What is going on, Reading? How can any municipal body that professes to be interested in the well-being of its people create a void in leisure provision? Answer: When it is a Borough Council who readily protests that reductions in services have been caused by cuts in their overall budget. Indeed, and as a result it is the perfect excuse to do so and in the face of jeopardising the health of many in the process. I am writing here on leisure, but the same conjuring tricks can be applied to other issues that are being forced through on similar disingenuous arguments.
Are the funding cuts imposed by Central Government the real reason for changes across the town and behind forcing the immediate closuree the Arthur Hill Bathing Pool and to decommission it on the Council’s age old chestnut of a rationale – health and safety grounds? Funding cuts are a misrepresentation of the actual reason and a complete absurdity, demonstrating a ‘straw man’ argument not sound reasoning in my opinion. The short and sweet answer is therefore no. And as that answer is correct in its emphatic conclusion, it requires the Council to explain in more detail why their decision is in the public interest and needs to be concluded with such haste when daft schemes like ReadyBike are supported with no visible usage.
I think we will have to wait a long while for that explanation to materialise and, at any rate, Council to their heart’s content can draw out and frustrate any meaningful dialogue with the public forever and a day – such is the low standards of democracy under which this town functions. I cite the Shinfield Road debacle as an example – a point I will touch on later on Twitter and there are a great many more examples.
So let me approach the topic from the perspective of why there is no need to close the pool at this juncture. Over a decade or more, Reading Borough Council has been actively abusing their position as custodian of a whole range of significant assets by bringing them into disrepair through neglect and contempt. Arthur Hill like Kings Meadow Baths, the Civic Office, Abbey Monument simply were not given any priority or lifesaving maintenance and make no mistake the list is extensive. It is a monumental failure of duty and trust. However, you will notice a new fleet of buses and bicycles with infrastructure for those commercial bodies and indeed substantial funding for AcademySport and for Rivermead whilst Council run and managed buildings received little or no support.
Now we can begin to ask the real questions – why should AcademySport have got £1.2 million to modernise the centre for their unrealistic and dare I say it fanciful proposals, when at that time the Council run centres were turning themselves round, and proving their worth to the community and with the potential ability to self-fund, even in rundown states? We continued paying AcademySport extortionate subsidies far greater than budgeted too.
Why have we ploughed millions of pounds into Rivermead which before the GLL partnership generated profits and was fit for purpose? It is now set to multi task with an Adult day care centre and to extend into open space with a pop-up pool to facilitate the sale of Central Pool which yes, you guessed it, is not fit for purpose. Rivermead now has to expand because of, at best, Council’s failure to maintain our assets across a wide spectrum of community needs during a time when we were not subject to austerity measure – far from it. Indeed, the Council was in the fortunate position of being able to borrow funds at low rates unavailable to commercial enterprise. It begs the question, “Was asset stripping or asset disposal the real goal?” We were not onto the “Win, Win, Win” situation Councillors’ boasted. What makes the Council look outside and more significantly give away the crown jewels to an external body that fails year on year to deliver the type of performance which returned a profit to the Council and gives satisfaction to its customer base? That is at the nub of the issue.
The Council auditors have correctly questioned the value for money we get from some of the town’s extraordinary partnerships.
The indications for the lack of support for Council run centres was and is, because the plan has been to rid the Council of any duty outside of that needed to fulfill its statutory obligations. In a nutshell, the commercial interests of external bodies override any obligation a municipal body should have for the security, well-being and interests of its people. I represent the situation as a policy to turn the public into cash cows for commercial enterprise to milk. I am very clear that Council policy is corrupt and far removed from the interests of the public.
The motive behind the closure of Arthur Hill is commercial. In no order of importance – to decommission the bath is to force swimmers to other locations, to provide further development space, to restrict your choice so you become victims of market conditions – look at the costs of a swim at Kings Meadow in the future. A hidden consequence is that some people may give up sport all together. You are being deprived of a facility to produce, as has been done in other sectors, a commercial monopoly for someone else to profit from; hardly a socialist approach to community and to equality. Am I being too harsh on the Councillors who are responsible for the people’s interest?
The Council is looking for a partner and that statement alone should send warning bells ringing as a bodged policy will expand into a scheme for – here we go again – a developer – albeit on this occasion of leisure!
You may like to consider the term asset stripping because that ostensibly is what our Councillors have been doing in your name and I am clear would be the judgement of public opinion if you take the actions of the Council in the round. Have they behaved illegally – not a question I can decide, but they have flouted at best ‘good practise’ to achieve their goals: yes and that is a serious indictment of mismanagement. I can say that the Council did not directly compare Council performance (RSL) with the bids they received and they clearly were ‘pie in the sky’ bids. For me, RBC’s policy of externalisation always had the odour of the town’s infamous whiff – it cost jobs and reduced community/public service. The bottom line is the Council found funding for external groups when it was economically prudent for the Council to do so itself and to have run Arts and Leisure through a trust for tax advantages; it is what gave the external bidders the edge.
Many of you will remember the Olympics and the embarrassment that we could not host any Olympic team despite the fact that austerity measures was not on anyone’s mind. Sport and in particular the provision for future generations was the goal of Central Government and sporting bodies. We made no effort and that was demonstrated at the bitty Olympic torch broadcast and the near deserted Madjeski Stadium. Funding has only until recent policies been the problem, but in my view is ultimately the excuse. If the Council did what was expected of it, when it should have and with the talented teams it had before the many rounds of redundancy, the town would be a richer and more self-sufficient pleasant land able to weather budget cuts. The final humiliation, Velodrome fell into disrepair and declared not fit for purpose. No Olympic legacy.
The Public have come forward to keep the pool open and they have correctly identified a way forward which in my view is a rational and realistic opportunity. They have asked for time to draw up a business plan and has this been warmly greeted by the Council: no. Perhaps platitudes and contempt is the best descriptive.
It is time for Reading to expect the Council to act with integrity and keep the Arthur Hill Pool open until such time that there has been a thorough debate on how this town should progress leisure into the future. It is a debate that appears frightening to the Council as they would no doubt have to explain where all the funding for the promised pools in three or four years’ time is coming from.
I have not seen any document delivered to Councillors which fills me with any sort of comfort that the interests of the people are being fully and correctly served.
I have more than indicated that Reading Borough Council was in a position to deliver leisure on its own accord and indeed I can argue that a whole range of lead Councillors on Leisure have been complicit in its demise at a time when it warranted their unreserved commitment and the town today would be culturally and socially richer for it. Let’s call these Councillors the Constructive Destructors.
On the 18th December the Council’s continuing policy of genocide to the town’s services will see the doors close on Arthur Hill Pool. I doubt that any amount of protest will stop that, but it is not the end of the debate nor the people’s ability to now call the Councillors to fully account for their actions. And they should.
It is transparently clear that there are public support for the bath and demonstrable willingness for the public to take charge of its future as they are entitled to do so under the Localism Act. The first step has to be to set up that tax efficient trust – a community interest company and the funds for that are rolling in as the Council can evidently see – and to present the missing business case for keeping the bath open to the Borough Council.
What behind closed doors discussions have already taken place with a leisure developer, that is the question Reading should look for answers. and why is the Council moving in their uncharacteristic manner to reduce access to sport? The original concept was sport for all and easy access on the doorstep.
The essential question, as it was an option to renovate, upgrade and put together a functioning and commercially viable scheme for Reading, why has the Council delivered the must sell policy which leaves the town exposed and open to overpricing or private club prices? What is the plan?
My conclusions are sadly that with the “constructive destructor” policy of the Council, fit only for developers, leaves leisure bankrupt. I do not doubt that the bath is nearing the end of its life, but there is enough life left to keep the bath open until at least there are substantive plans for the whole of leisure in Reading. The persons to carry the blame for the disastrous state of leisure and the arts are the Lead Councillors for Culture and Sport over the past decade and a half – Not one of their promises have as far as I can see been delivered.
In entirely supporting the work of the current campaigners for the Arthur Hill Pool, I wish them well and like saving the South Reading Arts Centre earlier this year, I strongly believe that the Council needs to step off their condescending high stools and stop treating the Reading public with disdain and contempt. The campaigners have asked for time and that is precisely what the Council should ensure happens –there is no need to close the pool in such haste. The developer of your leisure plans does not need it out of the way yet. Let’s face it there are vanity schemes which should close first.