What has the Council not done which they should have done? – Extraordinarily, avoided suspicion that they have acted improperly, unprofessionally and wrongfully – a court may say unlawfully – with regards to their policy and practices on leisure. But I present in the Court of Public Opinion where the call for evidence is drawn from the experience and common sense of the people; particularly where transparency of dealings is lacking from those called to account.
The charge sheet sits uncomfortably on top of existing huge doubt among a multitude of campaigners/activists regarding the integrity of Reading Council; not just my opinion. Extraordinarily, the concepts and outline plans for leisure agreed 31st March 2021 indubitably do not represent the best provision for the town in facilities and value for money, a fact we will forensically examine.
As a potential Mastermind specialist topic those plans and policies do not demonstrate Councillors have learnt from past mistakes or from expensive errors of judgement. Why not?
What they most likely show is that the Council does not want to deviate from the original scheme contrived over a decade and a half ago of leaving it to others to manage sports and leisure – a process called “externalisation”. It is riddled with embarrassment. Central to this has to be substantive justification as to why RBC cannot establish a separate company when the Council provides this for buses? In other words, externalise Reading Sports and Leisure if for no other reason, accountability to the people.
Yet, to get a rational and logical reason for externalisation per se from Councillors has proven not just to be difficult, it has been impossible despite question, after question after question. Extraordinarily, each question appears to bring out a new contrivance to shut down much needed debate and discussions including, in the days of AcademySport, setting up a cultural and sports partnership to which public were not invited, where decisions passed through the Council’s day book (a technical method of obfuscation). This is a matter of record as were the wasted opportunities they passed over; transparency is to be spoken about, not practiced.
In that decade and a half, since the emergence of “Externalisation”, I have become more than a witness, I have been the opposition to that breakdown in democracy, and in many ways it honed my Inspector Clouseau thirst for truth – not Meghan Markle truths. There was also the matter of social justice for which I fight hard for anyone deserving of support and staff of these centres were being thrown to the wolves. I therefore write this witness statement from a unique position, while still appalled that the collapse of AcademySport and Rivermead has not given rise to fresh more considered, more detailed thinking and planning. Incompetence is not the reason.
I now put it to you that third party Externalisation, in the form delivered by Councillors, i.e. the one you have been served up, is the heart of the problem with Leisure, not a solution. As externalisation was not successful in its first incarnation circa 2007 what delivers the Councillor’s confidence to move it forward into the 21st century with the same inherent weaknesses, and as a superlative solution, when not a new policy –the deridable service delivery? Perhaps it is because this form of externalisation leaves Councillors untouchable when it comes to accountability and responsibility, the mainstay of democracy – the blame rests with managing agent or with any and all manner of market forces including impossible to achieve sales and marketing plans. Any and all the aforementioned are heinous charges. As a witness I can say that. I can also give in and pretend that it has nothing to do with treating the public with disdain and contempt, treating loyal Council staff with disdain and contempt – a Labour administration would not do that, would they? Yet that is what Labour and also the Local Conservative’s did, and do not think the charges should not be placed at the feet of minor parties. If it were incompetence you should have shouted it from the rooftops.
The “new” plans are an odious prospect and a huge down grade from the Reading I moved to where leisure policy was centred on ease of access to provision run by people who knew the community and its wants and needs, evidenced by the many centres within communities. How refreshing – a Council who serves the community and not the other way round; perhaps a bygone era.
In short, Council’s new scheme is encouraging history to repeat itself and it was hallmarked by the constant handout for this or for that, it was socially unjust, it lacked ambition and purpose. I have not seen any analysis of this huge mistake; another contributing factor to your rising taxes or even any acknowledgement that the policy was an abject failure. Councillors you have brought embarrassment upon yourselves.
History in leaving not just a sour taste raises the question how thought out were their actions, how predetermined their intentions and how impartial were the actors?
Today the hard reality is the agreed £40million “plan and build” sports complexes brought to planning committee in March. The Council presented their agreed providers designs – surely it was a joint scheme riddled in a conflict of interest and so full of delegated decisions to follow. How could Councillors not support it? Did any ask why so much had not been included – Rivermead housed the adult day care centre, exhibitions, fights, bowling and so much more. Are they all accounted for in this bland shadow of the offering promised; it denied more than it offered and yes in the characteristic hallmark of the Council, because it needed complete and utter overhaul due to its dilapidated state; the bad management hitherto stated – £800K in the case of AcademySport as reparations following handback of South Reading Leisure Centre, paid for by Central Government.
Of course Reading needed replacement pools. It is what it is. And it is a further £10million on what was presented as the budget last year. Yes, only a year ago it was £30million after the bidding process was concluded. It is not for debate but the whole bidding process should have been restarted because the brief has substantially changed. What was the brief? The plans are somewhat at odds with the whole rationale for externalising Reading Sports and Leisure; using more of taxpayers’ funds for less is an incredible concept, don’t you think?
And there is another twisted branch if you remember the context – Councillors have gone to extraordinary lengths to close centres for commercial sale; some causing more than a few raised eyebrows – Arthur Hill for example. Effectively they have provided fewer facilities for you by closing centres for land sales and flats because of that aforementioned dilapidation. And in doing so they engineered a large displaced market. They created greater movement of people, generated a need for a pop-up pool, they stopped instructional classes and created so much more chaos. Why? You can argue it was essentially to ensure that there would be over demand which means the ability to feed profits for the preferred bidder. Surely it ensures the same for the Council, and let me make it clear your Councillors had an adverse reaction to maintenance of local assets.
Among Councillors there is clearly disinterest in running Sports and Leisure centres, though they – the Council staff – are best placed to do so. It is so logical that I will not even comment further on that point. But, I should raise fire and hire? TUPE? It can be concluded that the exercise is to offload rather than to enhance public offering. You can argue it is to support developers in the main – because that is the project. But that sounds like political suicide – enhancement sounds so much better despite the reality.
There is no longer an argument that the Council does not have the funds; we are not out of austerity and Central Government has not flagged building leisure centres as their priority. There is not the huge pot available when the Olympics came to town, which the Council ignored when they set up the aforementioned Culture and Sports partnership. This is borrowed funds; prudential borrowing which developers cannot access directly. But there you have it – funds galore when it suits and the lowly plead of poverty and bound hands when other interests beckon. What is morally corrupt is that the funds are being used for private enterprise, for the pretence of a Pall Mall standard, particularly from a provider who has a poor track record, was hugely criticised by both public and Unions and reportedly bordering bankruptcy to the extent that Cllr Page reportedly said, “I just very hope at the end of all this, GLL are still left standing and able to deliver.”
It is a kind of strange thing to say. And the Council has already bailed them out, another £400k, plus more due to COVID lockdown. So do the Council not know what the chances are of GLL going belly up? Was it not something the Council should have secured – indemnity from the directors perhaps – a bank would?
Reading Borough Council is the bank! You are bankrolling this project as you in part bankroll Reading Transport. There is a difference the Council wants to run buses.
So let me ask what did the outline plans for Rivermead and Palmer Park do for you? Did you constantly find yourself closing your eyes and sensing numbness from silent confirmation that history is repeating itself; you know – that they disregarded you, the lack of service, lack of vision, the open-endedness of the done deal so far behind schedule and the iron grip of mediocrity so evident in the Borough Council’s planning? Do you know what a visit will cost?
The Council is this black hole which seems to suck up all that is good, all that defines community, all that has a purpose in one’s quality of life, health and wellbeing. Its whole substance is slipshod spin and misinformation like an interview with Oprah Winfrey. This is Labour – it is their policy, their tangible actions; albeit suckled by the Conservatives. It is impossible to keep the faith, surely?
Somehow I hoped that this time there would be some real attempt at delivery – rational and considerate thought for the people of Reading who have been poorly served. For me there are still many open questions, but these will not change one absolute certainty that the state of leisure was not due to incompetence but cover up, arrogance and predetermination. Did Councillors knowingly agree mediocrity as their standard along a long botched up road ridden with promises neither fulfilled nor explored? Yes. It is the politics of the town and where Councillors’ loyalties lay – the developer.
I cannot say for certain that Councillors did not look at what lessons had to be learned from their dire policy of externalisation – the sluggish Central Pool, the collapse of AcademySport, the dregs of Rivermead – once the crown jewel of Leisure provision, but if they did it beggars belief that they would regurgitate the same old, same old. The indictment rests with the failure and unwillingness to answer to the people, to subterfuge, to the damn lies and so much more. Fiddle duck, you cannot make up the repetitious cycle of maladministration which eats up your taxes.
If there are any logical reasons which explain why spending more to get less is sound practice or value for money, then it should be placed in the public domain? For me the reason this statement has reached the Court of Public opinion is this burning question, this indisputable timeline: why sack the service provider then keep them in post and extraordinarily award them a more lucrative contract? Where does the cost of paying them off fit in the bid and in the decision? It needs a comprehensive explanation.
With regards to Rivermead, the public made their position clear in petitions, in walking with their feet and in the media. The void in reasoning, let’s call it social conscience, says the Council have got it wrong, surely? There is an assumption that it is an error in processing like the Arthur Hill Pools sale to a bidder whose anonymity was protected because of commercial sensitivity. And the real reason is…? You cannot judge in isolation of the whole scheme because it is one scheme, one intention, one motivation – externalise to a third party.
Is land sale more important to the Council than quality of life, health and wellbeing and again so much more? Do they look beyond flats? Arthur Hill was a unique bath entrusted to Councillors to maintain. What has the Council made on these land sales and there is a huge trail of them? What history do they leave? What is your legacy when you are too free with destroying others?
Now as I return to the charges I started out with, there is much more than agreeing a set of plans which appear to suggest progress, you have the cost of history unaccounted for. You have those unanswered questions which highlight more closely the truth. The Council took back South Reading Leisure Centre and in doing so reinstated a living wage policy to the betterment of staff and returned it to the community. Why was Rivermead left to limp? Was the benefit of a pop up pool so much better than Arthur Hill?
Yet there is evidence that the sale of Arthur Hill was not as above-board as was made out; perhaps even unlawful. Why did that deal fall through after a focused campaign on the processes’ lack of transparency? Why did the Council not go to the next best bid? Why did the Council choose to build flats for key workers – suddenly? What is the determination behind shutting, destroying a historic community hub to shut out swimmers to find a new home? It does raise serious questions, does it not?
How did Reading get to the stage where a much public complained of service provider, one sacked by the Council is, low and behold, crowned the preferred bidder for a more lucrative contract; one who failed to meet maintenance standard, one who sought a bail-out from every one of its customers? Have I missed something in my dark despair? Is there anywhere in their history of running Rivermead which suggests that they are the go to for delivery of superlative Pall Mall quality management. Someone has to ask the question? And it has not been the Councillors.