal should have included the business case included by other external groups or funders, such as the one presented by the Willfield Action Group. I would like to remind everyone that according to the new Localism Bill, Councils are supposed to be willing to hand over assets to the community for them to manage and run especially if this reduces the financial burden to the Council. This is a perfect example of letting our civic society, letting hard working members of the community volunteer and manages their own services. The Willfield Action Group have a former manager from Sports and Leisure at their head, they are not just a group of well meaning do-gooders.

When Councillor Pervez visited the gym on the 8th June Mr Camellaire was asked to present a business case, and without much time he has done so, but within a few days of the 8th June a decision had already been made, and the Community Trust business case which I’m sure you have all received, has never been considered. This business case would need some firming up which can be done with more access to council data, but there is a real opportunity to let the Community run the gym, take on the financial risks and prove that they can make it work. If it doesn’t work then at least they have tried, and the Council may have lost a free opportunity to demolish a building but will have gained many supporters and democracy would have been better served.

Therefore, we urge this committee to consider this Community Trust business case. This should have been considered by the cabinet and council officers and in the interests of democracy, accountability and fair decision making, and in the interests of the health and independence of the people of Stoke on Trent I would like to recommend the gym is handed over to a Community Trust for them to run and that this decision is referred back to the Cabinet for them to amend.

Officers of the council did their upmost to prevent Cllr Pitt from sharing her documentation with other councillors at the meeting but a timely intervention by Cllr Randy Conteh who reminded officer that he had seen papers handed out on the day of the meeting many times before, soon resulted in the legal officer backing down and the papers were distributed.

After a long and at times heated debate, the proposal to recommend that the Willfield Fitness Centre be retained on its present site and for the Council to work with the Willfield Centre Trust to taken over the costs and running of the Centre was voted on and narrowly defeated.

Labour Councillor Sheila Pitt voted with the opposition, whilst her fellow group councillors Pender, Wheeldon, Banks and Fry contributed nothing to the debate during the entire meeting.

Cllr Bagh Ali used his casting vote to ensure that the cabinet decision to close the Willfield Centre was upheld.
It was obvious that the Labour Group had the whip on.
Cllrs Hamer, Rosenau and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Group Paul Shotton were dotted about the Windsor Room to ensure that there were no dissenters.

There may be trouble ahead for Cllrs Pitt & Wedgwood. The Labour Group often takes a dim view on councillors who break the whip.

Talking to Willfield supporters after the meeting the actions taken by the two labour Councillors were very much appreciated and went a long way to convince the electorate in their ward that Cllrs Pitt and Wedgwood stayed true to their election pledge to fight to keep the popular fitness centre open.

After the meeting I managed to catch up with Cllr Randy Conteh whose contribution throughout the meeting was outstanding.

Listen to the Audio Interview below.

[soundcloud id=’19496753′]

More Labour Lies In Bentilee

On Thursday 30th June 2011, the Labour council’s cabinet voted unanimously to close and demolish the entire Willfield centre and gym, including fitness centre and swimming pool. [1]

£925,500 was spent modernising this in 2005. The council have now betrayed their policy promise of retaining the fitness centre, set out in the approved Sports and Physical Activity Strategy (2009-2016).

History
This facility has been under threat from Labour for some time now, despite the Sentinel announcing, in line with Labour spin, that it would be saved [2].

I reported recently on the “March in Support of Willfield Gym” (blog link below), which was also reported in the Sentinel [3]. I described in “Discovery Academy on Willfield” the devious Labour tactic used to disperse previous protest against its closure.
The gym was originally included within the site to be demolished to make way for the Discovery Academy. When Labour became aware that gym campaigners were joining forces with school campaigners who wanted a school on the Mitchell site instead of Willfield, they used divide and conquer techniques. They changed the academy boundary to leave the Willfield gym apparently outside the demolition area, to pacify the gym campaigners.

But the case put to cabinet [4] centred the reason for the gym closure on the academy; “construction of the new Discovery Academy on the Willfield site under the BSF Programme will significantly affect the continued provision of the Fitness Centre”. So redrawing the boundary is proven to be the con I always thought it was.

Election deception
Before the 5th May 2011 local election, successful Labour candidates Alison Wedgwood and Sheila Pitt issued a leaflet with a huge headline “Willfield Gym Campaign Continues”. Their leaflet claimed “A decision on the Gym’s future has been postponed until the summer”. But the cabinet documents state that “The proposed closure of the entire Willfield site (Upper and Lower) was put forward as part of the budget savings, which were subsequently approved by the City Council on February 24 2011″. So they shouldn’t be having it both ways, claiming now that the closure was already approved but when it suits their election propaganda claiming the decision had been postponed! The council documents claim “Consultation has been carried out with both the staff and the public for the facility through the budget savings process.” And yet Labour are conning the public with election materials.

Sheila Pitt is quoted in the leaflet as saying about the Willfield gym “there is a clear need for this much loved facility to remain where it is”. This follows on from last year’s equally disingenuous statement from successful Labour candidate Mervin Smith’s election leaflet, where he said about Willfield; “shutting it is madness”, “we need to get the message over loud and clear; HANDS OFF!” I commented previously on his campaign in “Labour campaign in Bentilee ““ an outrage”. These are indeed most outrageous but predictably familiar Labour practices.
Alison and Sheila’s leaflet claims “Both Labour Council candidates, and MP Tristram Hunt are supporting the campaign to secure the long term future of the Willfield gym on its current site”. Well clearly Labour does not support the gym! The local election on 5th May 2011 resulted in a clear Labour majority on the council and success for Alison and Sheila. And yet in under 2 months Labour betrayal the public is proven (some of us realised all along this would happen). Issuing this leaflet is despicable deception of the voters at large.

Bizarre council claims
Incredulously the council documents claim that closing Willfield will result in “increased customer choice given the availability of several viable alternative facilities”! This sounds like typical Labour speak. How stupid do they really think we are? (Well”¦ I will come back to that one.) They mention other gyms at the Wallace Centre in Abbey Hulton, Fenton Manor and what they call “Body Base Gym” which they claim to be in Bentilee (Base Body Fitness actually declares itself to be in Longton [5]). But even taking these 3 existing gyms as relevant to the Bentilee community, going from 4 to 3 facilities for anyone with a grasp of basic arithmetic is a reduction, not an increase!

Other bizarre claims in the council document include one that they are somehow doing a good thing, “Ëœsaving’ demolition costs by including it within the academy work. This is the academy that school campaigners didn’t want on the site they didn’t want it, in the nonsensical merger of 2 schools 5 miles apart. So how about saving by not demolishing anything instead? How about keeping the gym and pool?

Cabinet meeting
The 30th June 2011 cabinet meeting was packed with public observers who wanted the Willfield gym kept open. The Willfield closure was not put on the original agenda but instead introduced late as a supplementary item. At least the public were not fooled by this and got wind of it anyway. This item was dealt with early in the agenda.

Mohammed Pervez opened the meeting by telling us that no public could speak and he would not tolerate any disturbance at all.

Gwen Hassall thanked the public for their interest and claimed their concerns had been taken on board! She said the public would be aware that a new academy is to be built on “this site”. (Well with all the shenanigans over the site boundary I’m not so sure.) She said there would be a sports hall and gym in the academy that would provide some public use. She said cost implications of retaining the gym included moving the plant room and continuing subsidy. She said the city as a whole is being considered and sports facilities provided. “We have got to watch the budget” she said, then moved a motion to close Willfield. There was a statement of support from Paul Shotton, who referred to the building as dilapidated and said there will be dance, fitness and gym facilities in the new school available in the evenings and holidays. There were further statements of support from Sarah Hill and Debra Gratton.
Mohammed Pervez said as the item was urgent there would normally be no call-in but he was minded to allow this, Mark Meredith agreed.

Cabinet agreed unanimously to close Willfield.
The gym campaigners were well behaved and quiet during the proceedings although there were some angry comments made as they left after the decision.

Summary
Dave Conway and the City Independent Group will call the decision in but with Labour scrutinising their own decisions with such a majority, nothing can be done.
I learned some time ago about Labour’s lies and wrote about these last year, but many of the electorate have not realised how devious they are.

Sheila Pitt said in the election leaflet about herself and Alison Wedgwood “We are two strong women who will get the job done”. They did a job on the electorate all right. And what strength is there in allowing their Labour party to close the gym they were supposed to be supporting?

Furthermore former mayor Mark Meredith and the former Labour government stole away our democracy and reduced our local elections to only 1 every 4 years. So there is no early chance to change this despicable Labour council.

In Bentilee and Ubberley the turkeys voted for Christmas and are now well and truly stuffed!

Picture Credit Steve Birks

Two Village Green Public Enquiries

On Tuesday 1st February 2011, the Registration of Town and Village Greens Panel of Stoke-on-Trent City Council met, for the first time since July 2007, to consider two village green applications, one at Hulme Road, Park Hall and the other at Anchor Road, Adderley Green.

An application for village green status had been submitted in both cases following council plans to site the Discovery Academy there. Not only did the communities not want a school sited in these locations, they also realized that open green space they had perhaps taken for granted for ongoing community use could be built upon and they wanted to protect it. Margaret Lowe for the Community Schools Action Group applied for Village Green Status for the Park Hall land and Ian Jenkin for the Adderley Green Residents Association applied for Village Green status for the Adderley Green land.

Both applicants attended to observe proceedings at the meeting, although they could not attend the first hour during which panel members were being briefed. Paul Hackney, the legal officer, recommended public enquiries on the basis that the council was the land owner and the decision maker and there were other legal complexities. All panel members supported the recommendation and confirmed with Margaret Lowe and Ian Jenkin that they did too. Ian asked about the financial implications, since an application for Penkhull had been withdrawn for fear of cost liability. However the committee stated that costs would be borne by the council and would be £10,000 for both applications, not each as reported in the Sentinel.

Margaret told the Sentinel afterwards that if a member of the public had objected to village green status the objection would have been thrown out and a decision made there and then, saving costs. But as the council had objected this was their way of being ‘open and transparent’, but also trying to get the public on their side by stating the use of public money.

Ian told the Sentinel that as the council are owners of the land, objectors to the application and have to make a decision on it, there was only really one decision they could have made. However he was pleased about this.

Paul Hackney and the panel chair Joy Garner will appoint an independent inspector. We could hear more about this in May. Following the public enquiry the inspector will make a recommendation to the council that they may be expected to adopt, although they do not have to. If village green status is obtained there would be total removal of any possible development, securing the open space for the community.

Lies, Labour and Libdems

I thought to comment on the Ask The Leader Debrief but as any comment I can make is long, I decided to blog it.

I thank Mohammed Pervez, although I don’t agree with him much, for being willing to do the online question session and thank pits’n’pots and everyone else involved for facilitating it.

Some of my questions I realised relate quite generally to the concept of what should not be done in an election campaign, in particular telling lies or distorting the truth or perpetrating smears on others. These things, quite rightly, infuriate people. Not just me either. We can see this nationally at the moment with students’ (amongst others including me) indignation at libdems promising before the election to vote against any rise in tuition fees and now it seems planning to break this promise. What really infuriates people is more than the policy itself (so minor stupid tinkering with it at this stage just won’t wash); it is the lies. People are directing their fury at the libdems much more than the tories, because although it is a shared policy, the tories didn’t lie on this matter. The lies undermine the whole concept of a legitimate mandate to govern. If people vote tory with their stated policies and they get in, then people get what they collectively deserve. If they vote libdem because of lies, they do not deserve the outcome when they are betrayed. I know I’m pretty much stating the obvious, but we really do need a recall mechanism to kick out people who do not serve us well, without having to wait their whole term.

During the general election campaign I did think about how I would vote if we had an AV system (which many of us are familiar and happy with from other spheres such as union elections). It occurred to me that despite that I don’t favour most of the tory policies, I would rank them higher than labour because my experience of labour shows they can not be trusted to deliver what they say and in the end the dishonesty has to put them at the bottom of the pile. I would have put libdem somewhere near the top because of their education policies, but not anymore! As it is I voted independent as a protest because I didn’t think any of them were much good. I agree with John Francis’ statement (non-question).

So how does this relate to the leader questions? Well the tactic used by Mervin Smith, as labour, is not too far different from that used by traitors such as Clegg and Cable.

On my question about Mervin Smith’s election leaflets, I just don’t buy the perpetual excuse that changing the bsf program details could jeopardise all the funding. Details have been changed throughout and this excuse was used well before the election period. If labour actually believed it could not be changed they should not have campaigned on the basis of saying they would change it. I don’t buy that Mervin Smith and Tristram Hunt did their utmost to prevent the closure of Mitchell one bit. Last I heard Tristram didn’t sign the petition, if he wishes to say he has since then he can. I saw Mervin at one CSAG meeting after the election then never saw him at any other. It is possible he could have gone to one that I didn’t get to, but I have not heard this. It is all very well his cosying up to Vernon Coaker but labour never did anything useful, it was just a photo-op on Mervin’s part for his election leaflets. They probably figured they didn’t need to do anything; they could just blame it on the tories after the election. They all pass the buck. Since the election I wrote to Michael Gove suggesting he could save bsf money by scrapping the academy planned for Willfield and refurbishing Mitchell and Edensor at far less cost instead. One of his minions wrote back to me passing the buck to PfS, they wrote to me passing the buck to SOT City Council. They said “I understand your views in relation to the building of the Discovery Academy as opposed to Mitchell and Edensor schools. However, the local authority did not select these two schools to be involved in the BSF programme. I would therefore suggest you raise your concerns with Stoke-on-Trent City Council.” So Labour have no excuse, they can decide to refurb Mitchell and Edensor and leave current facilities at Willfield alone.

Also Mohammed Pervez refers to the feasibility study, but this is flawed and inconsistent with another quote from Mervin Smith; “EVERYONE was united in wanting the 2 school solution: a school on the Mitchell site and one for the Longton community.” However the feasibility study insists on only one school to replace Mitchell and Edensor and refused from the outset to consider the two school solution. In fact the prime reason the study rejects the Mitchell and Edensor sites is because of accessibility of each for pupils from the other area because they are so far apart. The two school solution that Mervin was trumpeting would have solved this and avoided using Willfield. So Mohammed Pervez can not lean on this feasibility study. Mervin blames Ian Mitchell and Ross Irving “if you want to keep our school local, bombard Cllr Ian Mitchell, Education Chief, and Council Leader Ross Irving with a simple message: LET OUR COMMUNITY KEEP ITS SCHOOL!” (Capitals in red on his leaflet.) As if labour wasn’t in on the collusion to close Mitchell also!

Mohammed Pervez would like a copy of Mervin’s leaflets. I have happily sent him scans of the relevant pages he requested, although as I got the impression he was close to Mark Meredith and if the labour group were working together, I would have thought he would already have seen it or be able to easily obtain it from Mervin.

On Dimensions, I agree with Mark H but Mohammed Pervez does have a point if he has data that indicate that price increases don’t deter people. Prices for swimming certainly influence me though, I have chosen between Fenton and Jubilee depending on price as they have varied and when Jubilee has been cheapest I have gone on a Sunday to avoid a parking charge. Perhaps I’m just a miser. I expect he also has a point about socialist based discounts, I don’t qualify although I did look into it for young people and found it less than transparent as to what the price reductions are.

It can be noted that I am “Ëœfree speech’ and “Ëœcsag member’. I had no particular wish to be anonymous in the discussion but when half an hour had passed and my first question hadn’t been answered at that stage, I thought it may had scuppered my chance to ask anything else so experimented with other names. But it was possibly the case that a question about the press department had to go to the press department, causing a delay. I asked not just about “ËœOur City’ but about other glossy publications such as governors’ gazette, I still think much could and should be saved here, especially when much more important aspects of children’s services face the axe. I agree with Sharon, I find much of the PR is propaganda and could be cut.

When I asked how much is it costing the council, out of non-bsf funds, to do the alterations on Dividy Road by the Anchor Road roundabout, in order to put an academy on Willfield that is not wanted there, I didn’t mean work on the roundabout itself. I was thinking in particular of the pavement being built on the stretch of Dividy Road between the roundabout at Anchor Road and the next roundabout along at Beverley Drive. Now it could be that this is not being assigned in relation to the academy but the money must be coming from somewhere. And my question applies more generally because the documents relating to the academy do identify a number of road and pedestrian improvements needed outwith the Willfield site to facilitate use of that site. So I would like to know how much all of these are costing out of non-bsf funds? I can’t believe it can be nothing. Unless of course you indulge in some clever accounting and assign the things to different pots of money, which looks a bit suspicious when they are mentioned in the academy documents.

On the difficulties the Bentilee volunteers face, if the academy on Willfield does go ahead, I hope the difficulties are sorted out, but I have little faith they will be satisfactorily.

I am glad the 6th form college has now seen sense on parking for parents at events, although I have not since then needed to attend anything there. I was annoyed that parking was not made available to transport students to their start of the year interviews except at Fenton, for which a charge is now planned. Even better than parking would have been to make the annual bus pass, that I shell out a good £300 for, valid for this date onward rather than after this date! To pay a bus fare in addition to this for the interview was just an insult too far.

I asked another question that I have now emailed in as requested: What is the projected loss in revenue from the cafe, shop, donations box, workshops and car parking at the Potteries Museum resulting from fewer attending when the entrance fee comes in and how does this compare with the projected income from entrance fees? You see I like the current set up of free admission, I think it allows the freedom to pop in and is very inclusive and accessible. This is indicative of the sort of society I think it is good to live in. To lose that is bad enough but even worse without seeing evidence of the financial case for it.

Rant over I think, what do you think we should do with politicians who betray us? Phil Woolas lied on his election leaflets and had his election win overturned because of it. That was at least justice of the sort we need more of I think.