|Council Urged To Reconsider Gurnell Leisure Centre Closure|
Idea rejected as 'nonsensical' and facility described as dinosaur site
The early closure of Ealing’s popular Gurnell Leisure Centre will “hit the poorest hardest”, councillors were warned in a bid to urge Ealing bosses to review the move.
Ealing Council’s cabinet took the decision last month to not reopen the “dinosaur” site after lockdown due to pressures of the pandemic making it “financially unviable”.
The decision was challenged in an Overview and Scrutiny meeting on August 6, concerned there was no impact assessment made on elderly, disabled and poorer visitors who will have to travel further away due to the closure.
A Gurnell Leisure Centre visitor made a plea to councillors not to close the site where she learnt to swim as a young girl, and which continues to be vital in her adult years.
“Swimming is central to my weekly routine. It’s the key way I maintain my mental and physical well-being. And this has meant that lockdown has been particularly hard for me and my fellow swimmers as all our pools have been shut and we are all desperate for a swim,” she said.
“Without access to a car there are no alternative leisure facilities in easy walking or cycling distance, this means the council’s decision impacts the most on the poorest in our society who are less likely to have cars or to be able to afford public transport to get to alternative facilities.
“Even if we can get there that will only put extra pressure on those facilities at a time when leisure centres are likely to be operating with very limiting capacity and bookable slots.
“If Gurnell remains closed, Ealing will have much less capacity to cope with these new limitations and ensure everybody has safe access to a swimming pool.”
Concerns were also raised that plans for the redevelopment of Gurnell Leisure Centre – which council bosses expect to open for February 2024 – are still just in the planning consultation phase rather than being given the formal green light.
This could mean any delays to the project, such as an economic downturn in the construction industry, could leave residents without a leisure centre for even longer.
The plans have also proved controversial with more than 1,600 objections so far to the plans submitted to the council’s website.
Lib Dem councillor Jon Ball said:, “My concern is we’re all familiar with Ealing cinema and Victoria Hall situations, where very valued facilities for the public are closed on the basis they’re going to soon be redeveloped into something wonderful, and what happens is the projects get into trouble and it drags on for years and years.”
Leader of the Conservative group, Greg Stafford, questioned whether “creative” ideas such as crowdfunding had been considered, and why money could not be raised from elsewhere to prop up the local leisure centre for a further four months.
But supporters of the decision said it was a “nonsensical idea” to keep it open as running costs, repairs and capital expenditure could rack up to £500,000 in just the four months at a time when the council has been hit by responding to the coronavirus crisis.
The council’s leisure assistant director Chris Bunting also told members that the centre had lost 150,000 visitors in the last three years due to the facilities getting older and better competition leading them elsewhere.
Leisure and finance boss Bassam Mahfouz said: “The context is this centre is nearly 40- years-old. It’s effectively a dinosaur that’s been on its last legs, it stands, barely, amongst a sea of reimagined, reinvigorated leisure centres across the borough…
“We have been working really hard on making sure we’ve got a really strong leisure offer across the whole borough. But Gurnell has been standing on its last legs for 10 years now, it was only meant to last for 30.”
He added: “The centre as I say has already seen a considerable drop in numbers and the likelihood of it recovering sufficient numbers in such a short period of time between August and December, in the most uncertain of times just really proves to be implausible.
“So the right thing to do, the only thing that we could do would be to decide to not reopen the leisure centre and instead refocus our efforts on rebuilding the centre bigger, better than before.”
The councillor also made assurances conversations have been had with groups such as Ealing Swimming Club over alternative facilities they could use until the newly developed leisure centre is up and running.
Committee vice-chair and Tory councillor, Joanna Dabrowska, said she was “uncomfortable” by the lack of a plan B being addressed if the redevelopment is delayed, at a time when human contact is needed now more than ever.
But chair Josh Blacker reminded members that the decision will be reviewed again by Ealing’s cabinet in December.
He said, “The question for us is whether a £400,000 cost is one we can afford to bear for the next few months until the planned closure for redevelopment.
“This is merely an early closure to save that £400,000 and as many have said this is a cost we’ve had to bear on top of a huge amount of costs not being reimbursed by central government as part of the coronavirus crisis.”
The majority of the committee voted against sending the decision back to cabinet for further review in September. It will be re-assessed in December as planned.
Anahita Hossein-Pour - Local Democracy Reporter
August 12, 2020