The citizens of Alton and their town council united and came out fighting in their bid to get a better new sports centre for the town.
Alton Town Council members had been recommended to support the proposed centre “as detailed in the specification determined and contracted by East Hampshire District Council”.
But many people feel that it is an inadequate replacement for the existing centre, opened in 1974, with swimming, squash, trampolining and climbing participants particularly badly affected.
After almost two hours of debate in the Martin Read Hall at Alton College - a venue chosen to accommodate the 82 members of the public who attended the town council’s extraordinary full council meeting last Thursday evening - councillors backed an amended recommendation proposed by Cllr Matthew Bayliss and seconded by Cllr Graham Hill.
It said the town council would support a new centre for Alton and the wider district “which can be demonstrated to meet the needs of the growing population”.
When Cllr Bisi Eni-Olotu questioned by whose standard that would be judged, Cllr Bayliss replied: “Our standard.”
The second part of the amended recommendation supported by the town council called for it to stress the results of its public consultation - which attracted responses from 11 schools, 25 sports clubs and 2,479 individuals - in further negotiations with East Hampshire.
It also asked for more “information and transparency” from East Hampshire, plus discussions with sports clubs and “other key stakeholders”, and a seat for the town council on a Project Development Board which East Hampshire had suddenly announced in the two days between last Tuesday’s story in the Alton Post Gazette and the town council meeting.
Cllr Bayliss, who said he was “utterly aghast” at the way East Hampshire had handled the sports centre project, flourished a copy of last week’s Gazette at the audience and quoted the district council’s statement that the proposed new centre “will not cost the taxpayer a penny”.
He said: “I asked what the revenue cost of the proposed new centre to East Hampshire District Council would be each year. East Hampshire declined to answer on the grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’.
“They won’t give us financial information but they tell the local press that it ‘will not cost the taxpayer a penny’. That’s financial information!”
Cllr Pam Jones, also quoting the district council statement in the Gazette, said: “The district council says ‘The decisions taken for the new centre have been drawn up following extensive market research by industry experts’.
“They forgot to ask the people who use it. That was a big mistake.”
Matt Collins, of the Alton Squash Academy, said he had recently taken nearly 60 Scouts to the centre’s squash courts as part of their badge work.
Questioning East Hampshire’s squash court usage figures, he said he had been at the sports centre for two-and-a-half hours on each of three nights in the previous week, and the courts had been “in use constantly”.
He said: “From 5-9pm is when we see most use, but the focus seems to be on when they are not being used, from 11am-5pm.
“This is the real world. People don’t take time off work to play squash, they play after work. I wouldn’t want to see the facilities lost due to data that you can take with a pinch of salt.”
Laurie Cuffley, also of the Alton Squash Academy, said the number of teams in the Hampshire squash league had risen from 122 to 126, and urged East Hampshire to “give us the sports centre that Alton actually wants rather than the one East Hampshire District Council wants to give us”.
Joe Walters, of the Alton and District Sports Council, said: “East Hampshire District Council continues to stonewall enquiries. It didn’t attend the drop-in consultations, there is no floorplan and just the odd drip of information. They have retreated behind their barricades. We only hear their mantra - ‘no change’ and ‘no surrender’. This is an absolute pig’s ear of a policy.”
Tom Gaynor, of Alton Rugby Club, said: “The facilities are not improved. They are new but there are fewer of them, they are not what people want, and swimming, squash and climbing are diminished.”
Peter Ashworth supported the proposal for a spa, but said: “If you’re going to have a spa, sauna, jacuzzi and steam room, it needs to be on the poolside, as most people also have a swim.” He added that plans for separate paid entry to the health suite were “absolutely unacceptable”.
Speaking before the recommendation was amended, Rod Eccles of The Alton Society said: “I find the tone of the agenda report worrying. It is holding a gun to the head of councillors, saying the contract has been signed. None of us should be acting as apologists for East Hampshire District Council’s misdemeanours.”
In response to a question from Tanya Applegarth, Cllr Hill said £5.6million of the proposed centre’s £20m cost would be paid for by developer contributions - £5.3m from the Borovere Farm and Treloar Heights estates, where there is a £10,000 levy per house, and £300,000 from homes in Four Marks.
The proposed centre has an area of 8,500 square metres, of which 6,084 square metres is considered ‘usable’ for sport. The existing centre’s area is 8,000 square metres, with 4,990 square metres usable.
Cllr Hill, also a district councillor, said he was “embarrassed” to hear the criticism of East Hampshire, which he said should have carried out a consultation on the scale of the town council’s 18 months ago.
District councillor Andrew Joy, in the crowd as a resident, was “extremely grateful” to the town council “to have the bottle to take on a really difficult issue and give the town an opportunity to express its views”.
Cllr Jones said Alton’s Neighbourhood Plan supported a new sports centre with facilities that were “enhanced” in terms of quantity and quality.
As Alton Town Council owns the site for the proposed centre, she asked if the town council could “withdraw landlord’s consent” if it did not like the plans.
Council chairman Cllr Dean Phillips, after consulting town clerk Leah Coney, said it was a “complicated question” which was “difficult to answer at this time”.
Cllr Graham Titterington, who said the proposals “place many existing activities and groups in extreme jeopardy”, was another who questioned East Hampshire’s assertion that no alterations could be made to the plans for the building now a contract had been signed with Everyone Active, which would run the proposed centre.
He said: “A contract has been signed, but they can always be amended by mutual consent. It may cost money - we don’t know how much money - but that’s what negotiation is all about. It’s not cast in stone - it’s not built.”
Rebuking East Hampshire for its lack of clarity, he added: “At our last meeting, when we were asked to endorse this, we had vague knowledge of proposals shrouded in secrecy. The plans are still obscure.”
Cllr Sharon Cullen said: “The schools section of our survey asked ‘What would persuade you to use the centre if you don’t already?’. All four responses said a decent pool, big enough for inter-school competitions. Our schools are having to go to Farnham and Fleet, where there are eight-lane pools.”
Cllr Allan Chick, noticing a throng of Girl Guides, said: “I’m pleased to see all the young people here tonight because it’s a project you and your children will participate in and we want to get it right.”
Cllrs Hill and Bayliss sounded notes of caution, the former saying “putting this on hold might put the whole project in jeopardy”, while the latter said he did not support the “nuclear option” of no new centre as opposed to a bad one, which was discussed at an Alton and District Sports Council meeting.
Cllr Bayliss, who said East Hampshire’s consultation in 2015 produced 201 responses, added: “Our consultation showed the willingness of people to pay for extra facilities.”
Cllr Phillips said: “The backlash belongs to East Hampshire District Council, which has got this inherently wrong.”