Only those ‘who pay local taxes’ entitled to sign petition in support of outdoor centre, says council chair
PUBLISHED: 14:04 27 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:04 27 October 2020
Many of the 2,400 signatures on a petition to save Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre were from outside the area and invalid, councillors were told.
Cllr Lis Every, chair of East Cambridgeshire District Council, pointed this out prior to the petition being debated by full council.
She said petitions were an opportunity for residents who pay local taxes to put their views forward but “you have to be a local resident to sign a petition and for it to be valid”.
Cllr Every said that when verified there were fewer than that but it still allowed organisers – Mercedes Rollason and Colin Stevens – three minutes to introduce it.
Mr Stevens said that, disappointingly, the council will only consider signatures from the district but it had gained support from those on the edge of East Cambs, including Fenland, South Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough.
Ms Rollason said most people had assumed the council would find a way to restore the centre to its original purpose.
Mr Stevens said it had been a “humbling” experience to find the strength of feeling about the possible permanent loss of it and “the surprise council announcement of it being re-purposed as a crematorium”.
He said at a time when the pandemic was causing much discontent, and with housing changes, Brexit, and a government policy focused on personal health, fitness, and well-being “this area needs an injection of positivity”.
Ms Rollason said it was vital the community voice is heard and encouraged to be part of it.
Mr Stevens said Covid-19 had made it difficult to engage with residents but he felt they had shown “a lot of concern that we are going to be losing something people thought was going to be returned to its original use”.
Cllr Simon Harries asked if he had found any businesses who might be interested in running Mepal.
Mr Stevens said people with commercial backgrounds had been in touch and “various people have talked to us who are interested”.
Cllr Josh Schumann commended the petition organisers and felt they had cast the net everywhere in getting people interested.
“It sounds like expressions of interest but sadly nothing more concrete than that,” he said.
In response to who could run the centre and finance it, Mr Stevens agreed it had to be sustainable in terms of jobs.
People had come forward looking to run specific sports there, outdoor education and “that is a conversation to be held”.
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Mr Stevens said the campaign had moved from ‘save Mepal’ and its iconic tents and they were not looking to return it to what it was.
Something was needed to match the changing population and we “would like the principle of creating something rather than taking it away”.
Cllr Every reminded him that the council had a public tendering process which went out to lot of organisations to get expressions of interest.
“What more do you think we could have done to get more genuine interest which we didn’t appear to get last time?” she asked.
Mr Stevens felt that the “more adaptable our imaginations are to it, the more you might be surprised by the people who come forward with ideas”.
Council leader Anna Bailey thanked residents for bringing the petition forward.
“Of course, we have taken note that 468 local people plus a 183 unidentified local people have signed the petition,” she said. “I share with you a strong desire to ensure a sustainable future for the Mepal site”.
She said it was a key bio diversity asset and ecologically important; it’s matured since the outdoor centre ceased to trade and nature and wildlife moved in.
“Whatever the future for this site it has to respect wildlife and bio diversity which exists there,” she said.
The council worked incredibly hard in good faith to try to secure that site and we “unbelievably disappointed when that went wrong”.
She said anyone investing would need to ensure a viable future. The outdoor and leisure sector was facing massive hardship across the country – indeed outdoor sites run by county council centres were suffering too.
A crematorium “is a sensible and reasonable and logical thing to do” with the site she said.
It would fulfil self-supporting use of the site, a new facility not available to residents in this district.
“I have to emphasise has to be dictated by bio diversity and ecology.”
Later she answered a question from Cllr Inskip about the council’s surveys undertaken in respect of the centre.
She said all the reports would be published once the planning application is submitted.
And she promised there would be a page on the council website for an online survey.
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