Penwortham Leisure Centre public meeting

The panel at the Penwortham Leisure Centre debate, the borough council on the left and the college on the right

The panel at the Penwortham Leisure Centre debate, the borough council on the left and the college on the right

The spirit of St George was alive and well as 500 residents packed out Penwortham Girl’s School hall to be part of a public meeting about the potential closure of Penwortham Leisure Centre.

Representatives from South Ribble Borough Council, Lancashire County Council and Priory Sports and Technology College were on the panel as residents were able to have their say over the proposals.

The meeting was called by South Ribble Borough Council after the college gave notice to terminate a dual usage agreement, dating back to 1993, that governs the use of the leisure centre.

In a fiery public meeting, chaired admirably by independent Russell Atkinson (who had just stepped off a ferry from France that afternoon), the council and the college gave their view and then the debate was passed over to the floor. There were some full and frank questions and statements from local residents, with a wide range of ages and occupations having their say about what could be done.

The general consensus was that there needed to be usage available of the leisure centre to local people, that child protection was very important but should not conflict with the needs for the local community to have somewhere to exercise. The three parties involved, the county council, the borough council and the college will now go back to the negotiation table – potentially with some assistance from national government – to try and reach a settlement otherwise the leisure centre will close in early August 2009.

Rob Pratten, 38, a local resident with two children who lives in Penwortham said the meeting helped him make up his mind.

It’s been great to see the passion from the local community, uniting to try and find a solution. It’s been quiet refreshing to see. Tonight has reinforced my views that I do not want the centre to close.

The school is going against the progress that’s been made in community values. We want to have a healthy society and while I appreciate the child protection issues I think it’s important we have this community facility.

A part of me really does wonder if there’s a hidden agenda from the school, do they want to have the leisure centre to make money from it?

Chair of governers at Priory Sport and Technology College, Geoff Cherwood, said:

This was a unique opportunity to hear the views of the local community and it has been a very useful meeting. We were happy to come to this and we’ve listened very carefully to what people have to say, and some of that has stung us, the strength of feeling is very strong. I hope that people have had the chance to hear what we’ve had to say and I hope we’ve managed to redress the balance of opinion.

We will now have further discussions with the borough council and county council. There would need to be substantial alterations made to the leisure centre as it currently exists to meet the needs of both the school and the local community, but that requires capital investment and in this economic climate it’s not going to be easy.

It was important we were here and we hope the community have appreciated us being here.

Leader of South Ribble Borough Council, Councillor Margaret Smith, said:

There’s a lot of people here and the sheer strength of feeling from these people’s views has been astonishing. There are a lot of people who use the leisure centre and it’s important their voices are heard in this debate.

Tonight has shown there is a very strong public opinion about the closure of the leisure centre and a really strong community spirit. We will now try and come to an agreement with the school and make sure that local residents have the opportunity to use the facilities.

However, we need to make sure that we get a long-term agreement as we cannot invest in a site that we may lose in 12 months time if there is a contract break. There are three parties in this agreement, ourselves, the school and Lancashire County Council, it’s important that the agreement satisfies these three parties in particular the county council as they could hold a lot of sway over future investment in the leisure centre.

I think tonight was as successful as these things can be and it was important that local people had the opportunity to give their thoughts and feelings. That is what we have to do as a council.

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