Funding crisis for new leisure centre in wake of major blaze

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A CASH-STARVED council is battling to counter a financial blackhole totalling nearly £1m after the decision was taken to demolish a flagship leisure centre which was gutted by a blaze and build a new venue.

Selby District Council confirmed yesterday that councillors had approved plans to raze the Abbey Leisure Centre to the ground after it was severely damaged in the fire in February, less than two years after the building underwent a £1.1m revamp.

But civil servants at the authority have been told to make significant savings before work can start on the ambitious scheme as the option to construct a new leisure centre in Selby had initially been predicted to cost up to £9m.

The multi-million pound project will be funded from a variety of sources including insurance cover, the council’s growth fund and a grant from Sport England, although a £929,000 shortfall has been identified. The council is battling to make £3.5m in cutbacks across its services as part of the Government’s austerity drive, with £1m needed to be saved during the next financial year alone.

Council leader Mark Crane admitted the move to demolish the leisure centre would leave residents across the Selby district without a replacement facility for the next three years. Construction work is expected to start next year and will take two-and-a-half years to complete.

But he added: “This is ambitious, this will take time, but this is what we need to do to deliver first-class leisure facilities. We’re going to build a brand new leisure centre for Selby, including a new swimming pool that’s better suited to people’s needs.

“It’ll be a real focus for the community and will help to revitalise leisure provision in the area. This doesn’t just benefit Selby town - having this new facility on the doorstep will benefit people from across the district. It will be a real draw for the area.”

About 35 firefighters were drafted in to tackle the blaze early on February 28, which caused parts of the building’s roof to collapse and left the swimming pool severely damaged.

An options report by project managers Turner & Townsend indicated constructing a new leisure facility was expected to cost up to £9m. However, councillors have instructed officers to reduce the capital cost significantly during the design phase without impacting on facilities, while also seeking to maximise the grant available from Sport England and exploring how a new energy efficient leisure centre would reduce annual running costs.

Coun Crane said: “An important part of this next stage will be to bottom out the costs for this, with further work now taking place to minimise the costs and maximise funding opportunities from elsewhere to support what we want to do.

“Let’s not forget, however, that we’re playing the long game here and we need to think in terms of income and expenditure over many years.”

The Yorkshire Post revealed in August that the Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust, which was appointed by Selby District Council in 2009 to run the centre, had begun redundancy talks with staff at the leisure centre. A spokesman for the company, which oversees a smaller leisure centre in Tadcaster in the Selby district as well as facilities in Wigan and Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, confirmed yesterday that 26 full-time and part-time posts have been made lost in the wake of the fire.

A gym and dance studio has opened in a former bingo hall in Selby as a stop-gap, but the leisure centre also provided a swimming pool, catering and a sports hall. The new facility is planned to include a six-lane pool.

The district council has had to look to contract out its services as the authority attempts to cope with reduced budgets in the wake of the Government’s spending cuts. Another firm, Enterprise Managed Services, was recruited in March 2009 to run the council’s refuse collections and street cleaning services.