The future of a flagship leisure facility in South Ribble has been thrown into doubt after it emerged that the estimated cost of the project has spiralled by almost £9m.
South Ribble Borough Council has been investigating the possibility of creating a so-called “leisure campus” on land next to its headquarters on West Paddock in Leyland for more than two years.
The project was costed at £15m as recently as last autumn, but the bill is now expected to come in at £23.8m – having previously risen as high as £27m in earlier revised estimates.
Details of the rocketing costs were revealed at a meeting of the full council – leading to clashes between the current Labour administration and the now opposition Conservative group which ran the authority until May.
Council leader Paul Foster said that “at least one” member of the Tory cabinet before the local elections was aware of the ballooning bill – and that a report setting out the new estimates was kept back from a cabinet meeting earlier this year.
But Conservative group leader Margaret Smith said she had never seen the report while she was in office – and neither had any of her colleagues. Labour has asked the internal audit team at the council to investigate the process by which money has been spent on the project to date – a move which Cllr Smith said she welcomed.
Deputy council leader Mick Titherington said: “The concept of a leisure campus received general all-party support…based on the idea of an iconic building providing a wide range of wellbeing opportunities and services.
“But the idea that we could get all that at a cost of £15m has proved to be a pipe dream.”
That was the amount of borrowing confirmed as being needed to fund the new facility when the council’s budget was set back in February. It was expected to cover the cost of a new 25-metre, eight-lane swimming pool with a spectator gallery, a four-court sports hall, gym, toning studio and a suite of function rooms.
Work was also expected to take place to connect the new facility to neighbouring Shruggs Wood as part of the authority’s ongoing “green links” project to better connect open spaces in the borough.
Papers presented to the full council state that there was “recognition” by council officers and appointed consultants during late 2018 that the cost of the ambitious scheme was likely to “considerably exceed” the £15m budget.
Cllr Phil Smith, then the Conservative cabinet member for regeneration, told the meeting: “Nowhere did we agree that it would be more than £15m – where has [that figure] come from? No idea, I have not a clue.”
But the current finance portfolio holder, Cllr Matthew Tomlinson, said that “someone, somewhere in this building” was fully aware that the cost had ramped up.
“When we were setting the budget based on a £15m leisure centre, someone knew that we couldn’t build it for that. We may never get to the bottom of who knew what when – but somebody did know and didn’t tell us,” Cllr Tomlinson said.
Cllr Margaret Smith said that there had been a cost schedule “some time ago” which came to around £24m – but that it had included other works.
“Within that, there was £3.5m for the development of The Warren, there was a link building of £2.5m and there were some [additional] costings of £6m.
“[But] there are several central areas in this borough where an eight-lane pool – a £15m or £16m complex – could be put down, because the schedules that have been looked at from Sport England [confirm that],” she said.
But as the near hour-long debate over the issue came to a head, Cllr Foster said that the increased costs had been set out in a report which had been due to go before cabinet on 23rd January this year – but never did.
“We know for a fact through our forensic auditing that at least one member of Cllr Mrs. Smith’s cabinet was sent this report. Those [increased] costs were pulled together by officers while she was leader of this council.
“Everywhere you look with this, you ask more and more questions – but we’ve got to sort it out,” said Cllr Foster, adding that he would be asking for the cabinet report to be published.
Cllr Margaret Smith said that she had first seen the document this week, only a day before the council meeting – and that none of her cabinet had seen it before either.
Members voted to support the development of a masterplan for leisure facilities in South Ribble – and for officers to draw up “a sustainable financial solution” which would allow a new leisure campus in some form to go ahead.
While a new facility would generate significantly more money than the existing Leyland leisure centre, it would be insufficient to cover the increased costs now identified – which would amount to £700,000 per year for the authority.
Under a range of options with different mixes between the amounts raised by borrowing and use of reserves, that additional amount could be reduced to £525,000, but Cllr Foster said a full rethink was now needed.
“We will not throw good money after bad at a pipe dream that hasn’t been fully thought through and has cost the taxpayer to date £600,000,” Cllr Foster said.
That figure referred to the amount spent in fees on the project so far – a sum which accounting rules mean is likely to be only partially recoverable if the project goes ahead in redesigned form.
The meeting heard that a previous commitment to seek cabinet approval for expenditure of more than £100,000 on the project had not been adhered to.
WHAT FUTURE FOR LEISURE IN SOUTH RIBBLE?
Whatever decisions are taken about the creation of a leisure campus, the borough will have to deal with an ageing trio of leisure centres – and Bamber Bridge tennis centre – which will require more major investment just to keep them standing still.
A maintenance backlog of £5.2m was reported to councillors, who heard that £2m of that total was needed if the leisure facilities were to continue functioning.
Leyland leisure centre opened in 1974, the year in which South Ribble Borough Council itself was born. Sites at Bamber Bridge and Penwortham followed in the early 1980s.
It was originally envisaged that the leisure campus would replace all of the current facilities in the borough – but a decision was taken by the previous Conservative administration that such a move would not meet the expectations of residents. The latest thinking was that two of the existing leisure centres would remain open, while a third would close – with the site to shut being determined by the location of any new campus.
Labour council leader Paul Foster said that the last Tory administration should “take responsibility for the situation we now find ourselves in”.
Conservative former cabinet member for leisure, Phil Smith, responded that some of the outstanding repairs were “desirable but not essential”.
“Why would we want to spend [millions of pounds] on Leyland leisure centre if we were going to build a new one?” he asked.
There is a tight timeframe for councillors to decide what direction leisure provision in South Ribble should now take – because the existing contract with private operator Serco to run the borough’s facilities expires in March 2021.
The authority may have to negotiate an extension to the current arrangements while a longer-term solution is found. Options include a new contract with a third party or bringing the facilities in-house.
A new sports playing pitch hub will also be provided in the borough after a recommendation from a Central Lancashire-wide report on the quality and availability of sports fields in the region.
In all scenarios, the council is seeking to reduce the ongoing costs of its leisure offering and officers will draw up an investment plan for the existing sites.
Deputy council leader Mick Titherington said that the most important thing was “tackling the [widening] health inequalities” in South Ribble.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME?
The original leisure campus concept was wedded to West Paddock in Leyland as the preferred location for the new facility.
But councillors heard that the nature of the project means it could be accommodated elsewhere in the borough.
Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth said that the campus had to be within easy reach of all residents – both geographically and economically.
“We’re not building this to go into competition with the private providers, which those with jobs and transport can get to and afford.
“Surely, if we are providing facilities, it for the harder to reach residents – and we have to be conscious of mobility, accessibility and affordability.
“Unless you have got the bus routes to take you to this central hub somewhere – and I don’t believe they exist – the only way you can get there is by your own transport,” Cllr Howarth warned.
Conservative councillor Colin Coulton also had concerns about finding the best place to build the campus – and did not believe that the outskirts of Leyland met the criteria,
“I’d have thought that a project of this magnitude would be better situated centrally somewhere within the borough to give easy access to all residents,” he said.
£15m – the estimated cost of a new leisure campus in South Ribble (September 2018)
£23.8m – the estimated cost of a new leisure campus in South Ribble (September 2019)
£5.2m – the bill for the maintenance backlog at South Ribble’s current leisure facilities
2 – number of years since the leisure campus plans were first proposed