A Lichfield councillor has branded the proposal to close Friary Grange Leisure Centre as “shocking”.
Lichfield District Council has confirmed it intends to shut the site to the public from April 2020 after claiming £2.4million needed to be spent in order to bring the facility up to scratch.
Cllr Paul Ray, Liberal Democrat representative for Chadsmead ward, confirmed that councillors had been discussing the issue behind closed doors during the last month.
But he said the Conservatives now needed to listen to residents after a petition was signed by more than a thousand people in just 12 hours.
“I have been challenging the Conservative leadership of Lichfield District Council on this and offering alternative solutions, but they have just gone ahead with this wrong decision,” he said.
“I urge residents to sign the petition so we get the council to take notice of the views of local people about this and reconsider this decision.
“I will also be looking to meet with local residents and work with other councillors to agree the next steps.
“Lichfield District Council must provide the necessary funding to ensure that this centre is kept open because a loud and clear message of the residents of Lichfield is that improved leisure facilities are an absolute priority especially for the younger population.
“We constantly heard that on the doorstep during the recent local elections. And not all residents can afford the private sports centres in the district.”
“This decision cannot be a purely financial one”
Despite a £500,000 makeover in 2013 and the outsourcing of the management of the site to Freedom Leisure at the end of 2017, Lichfield District Council said the facility required a significant financial investment to make it viable going forward.
But Cllr Ray said the planned closure – which he added could lead to 42 redundancies – should not be made for monetary reasons alone.
He said: “This decision cannot be a purely financial one.
“Clearly, the council must manage its finances in a responsible way but it must also listen to the priorities that the people we represent want delivered.
“The closure of Friary Grange Leisure Centre would also involve the closure of the main municipal pool in Lichfield. Swimming is a very well supported sport in Lichfield and this closure would be at a time when we are all encouraged to keep active.
“That just does not make sense.
“The Conservative council are saying that we do not have the funds – but they can find them when they want to – the council has given millions to the Garrick Theatre over many years and under the current settlement it gets £250k each year from the council.
“I do accept that there are some challenges with the funding here but the real financial implications need to be considered.
“The council’s own figures show that the cost of keeping the leisure centre open for five years is £948,000 and the net of the costs of closure are £419,000. So that is a difference of £528,000 over five years, or £105,000 per year.
“We cannot consider closing the centre for that.
“I appreciate that there are capital costs to be spent to make the building safe and watertight, but Lichfield District needs to negotiate with Staffordshire County Council to share these – and if necessary use some of the reserves.”
“Closure would be a disaster”
Cllr Ray added the closing the leisure centre would leave Staffordshire County Council facing costs to mothball or decommission parts of the site which would not transfer to the school.
And he urged all parties to discuss a stay of execution while a solution is found.
“Lichfield District Council must get Staffordshire County Council back round the table,” Cllr Ray said. “It is in the county council’s financial interest to share some of the costs.
“A five year period for keeping Friary Grange Leisure Centre open gives Lichfield District Council time to find a solution – and the council does have options.
“It owns the Friarsgate site; a valuable seven acres in the centre of Lichfield. This could involve a public leisure centre on the site with a gym and medium sized pool, or the money from the sale of the residential units could be used to reinvest into a leisure facility for our community.
“Closing this centre would be a disaster and is not want the people of Lichfield want.
“There is an alternative way forward here and the council must reconsider this decision to ensure that this key facility is kept open.”