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Leisure Services (North East Lincolnshire)

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2013

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. With your permission, I have invited the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) to share the debate with me. I have advised the Minister, who is happy with that, and I hope that meets with your approval. The Minister has indicated that 10 minutes will be sufficient for his summing up.

I appreciate that this matter is ultimately one for the local authority, which in this case is North East Lincolnshire unitary authority, so I appreciate that it will be difficult for the Minister to give a direct response. However, although it is a matter for the council, a considerable amount of public money is involved and one of the funding streams is, either directly or indirectly, Government money. Local opinion is very strongly of the view that the current proposals for the future of leisure services in the borough will, if implemented, provide lesser facilities for a considerably greater cost.

In recent years, the authority has rightly undertaken a review of its leisure services provision and updated it to meet changing circumstances. One scheme that unfortunately fell by the wayside as a result of the financial incompetence of the Learning and Skills Council was a learning village situated only a few hundred yards from Scartho baths, which I will talk about in a moment. Unfortunately, the revised conclusions that have been proposed rest on rather doubtful projections that are hotly disputed by campaigners, who, after receiving expert advice, have put forward some well reasoned alternatives.

The most contentious of the council’s proposals is the closure of the Scartho road swimming pool, known locally as Scartho baths. The pool is approaching 50 years of age and it is accepted that significant investment is required if it is to be given a new lease of life. I should mention that the pool is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but it serves the whole of the council area and beyond. The council is proposing a 25 metre pool at Grimsby leisure centre, which is on the outskirts of the town and access by public transport is difficult for a great many local people. The leisure centre itself is now 40 years old and I acknowledge that it also needs refurbishment. It houses a range of facilities, most notably an ice rink, and I will return to the future of the rink shortly.

I am usually reluctant to criticise the local authority publicly, as I recognise that we as Members must work with our local councils, irrespective of their political colour, on a range of issues. However, this issue has been dominating the local media in north-east Lincolnshire and is therefore an exception. The hon. Gentleman and I have been supporting local residents, and in particular the Save Scartho Baths campaign, and there is overwhelming local opposition to what has been proposed. The hon. Gentleman went so far as to use his Christmas card to highlight the council’s folly.

Indeed—a new form of campaigning, which I am sure will catch on.

The hon. Gentleman and I have met with a developer who has considerable experience of providing similar facilities for local authorities and with the private sector. They have offered to carry out a free survey and feel confident that alternatives exist that could deliver more for the money available. Surely it makes sense to pause and accept that and other offers the council has received to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money. Local people, even if the final decision goes against their wishes, at least deserve the satisfaction of being involved in a proper consultation and a fully transparent process. It is possible that the companies, having studied the proposals, met council officers and visited the sites, would conclude that the council’s proposal is the best way forward. It is unlikely, but it is possible. It is a disgrace that the council is denying those opportunities to deliver more for the taxpayers’ money. If more cost-effective solutions are available, surely they should be considered. It is suggested that for around £2.5 million the Scartho baths could be refurbished, adding another 15 to 20 years to its life.

Following the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, I know that the Government are keen to ensure that local authorities undertake proper consultation before making such major decisions about local facilities. It is not unknown for councils or even, dare I suggest, Governments—surely not this one—to go through what could be described as a sham consultation, but the one undertaken by North East Lincolnshire council on this issue reached a new low.

The consultation was undertaken when, following a public outcry, the matter was referred to the council’s scrutiny panel. Residents were quite reasonably expecting an extended, detailed debate, together with a proper consultation, to be able to indicate whether the Scartho pool should be refurbished or replaced. The only mention of the pool in the consultation was in one of the questions, which said, “The following facilities are coming to the end of their life, which would you replace? Please choose one of the following: Grimsby swimming pool or Grimsby leisure centre.” Other questions included, “Should the council continue to provide quality leisure facilities within the borough? Yes or No.” It would be difficult to answer anything but yes. Question 2 was, “Given the tough decisions the council is having to take around substantial reductions in funding, should it replace ageing leisure facilities?” Again, it is hardly possible to say no. It is irresponsible in the extreme for the council to plough on in such circumstances.

Campaigners have consulted a wide range of experts, and I am sure that the demand for transparency suggests that the council should at least stop and consider alternative proposals. It is possible that additional funding might be available. I spoke to the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and he has indicated that there might be pots of money for which the council might be able to bid. I believe that now is the time for the council to pause and reconsider how best to move forward with the backing of local people.

That excellent journal of local record, the Grimsby Telegraph, carried a letter from one of my constituents, who says, having heard the council state that

“this current administration is committed to investing in tourism and leisure, I find it very reassuring. My difficulty is understanding how and why they seem to be getting it so wrong. Any reader of this paper will have noticed that they are getting little or no support for their proposals. The majority of the public, especially those who use our leisure facilities, find no justification in pulling down Scartho Baths. Indeed, it is just the opposite.”

I am sure that the plea will have reached the local authority. Until now, it has not acted on it, but I hope that further consideration will be given.

I mentioned the Grimsby ice rink, which is located at the leisure centre and is also under threat. In part that is due to the coolant used to keep the ice frozen, but my point is that the loss of the rink now seems inevitable, because although a previous council resolution stated that moneys returned from the council’s investments in Icelandic banks would be ring-fenced for either a new ice rink or refurbishment of the existing one, I understand that that ring-fencing has now been removed. The ice rink now seems doomed—yet another blow for residents of the borough.

The Grimsby and Cleethorpes area is a low-wage area: the average salary is £20,000 or thereabouts, which is considerably less than the national average and £3,000 less than the regional average. Although some excellent private facilities offer good discounts, the reality is that many people across the borough rely on leisure facilities provided by the council. I must say to the Minister that North East Lincolnshire council has not fared at all well from recent funding decisions by his Department, but that is a debate for another occasion. We all accept that we are living through particularly difficult financial times and that the authority must consider whether an £8 million new build is better than spending £2 million or £3 million on a refurbishment, particularly when most local people believe that they would be getting a better facility.

Like many local people, I learned to swim at Scartho baths and skate at Grimsby leisure centre—neither very well, it has to be said. We value the facilities and firmly believe that the council should call a halt to what is proposed, reconsider, involve local people in its decision-making process in a meaningful way and engage with Government agencies again to see whether, in this post-Olympic world, other funding streams are available. All we ask, as the local Members of Parliament, is that the council pause and reconsider. Surely, local people deserve that.

The Deputy Leader of the House said in his reply to the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate in the House, when I raised this issue previously, that my plea for the local authority to listen again was on record and that he hoped that the council would reconsider. I hope that this Minister will also ask that it do so, and perhaps a little more successfully. If the Department for Communities and Local Government can exert any pressure on the council, local people, I can assure him, will greatly appreciate it. Our plea to the council is a plea to pause and reconsider. Surely, that is not too much to ask.

It is very important to raise this issue, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in doing so. I emphasise at the start that we have no desire to challenge the council and still less to try to dictate policy to the council. That is not the job of MPs. The council takes the decisions relevant to the council, and the swimming baths are relevant to its portfolio. The point of the involvement of MPs is, first, to represent the views of our constituents, and very strong opposition was demonstrated to closure of the Scartho Road baths. Indeed, a petition was signed by more than 5,000 residents of the area against closure. There was a strong feeling that they had not been properly consulted. We took up the case and managed to secure another consultation, although, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said, it was not adequate, as the questions were fairly loaded towards the closure of the Scartho Road baths. However, the council did accept the need for a new consultation.

Our responsibility is, secondly, to get the best possible deal, in the light of the very acute financial stringency that the current Government have imposed on our council. It has suffered very badly in the cuts—certainly worse than any authority in the south would have suffered, or many richer authorities have suffered. Our responsibility is to get the best possible financial deal on the provision of swimming facilities, and we asked whether the best possible deal was achieved by refurbishing Scartho Road baths, which is 50 years old. In fact, it had its birthday in December. That is the first time a swimming baths has been almost as old as the Member for the constituency. However, the pool, like the Member for the constituency, is still in good condition and eminently refurbishable. Or was the best financial deal achieved by going for a new pool? That is what the council wanted to do. It wanted to establish that pool at the Willows leisure centre in Cromwell road. The aim was not to pay the staffs of two centres to do work that could be done by the staff of one centre and to economise in that fashion.

Another of our responsibilities was to ensure, if the council did go for a new pool, as it wanted to do, that that pool was the best possible pool, with the facilities that children, young people and adults need to train to become future Olympic champions and to go into championship swimming. There is now a passionate desire to train. A growing number of kids want to train to develop Olympic capabilities. There is a growing demand for that kind of facility and training. We want Grimsby to breed champions—it has in many other areas—and that means having the best possible facilities for the whole region. Ours is a region of 250,000 people; it serves the needs of 250,000 people. A good leisure pool, up to proper Olympic standards, would be a facility for the whole area, which is under-provided for in many respects.

In the light of what I have described, we thought it best—we thought it sensible—to take soundings from pool providers. There are a number of expert pool providers. They are comparatively unemployed—under-employed certainly—at present, with the cuts in council spending. We wanted to take soundings and get costings. One provider in particular, from the north-east, undertook to come down and give us free estimates and free advice on the best course.

We discovered during our inquiries that providers were building pools at much lower cost than the council was estimating would be necessary to build a 25-metre pool, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said. They could even provide a 50-metre pool—in other words, a pool up to Olympic standards. To train in such a pool, anyone from the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area would have to go to Ponds Forge, at Sheffield, which is the nearest available Olympic-sized training pool. Anyone who wants to go on to championship swimming has to train in such a pool, and that is the nearest one. Why should we not have a 50-metre pool for our area? That is the question. The provider that I have mentioned said that that was possible at a price that was still lower than the council was estimating it would cost to provide a 25-metre pool in the Willows leisure centre.

I congratulate my two constituency neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), on this excellent debate. A 50-metre pool is of course something that North East Lincolnshire council could work with other authorities in the area to try to provide, because we do have a vision of making ours an area of sporting excellence. North Lincolnshire, the East Riding and Hull could be brought into that potentially.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to express admiration for my appearance in a swimming costume, but as he raises a financial matter, I agree absolutely with what he says. There is no reason why we should not co-operate with other local authorities to provide something central for the area in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, which would remain the centre of population. That could draw swimmers, in the way Ponds Forge does to Sheffield, to the Hull area.

The provider said that the pool could be provided at a cost lower than the council had estimated for 25 metres, although the costs of running it would be higher. It would also be a pool that had diving facilities, which the council does not now intend to transfer from the Scartho Road baths to the leisure centre baths. Modern young people in training, particularly at championship level, need diving facilities and a diving well in the pool as well. All that could be provided at a lower cost than the council was estimating. We therefore argued that it was best to bring in these consultants to lay the ground—to give us proper information on what could be done and what was available. It is sensible, in taking any decision, for people to have the fullest information and the fullest costings before they let the contract, so that they know what they are doing.

It is important to keep Grimsby swimming, especially the young people. Swimming is for life, after all. Swimming is for health and swimming is for well-being. We want it to be encouraged and sustained in our area. This is where the Minister, I hope, will be able to help us and where Government can help. I do not expect the Minister to say, “By God, these two are all right and the argument is strong,” give way immediately and provide Grimsby with the money to establish a big pool, but I do hope for advice from the Government and from the Minister on the provision of facilities for Grimsby. What advice—what help—is available?

We had before the Public Accounts Committee the people responsible for the Olympic provision, which was very successful. I asked them, “What does Grimsby get out of the legacy from the Olympics?” After a certain amount of hemming and hawing, one official came up with the idea that we got the experience of and enthusiasm for volunteering. That is not enough. We need money as well to support local activities. What finances are available, first, for refurbishment of an existing pool and, secondly and more importantly, for the provision of a new, bigger pool—it could be a regional pool—to provide top-rank facilities of Olympic standard with a diving facility for the whole area? What finance is available from Government? How do we set about tackling this?

We want a centre of excellence for Grimsby, Cleethorpes and the surrounding area, to help local young people who aspire to be swimmers—perhaps in the Olympics and the swimming championships, which are now so important—to achieve their ambitions. Grimsby deserves the best. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes and I will ensure that it gets it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for securing the debate and to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for his comments. Hon. Members will no doubt be aware that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sets the policy framework for sport funding decisions. Day-to-day decision making on the distribution of funding for sport and physical activity rests with the funding bodies, which, to touch on the closing comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, are Sport England and UK Sport.

We all know, and have all recorded, how much the summer’s Olympics gave this country and how proud we are of everything achieved. Members here will rightly be particularly impressed with and want to praise the abilities of medallists from Lincolnshire, such as Sophie Wells, Hannah Macleod and Georgie Twigg. If we are to repeat the success of last summer’s games in 2016, we must ensure that our athletes have the best possible conditions in which to train. That is where today’s debate becomes particularly topical and why the Prime Minister announced that UK Sport will receive about £125 million a year over the next four years to provide sports’ governing bodies with the certainty that they need to put in place long-term plans.

In the few moments that I have available, I shall touch on a couple of specific points. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby commented on how funding is distributed between the north and the south. If he will excuse me, I must challenge him. The Library has published reports recently that show that the situation he described is not the case. I speak as a Member of Parliament for an eastern constituency in the south, which has had one of the biggest cuts in the country, thanks to the legacy of the funding settlement of the previous Government under Labour. I would strongly argue that point.

The hon. Gentleman also tempts me to talk about legacy opportunities. We will feed his comments through to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, because, as he will appreciate, it is an issue for that Department in particular. He is right about the concern to ensure that people across the country benefit from the legacy of the Olympic games, which partly comes down to the sporting opportunities that young people have to become the superstars and Olympians of tomorrow.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has responsibility for local government, including promoting the leadership role that local authorities play in the strategic management of the public estate in their areas. I know that hon. Members here all share the view that we need to disperse power from central Government to society—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and I took part in a debate a couple of weeks ago outlining that view. Localism is just that: doing everything that we can as close as we can to the residents and citizens we represent, fully involving them in decisions about their areas—local people making local decisions on local issues, with central Government involved only when absolutely necessary.

The Government have strengthened the distinct role of local government as an autonomous political institution that builds and leads communities and provides services. Our actions are giving local authorities unprecedented freedom to get on and work in the best way for residents and local businesses. The Government’s approach to localism is therefore about passing power down to citizens —greater power held locally by accountable local authorities to help them to make a difference in their communities.

It is to their great credit that all three Members here today are working not only cross-party, but cross-border to represent their residents. We should ensure that the local authority is very much aware that this is not about party politics, but about Members across borders and across parties coming together to do what they can to ensure that their residents’ views are represented. I acknowledge that and I think it only right that the local authority takes notice of the fact that Members have come together in that way. My thanks go to the hon. Gentlemen for putting forward such a cohesive position.

If Members will excuse me for being simplistic about this, there is a great quote from, I think, a Spiderman film:

“With great power comes great responsibility”.

In this case, that means that for local councils and authorities to be able to say that they clearly represent their communities, they must look at, listen to and work with communities to ensure that they make decisions with them. Members have made a strong case today, and in this case, whether or not that is true, the local community council and local authority need to look carefully at how they have gone about making their decision. I shall return to that point in a moment.

Local communities hold their councils to account, ultimately through their voting power at local elections. Local councillors making decisions should bear that in mind; it is an important part of the democratic process. The Government have also introduced measures that increase transparency to allow local people to have a better view of what is happening locally, to create more openness and to strengthen democratic accountability. We have introduced greater transparency on how public money is spent locally, and in this case, Members have clearly done a great job in highlighting decisions to local people.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced the community right to challenge, which enables communities and the voluntary sector to question how services are provided and to have the ambition to challenge and make plans to take them over. In this case, it is not necessarily impossible for local communities to look into that right, if they feel strongly.

As a result of the changes that we have made, local authorities have greatly improved the way that they manage their assets. There is still room for improvement to ensure that they make the right decisions, with the best value for money, in the best interests of local residents. To continue to support and drive the agenda forward, the capital and asset pathfinder programme, delivered by the Local Government Association with support from the Department, has already supported 26 councils. Councils that have been involved in waves 1 and 2 have already achieved significant local savings and have gone some way to offsetting the reduction in the rate support grant. Wave 3 of the programme, launched on 26 October last year, concentrates on promoting local growth as well as delivering efficiency savings. It sounds as though local authority in this case should look at that.

The Government believe that it is for local authorities, in consultation—I stress, in consultation—with their communities to decide how to make best use of their assets, including the relative benefits and costs of replacing or refurbishing assets, because they are best placed to know what works and what is most appropriate for their local area, in a way that central Government cannot. To do that, local authorities must consult and work with local residents and take their views on board.

Members commented on whether a consultation was genuine. I hope that they note that we responded and made changes following the last consultation that I ran in my Department on the business rates retention scheme, which shows that even central Government—to pick up on the comments earlier—can, should and do listen to consultations when making our final decisions, and local authorities should do so, too. We encourage, and I strongly encourage, local authorities to engage with their communities when considering options for managing their assets. We consider it best practice for local authorities to consider the preparation of their asset management strategies in consultation with their communities.

In conclusion, as Members outlined at the beginning and will understand, I am not in a position to comment on the specifics of the scheme my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes highlighted, because I have not seen the business case weighing up the relative financial situation. I have set out the Government’s general approach and view, and I support the concerns of the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). Local authorities should consider the most efficient way to use what are ultimately scarce resources and, most importantly, that they do so in genuine consultation with the communities that they serve.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.