Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Hermitage dilemma – I’ll take the new car please: my Coalville Times column

Let me give you, if I may, a hypothetical choice.

Imagine that you have a car, let’s say a fifteen year old Ford Mondeo, it’s a car you have had since new and it’s served you well. Your Mondeo has done everything you’ve ever asked of it but it is showing signs of wear; like all old cars getting it through it’s MOT gets harder and harder; it’s getting more expensive to run; and let’s be honest it doesn’t have anywhere near the same specification as modern cars, no reversing sensors or Bluetooth connection or in built SatNav.

At some point in the future, no matter how much you look after your faithful old motor it simply isn’t going to be fit for purpose anymore. At some point, depending on your finances, it will either become too expensive to run or simply give up the ghost.

Now imagine I offer you the opportunity to replace that car with a brand new one. You could have a fully loaded, top of the range 2017 Mondeo which with modern financing options would actually save you money, and with adequate safeguards be guaranteed to be around for the next twenty to thirty years.

Which option would you go for? I reckon pretty much every one of you would say “I’ll take the new car please, but where’s the catch?”

I did say at the start of today’s column my question was hypothetical so I don’t really have any cars to offer; but it is a question worth asking because a very similar one is currently being mulled over by our politicians about the future of Whitwick’s Hermitage Leisure Centre.

If you have been down to the Hermo recently you would know that after forty years of faithful service it’s looking a tired. It’s not only in need of a refurbishment but is costly to maintain and run; especially to heat.

To get to the Hermitage you navigate busy local roads and half of the time you simply can’t book in for the popular stuff that people want to do these days. The gym is too small, fitness classes more often than not oversubscribed, and swimming pool really not adequate for delivering the massively popular private lessons. And please, don’t get me started on how revolting the dry side changing rooms are.

Simply put the Hermo is getting to the stage that, if it’s not already there, it will soon be no longer fit for purpose and that means it actually loses money. Hundreds of thousands a year. That’s hundred of thousands that are being paid for directly by you and me through our council tax to make the book balance. Whether we use our leisure centres or not.

Now skip forward. Last year our district council employed consultants to look at what could be done with leisure centres in the district, and particularly the offer that we have available in Coalville.

To start off the consultants suggested building a new centre on the Bridge Road car park. It quickly became apparent that size and location on our road network would make that a non-starter but over the months another option of a site just off the A511 near to the McDonalds roundabout started being talked about.

It would, the professionals told the council, allow for a much larger and fit for purpose, easily accessible, financially and environmentally efficient centre to be constructed. A centre which if one or two parcels of land were to be disposed of could be managed and financed by a private provider at no cost to the taxpayers of North West Leicestershire. With smarter management, competitive pricing and lower overheads the books would balance.

It is on the face of it the leisure centre equivalent of my motoring hypothetical.

Last week the Cabinet of the District Council took the decision to progress with plans to build a brand new leisure centre for Coalville. Last Thursday night Richard Blunt, the Leader of NWLDC, volunteered to spend two hours fielding questions and dealing with angry comments from Whitwick residents and parish councillors explaining his and his administration’s position. He certainly wasn’t obliged to.

A new leisure centre is by no means a done deal; it may be that the proposed site for one reason or another isn’t suitable, it may be that after investigation the finances don’t stack up.

But let’s be honest. If our local councils do ever merge to save costs, as many would like to see, then a cash strapped county authority would undoubtedly be asking how in the face of an increasing social care bill it could afford to fund the discretionary service of a loss making, inefficient leisure centre?

No, there is a window of opportunity right now for the district council to protect and enhance our leisure centres by moving to a private trust model used widely elsewhere.

Other may disagree but for me the answer is very simple: “I’ll take the new car please.”

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