Debate on future of sports centre

By Surrey and Hants News in Planning

Sport lovers in Alton are preparing for a last-ditch battle to try to get a better replacement for the town’s sports centre.

The results of a public consultation commissioned by Alton Town Council will be debated by the full council in a meeting to be held in the Martin Read Hall at Alton College on July 13 at 7pm.

The town councillors will decide whether or not to endorse the plans put forward by East Hampshire District Council and Everyone Active, a company running leisure centres for councils across the country.

Alton Sports Centre’s website is now dominated by Everyone Active branding, which shows pictures of people lifting weights and using fitness equipment in a gym rather than indulging in traditional sporting activities.

Swimmers, squash players, trampolinists and rock climbers are all unhappy.

Hopes of an eight-lane, 50-metre pool, which would allow the centre to host competitive swimming galas, have been dashed by the announcement that a replica of the current six-lane, 25-metre one would be provided.

Pupils at Eggar’s and Amery Hill schools currently travel to Fleet, Aldershot, Guildford or Waterlooville for GCSE swimming because Alton’s pool does not meet the requirements of their course.

The number of squash courts would be halved, the proposed climbing wall is considered to be too easy, and the sports hall roof may be too low for the best trampolinists to perform their moves.

Fears have been expressed on Facebook that the plans may now be set in stone, with one poster claiming that no bookings are being taken for after October for the artificial pitches on which the new centre would be built.

The Alton Post Gazette asked East Hampshire District Council if this was the case, but had not received a reply by the time of going to press last Friday.

Cllr Pam Jones, who represents Whitedown ward on Alton Town Council, said: “I put forward a motion to defer a decision until the townsfolk had a chance to say anything.

“I’m not happy with what’s being offered. From what I see, we are getting a sports centre not fit for purpose. What I think is wrong is nobody has consulted the sports clubs who use the current centre. As a town council, we only got a briefing an hour before the meeting at which we were expected to endorse the proposals, so we voted 6-5 in favour of a deferral.

“We have always wanted an eight-lane swimming pool, because if you want to hold competitions, you need one. The district council says there is an eight-lane pool at Fleet, but how is someone supposed to get to Fleet? It assumes someone has a car, or there is a decent bus service. It excludes a lot of people in the poor pay brackets. Alton is a growing town, it should have its own facilities.

“The squash players at Alton are very angry that the number of squash courts will be going down from four to two; the leisure centre in Petersfield is already losing a squash court as part of its refurbishment.

“The climbers are also upset, as they say the proposed clip-and-climb wall is just for fun and not for serious competition; there is an Olympic hopeful training at the current centre.

“And with the current centre having three floors and the proposed one only two, there is also concern as to whether the gym roof would be high enough for the trampolining club.

“The current centre has a floorspace of 8,000 square metres and the new one will be 8,500 square metres, but it is unclear as to how much sports floorspace will be lost to accommodate the private spa and gym that will raise money for Everyone Active, which has taken over the contract to run the centre and put some cash in. People also don’t like that it is going from a ‘Sports’ centre to a ‘Leisure’ centre.

“The consultation that will be considered on Thursday had 2,500 responses and very little positive comment. At the moment I can’t see a way forward unless the district council is willing to negotiate. I think the people of Alton like to be consulted about these things, and heaven help you if that doesn’t happen. The people of Alton are very cross, to put it mildly.

“The contract was signed with this mix of facilities, but we have seen no floor plan yet.

“We feel it was all done and dusted, and then we were told about it. That’s the crux of the matter.”

A statement about the new centre from East Hampshire District Council reflected its policy of aiming to reduce council tax to zero.

It read: “The decisions taken for the new centre have been drawn up following extensive market research by industry experts in order to create the best, most financially viable centre for the residents of Alton and the surrounding area.

“The structure of the deal with our operator Everyone Active is geared in such a way as to eliminate the financial burden on the taxpayer - this centre will pay for itself and ultimately will not cost the taxpayer a penny.

“To enlarge the swimming pool to eight lanes would make the new centre prohibitively expensive to build and run. Decisions on the number of swimming pool lanes, and the number of squash courts, are made according to detailed analysis and market research from industry experts.

“We recognise that squash is an important part of the facility mix at Alton Leisure Centre but the current squash courts are under-utilised and we had to examine whether more people would benefit if that space were used for a more widely-supported alternative.”

The conclusion to the statement offered little comfort to those hoping for the building to be redesigned: “However, there is still scope to influence the programme in the centre - including the type of classes and activities that would be on offer in the centre.”