New Fenland leader says Pop “very nobly” took the hit for the team but in fact all the council must take the blame for leisure centre debacle
12:13 17 May 2014
New Fenland leader John Clark has admitted Councillor Pop Jolley “very nobly held his hands up” to take responsibility for the leisure centre debacle but in fact the whole council was to blame.
Cllr Clark also admitted that as finance chief last summer he signed off the £50,000 cost of re-branding the four Fenland centres – which included a controversial reference to removing the historic individual names.
He said the decision was taken since “as austerity kicks in, and leisure services not being a statutory service, we decided we may have to look to different means of running them.
“It may be an arms length management company, as a charity or letting it to the private sector- that was the reason why the decision was made to rebrand”. By moving the emphasis away from them being council run, customers would first and foremost recognise them as leisure facilities.
A briefing attached to the financial report concluded that “adding a distinctive brand to the leisure centres is not a project to be taken lightly.
“This approach has been used by other local authorities and crucially independent businesses set up by local authorities to manage former local authority leisure businesses”.
The report emphasised how rebranding could boost customer numbers but admitted that “while the council brand is well respected by many, council branding may deter some segments of the population from becoming leisure centre members.”
It added: “Part of the rebranding project will be to call the facilities by the brand names and not be previous leisure centres: effective signage will help convey this, alongside the centre teams.”
Cllr Clark – who quit his cabinet post for other reasons around the same time he signed off the rebranding- said: “As it worked its way through the process there was a presentation given to the Conservative group. I don’t recall there being that level of detail given to the group- certainly if it was no one could have picked up what would happen.”
Of the anger later unleashed as people realised names such as Hudson and Campbell might disappear from the centres, he said: “As members, and me personally, we have got to hold our hands up and say we didn’t see this coming.”
In retrospect he concedes the public should have been consulted and it should have been open and transparent.
“As a group and as a council we got it wrong,” said Cllr Clark.
“The portfolio holder (Cllr Jolley) very nobly held his hands up and took responsibility for it but very possibly all the criticism should not have been to him. “We have learnt by this mistake.”
Cllr Clark said although names are being restored the centre, the NewVision branding would remain.
What might happen to the centres in the future depends on how well they continue to perform.
He said the centres used to lose Fenland Council up to £1.5million a year and those losses are now down to around £400,000 a year.
“If we could get those figures to break even, at no cost the taxpayer, they could still be run in house,” he said. “If it remains a financial burden to the authority we may have to look at the provision of leisure centres in the future.”
Signs reflecting the historical names associated with the leisure centres are now being put back in place.
Councillor Virginia Bucknor of Wisbech has been at the forefront of the campaign to get the names restored.
She told last week’s council meeting that residents remained angry that new signs had been erected without consultation.
She said she had written repeatedly to officers for updates, had raised the issue in a petition and also spoke at Wisbech Town Council about it.
“Many people couldn’t believe what has happened,” she said of the new signage.
The new cabinet member for leisure, Councillor Michelle Tanfield, and also a Wisbech town councillor, promised to look into the issue.
Fenland Council has always insisted that changes to the way the centres operate- particularly by branding them under one corporate name- had pushed up attendances.
But they also promised in February that “as a result of the feedback we have received, we intend to give increased prominence to the history and name of the building”.
This would be done through additional external signage “and in information board within the reception area. We understand the significant local support for the names of such buildings and do not intend to propose changes in the future”.
• Wisbech and Whittlesey leisure centres have had £2million spent on them over the past five years
• This in addition to the £600,000 spent on providing a leisure centre in Chatteris
• Improvements have led to increased attendances and £2million a year income across all four is now envisaged.
• Last year’s review included 11 proposals to improve their viability of which rebranding was a part.
• Staff at all four centres have been provided with new uniforms reflecting the new brand.
• A separate website “to sit outside the main FDC website” was also agreed last year and is now operational.