Warnings over multi-million pound Lancaster sports centre plan

Salt Ayre Sports Centre, Lancaster.
Salt Ayre Sports Centre, Lancaster.
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A £5m revamp of Salt Ayre Sports Centre will go ahead after a heated town hall debate split Lancaster City Council down the middle.

Work will begin later this year to turn Salt Ayre into a state-of-the-art premier leisure centre for the North West.

But some councillors warned that pumping millions of pounds into the sports centre could turn out to be another Lancaster Market or Blobby Land debacle.

The Labour-led cabinet backed the idea for the council to work with top consultants Alliance Leisure Services on a radical upgrade of Salt Ayre.

This would include a new ‘high ropes thrill tower’ instead of the outdoor artificial pitch, a new BMX track, new indoor adventure play area and climbing wall, expansion of the gym, a health and beauty spa and refurbished reception and toilets. The council would still run the centre.

But at Wednesday night’s crunch budget meeting, many Conservative, Green and independent councillors were cautious about the plans.

Nick Wilkinson of the Greens described it as “the biggest investment we are likely to make in the next 10 years.”

His colleague Coun Caroline Jackson: “I like the idea but I feel we are being hurried into a decision that could have serious financial consequences.

“In the past we’ve done things too quickly, we got involved in Lancaster Market and we had to repay.”

Free independent Coun Paul Woodruff said: “I’ve seen so many other business plans of this council go down the pan that I don’t want to see any more. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to see a business plan for a project of this size.”

But Labour’s Darren Clifford said: “This is about doing something for those who can’t afford £40 or £50 for a private gym membership.

“This is about health and well-being, for the good of the community.”

And his colleague Janice Hanson said: “This is a fantastic investment. We’ve had this building for 15 years. This is the right time. Every single project we put forward, it’s delay, delay, delay.”

An attempt by Tory councillor Roger Mace and Green Nick Wilkinson to get more time to consider costings was then defeated by a narrow 30-27 vote.

A council report says the £5m would be invested in the sports centre over five years, with a break-even point estimated at 12 years.

Salt Ayre cost an estimated £1.625m to run in 2015/16.

It is hoped the upgrade would more than double the current 1,100 membership.

Later at the meeting, the Salt Ayre investment was voted through as part of Lancaster City Council’s budget for 2016/17.

There was a lifeline for Marsh Community Centre in Lancaster, which was expected to close due to cuts, as the council found £13,700 funding for another year.

But a review of council-run buildings such as Morecambe and Lancaster Town Halls, a new £1 admission charge for Happy Mount Park splash park, new charges for green waste collection at £30 per container per year, cuts to funds for rural public toilets, scrapping of funding for CCTV by 2017, a rise in pitch rents for Morecambe’s Festival Market and the Charter Market in Lancaster, withdrawing from the International Youth Games, and a look into possibly collecting bins every three weeks instead of two by 2020 were all included in the final budget.

The council’s main revenue budget was set at £16.258m, a 7.7% year-on-year drop in net spending, and its capital programme was set at £16.785m.

The Conservatives opposed the budget, with its leader Coun Peter Williamson telling Labour “you’ve got to change your ethos and focus on what people want”.

He had previously slated Labour for spending money on Salt Ayre while looking to save cash on statutory services like bin collections.

But council leader Eileen Blamire said: “We want to keep all places of pleasure open if we can.

“I thoroughly support the Platform and the Dukes.

“I very much value the International Youth Games too but we have cut that out completely, we have had to make sacrifices.”

The city council’s proportion of council tax will rise by 2.45% across the board, which works out at £5 for Band D properties and less than that for A-C properties.

The city council’s council tax is 13% of the overall bill, with the rest split between Lancashire County Council, the police and fire service.

“We believe that we should maintain steady increases in council tax to achieve a sustainable balanced budget,” said Coun Blamire.

“We have to reduce annual net spending on services by £2.7m by 2020 and £8m over 10 years. We will have to reduce the range and quality of services. But this budget maintains a balance for at least two years and helps us plan for an unknown future.”

The city council’s balances are expected to reach £4.128m by March 31 2016 and its council housing revenue account will stand at £1.344m, although this is expected to fall to £350,000 by 2019/20.

“Balances are there to help us meet big future challenges,” said Coun Blamire. “They are not just something we are sitting on because we like the idea.

“We’re in an almost impossible position.”

Job cuts are also expected as the council aims to balance the books.

On the other end of the spectrum, the council will spend £43,000 on new paths at Happy Mount Park and create a new meerkat enclosure at Williamson Park.

£3.2m will also be spent on sea and river defence and studies, as opposed to £1.4m in 2015/16, with £1.4m in the budget for improving streets and properties in Morecambe town centre, including the planned upgrade of the area around the Arndale.

The council will also bring in litter and dog dirt wardens, run by a private company, to issue on the spot fines.

The Lancaster City Council-run community swimming pools at Heysham, Carnforth and Hornby will be handed back to Lancashire County Council. Meetings will be held with the local community to decide their future.