"Residents feel that the decision to close the Leisure Centre was made in advance." Councillor Marie-Louise Weighill
In December, in the face of public opposition, Wokingham Borough Council began the transfer of the management and effective ownership of St Crispin’s Leisure Centre from the Council to the Circle Trust. In order to save the Council the cost of funding new school places the site will be signed over for the next 125 years and a much loved and valued community asset will be lost.
This has been described by the Liberal Democrat leadership of the Council as both a “stark choice” (between losing the centre and potential bankruptcy since funding the school places would tip the council into deficit) and a “bright future” of partnership and continued even ‘re-invigorated’ community access. Both explanations obscure the reality of what is happening here – that an asset built for and by the Wokingham community will be effectively lost toto public control now and in the future.
At the meeting to scrutinise the decision, the management of the Circle trust spoke warmly of community and cooperation, but the fact is that transferring the Leisure Centre will mean that the interests of the school administration will always be paramount in deciding and promoting use of the centre. he council’s outsourced provider of leisure services has stated that there is no possibility of the leisure facilities in non-school hours being financially viable – if this is the case for a leisure company which at least had the potential for cross subsidisation, it will certainly be the case for a school. It will not be acceptable to subsidise leisure provision with money meant for students and the access for the community to the facilities of the Centre will decline.
Residents in my ward of Norreys, as well as users of the Centre from across the Borough, feel that the decision to close the Leisure Centre was made in advance. After a long anticipatory period of underfunding to the centre they understandably feel that despite the language of consultation and participation used during the process there was only one outcome that would ever have been chosen.
The leadership of the Council speaks of hard choices and the possibilities of partnerships but in effect what the closure means is the culmination of thirteen years of ratcheting budget cuts, underfunding, loss of public control and a failure of belief in the need and potential for local, democratically accountable provision of services.
Since the onset of austerity in 2010, local authorities have increasingly become implementers of central government cuts rather than leaders of their areas, committed to the improvement of peoples’ lives. Austerity was never about efficiency or “cutting the fat,” it was about the degradation of local provision and the transformation of councils to service administrators, outsourcing the greater part of their responsibilities to the private sector.
This has resulted in not only a grinding reduction of the scope and quality of public services – postal services, road repair and support for children in crisis to name only a few – but a continual crisis in local government funding where imminent bankruptcy is a constant threat used to justify every reduction in facilities. The current funding model is driving councils everywhere to insolvency. This is not a bug but a feature of the system – it is designed take away local government’s power and independence leaving the gap between the public and their government to be bridged by private companies if at all.
And, as is the case with the Circle Trust, such entities are accountable to their funders not to the people with whom they work alongside. The people of Wokingham deserve services and an improvement of their lives as of right, not doled out as benevolence or “community feeling” by entities over whom they have no oversight or control.
It is perfectly true to say that the current leadership of the Council did not choose the system that currently operates but they can and do choose how to engage with it. And the Conservatives who did choose and implement this system should refrain from crocodile tears over its results.