Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Incompetence comes to the rescue

Campaigners to save Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre were delighted when Midlothian councillors decided yesterday to defer a decision on demolition for five months. This is to give the local community the opportunity to come forward with alternative proposals through the Bonnyrigg and Poltonhall Neighbourhood plan consultations, both due to start this month. I too was delighted, as this is something which I seem alone amongst councillors in thinking an obvious thing to do - especially given all the lip service paid to community involvement and asset transfer.

So why the change of heart? Well, actually there hasn't been one - and that was clear from yesterday's debate. What has changed is that Midlothian Council discovered just a couple of weeks ago that the building cannot be demolished without the permission of Fields in Trust (FIT - formerly the Playing Fields Association). Herein lies the problem for the council - earlier this year, FIT's UK Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, visited the building and wrote to the council requesting that the building be retained for 12 months to "allow local residents time to make a combined community decision and to conduct a feasibility study on future possible uses". The reaction of one Labour councillor yesterday was to ask officials what the repercussions would be of pulling down the building anyway!

Of course, 5 months is not 12 months, but if properly co-ordinated, sufficient feedback from the Neighbourhood Plan consultations should provide enough indication of support to put together a robust Business Plan by December for the council to make an informed decision. Reducing the time scale also reduces costs as well as risks associated with maintaining a building which is not currently in use. The estimated cost to the council of the five month delay is £41,000 - about half the money which the council would save in demolition costs if a long term future is found to be viable; a point lost, it seems on those who would rather the bulldozers had already done their job.

To be fair, not all the other 17 councillors are in agreement - of those who spoke yesterday, Cllr Lisa Beattie (SNP) said that the community's proposals bear closer examination, and other SNP councillors, as well as Independent Peter de Vink, have privately expressed surprise that the administration is so opposed to listening to the community before taking action. The Labour Group, on the other hand, shows no signs of listening to anyone on the matter.

These were the arguments presented yesterday, and I'l, er, demolish them one by one...

1. The council cannot afford £41,000 and the figure may escalate.

This was stated time and again by Labour councillors - the same group who earlier this year presented a budget with a £1.5 million black hole, and subsequently presented proposals for food waste management involving hundreds of thousands of pounds annual costs - all uncosted. Both times I asked them where the money was to come from and each time they said it was for council officials to find it. Similarly, in June, the SNP administration forced through a decision to build the Newbattle school hub as well as retaining local facilities, resulting in an estimated £600,000 unbudgeted annual deficit. So why the sudden concern over £41k? What about the saved demolition costs? What about the savings in social work and child and family support costs accruing over many years when the new community facilities start to have an effect?

2. Consultation was carried out years ago and no-one was interested. 

The Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre Initiative group carried out an online survey which found that only a tiny proportion of those asked found out about the demolition proposals over a year ago, and the vast majority only in the last 3 months, no doubt due to the recent publicity.

So, only two 'arguments' presented, neither of which stands up to scrutiny. In fact most of the debate was taken up with councillors asking why FIT had not been consulted years ago - concern it seems that boxes had not been ticked rather than "why do we want to do this?".

Interestingly, the Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust, which had previously been in favour of only retaining the back hall, now has plans which involve retaining the whole building. So we now have two community groups opposing demolition, and a consultation which will no doubt bring forward much more interest in using the building. The task now is to bring all those with a common interest together through the consultation process and present a single Business Plan to the council in December. If by then we fail to build a compelling case for keeping the building, then at least we will have tried, and then the building can come down. However, I'm confident that will not be the case, and we will look back on yesterday's decision as a turning point in what has been a long and hard fought battle by our community to have its voice heard. A voice which, finally we hope, will be heard by the politicians.