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Newark and Sherwood District Council set to seek exit from Southwell Leisure Centre lease after voting to withdraw £5.5m funding offer for new pool

A £5.5m funding offer for a new swimming pool has been withdrawn, with councillors expressing disappointment about the situation.

At yesterday’s (Tuesday, May 14) Newark and Sherwood District Council cabinet meeting councillors voted in line with a recommendation to remove the allocation of £5.5m which was to fund a new main pool, learner pool, and associated changing facilities in Southwell.

Members also agreed to give delegated authority to the chief executive, deputy chief executive, assistant of director legal and democratic services, and the cabinet member for strategy performance to negotiate the surrender of the current lease with Southwell Leisure Centre Trust.

Southwell Leisure Centre.
Southwell Leisure Centre.

Conditional to the surrender of the lease, £497,000 will be paid to the trust, to cover the trust’s quote for repair of the pool and essential works to the dry side facilities — from the remaining budget for the existing Southwell Leisure Centre remedial works capital scheme — as the council “would not want to leave the trust in a postiton where they cannot afford the repairs”.

The unspent £25,000 budget for design and feasibility of a new leisure facility and £12,300 for the engineered solution to safeguard the structure of the current main pool, will be returned to the district council’s reserves.

It was explained at the meeting that the council hadn’t wanted to spend taxpayers money prior to securing ownership of the land.

Southwell Leisure Centre’s main pool has been closed since October 2023, due a major leak which was causing thousands of litres of water to be lost from the pool every day.

The capital allocation of £5.5m was agreed, subject to the transfer of land from Southwell Leisure Centre Trust, by cabinet in December 2023 — but since then the way forward for the pool, and the handling of the situation, has been in dispute.

The decision document explained that the project has been “delayed and complicated” by continued pressure for repairs, and the trust becoming inquorate and unable to progress freehold transfer of its land earlier this year.

Five months on from the initial agreement to invest £5.5m the council documents suggested the scheme had consumed a “disproportionate amount of time” and that the trust’s agreement arriving late and “with some resistance and reluctance”, coupled with opposition from the community, “does not bode well for the next steps of progressing freehold transfer with the Charity Commission and subsequent construction of a new pool”.

It was emphasised at the meeting that the “blockage” was due to the trust, not Southwell Town Council who had been “supportive”.

Presenting the motion, leader Paul Peacock said it was not the time for finger pointing or revisiting the past — as it does little to help the users of Southwell Leisure Centre — and that it was time to draw a line under the situation.

He added that good councils should be transparent and reflect local people’s views, and the key things residents and members of Friends of Southwell Swimming Pool had told the council was that they wanted the pool repairing, wanted the leisure centre to be under community control, that they believe the trust could run the centre, and that they didn’t trust the district council’s commitment to build a new pool.

Mr Peacock said he accepted three of those points, but denied the final one — explaining the council had always been a supportive partner of Southwell Leisure Centre, having previously spent over £4m on the centre.

He also denied allegations of a ‘land grab’.

Peter Harris said: “There needs to be significant learning. Clearly there needs to be issues followed up… Both sides have caused problems here.

He said he would look into it with the audit and governance committee, and that some of Paul Peacock’s information was “substantially incorrect”.

He added: “I’ve got no issues with the proposals here tonight.”

Mr Peacock added: “I think tonight put forward a positive solution that I think the people of Southwell will embrace — they’ll be swimming in their pool.”

Roger Jackson, who previously held the portfolio which covered leisure, also spoke at the meeting, and said it was a great shame the council was in this situation.

“The leisure centre wouldn’t be what it is without the help of the district council,” he added, and explained that he had long been asking for the trustees to allow the council to run the centre on a long lease.

However he suggested that handing the leisure centre back to the trustees would be “back to square one” with them asking the council to fund repairs, and that “with the best of hearts” he didn’t believe the trustees and people of Southwell could run the leisure centre due to the scale of the operation.

He added that he happened to know the person the trustees had received their repair quote from — and trusted that person, as well as confirming with them that if the issue was just the pipes it could be repaired within £250,000.

Mr Jackson also stated that he trusted that the council would have built the new pool, and also asked the council to confirm it had looked at every possible repair option, to reassure Southwell’s residents.

Mr Peacock responded: “Unfortunately the evidence I’ve had from the people of Southwell is that they want the trustees to run Southwell Leisure Centre.

He also confirmed the council had looked at every option — and that while the price was higher than the trustees’ quote he believed it was about right and was from a reputable company.

An officer later commented that “to suggest the district council deliberately inflated figures is ludicrous”.

Mr Peacock added that the decision would give the trust the opportunity to do what they said they can do.

A member of the public and FOSS, Rob Miller, also spoke at the meeting. He reiterated FOSS’ request for the safety report which justifies the closure of the pool, and added that there were successful community-run pools.

He added: “At the end of the day it’s a public service — so to me it shouldn’t be an issue who owns it.”

Chief executive John Robinson explained that it would mean, due to the council appointed trustees having been both tenant and landlord and unable to vote, £5.5m would have been invested without the input of anyone elected by the public.

Rowan Cozens added that the meeting gave “some insight into why there wasn’t a clear path way for what [the council] saw as an exciting project”, and that she had felt the repair would be a “sticking plaster solution”.

She explained she had been looking forward to the potential of a net zero facility, with the possibility of attracting university partners and creating a state-of-the-art pool.

She added that she was offended by the accusations of land grabbing, and that while this wasn’t the outcome she would have liked she wished the community well in running the pool.

Paul Taylor added: “I’m really disapointed to be in this situation tonight. What really hurts me… is the amount of abuse that has been thrown — particularly at Paul Peacock.

“All we’ve ever wanted to do is give enhanced swimming provision. I think the silent majority will be saying in a few years ‘where is that new pool’. I hope that in a few years time there isn’t massive regret.”

Rhona Holloway echoed comments made by Mr Jackson and Mr Taylor, and noted that the pool was going to be a positive thing.

She said that “people who are negative chat the loudest” and she feared the decision was for the “few not the many” and was too early — but aknowledged the council had explored every avenue.

Paul Peacock said: “This decision is a way of breaking what felt like an everlasting log jam.

“Nothing suggested that some people in the trust were going to give it up. We’ve got to take the decision to get people back into the swimming pool. The offer of transitionary support is there.”

He added it was not where he envisioned being at this stage — and instead had expected to be looking at designs, holding events in Southwell and exploring how to make swimming more accessible.

The recommendations were approved with one abstention, by Keith Melton — who explained he could neither vote for or against it as he felt it was a “backwards step” but was aware of the reasons the decision was being made.

The £5.5micapital allocation will be retained in the council’s capital programme, to be re-allocated to other health and wellbeing schemes in the district.

The documents noted the council could not compel Southwell Leisure Centre Trust to accept surrender of the lease.

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