South of the River – where they demolish sports centres


Compass-SouthThis week a long, unhappy tale ended when the final decision was taken to demolish South Leeds Sports Centre.

I was struck with some of the comments on our Facebook page. “Disgraceful” certainly; “shame on you Leeds City Council” yes; and this one: “Once the wheels are in motion they will stop at nothing to get the result they want”.

I supported the SPLASH campaign to save the centre and took part in several of its protests. I used to use the centre and my children would have learned to swim there if the waiting list hadn’t been so long that we had to take them up to Middleton. I also tried to organise a community takeover of the centre like the Bramley Baths group.

Leeds City Council’s actions over the years did lead to this demolition, but like most things in life this was cock up, not conspiracy.

We got the centre on the cheap in the first place. They designed Scott Hall Sports Centre, found they had some extra grant and stretched it by building two more identical buildings at Fearnville and South Leeds. The building never worked particularly well on the site, however you approached it you seemed to arrive at the back of the building and had to feel you way around to its rabbit hole entrance. There were lots of pokey corridors and labyrinthine changing rooms and 1980s technology meant it cost and arm and a leg to heat.

But it had a lovely 25m pool, a very functional sports hall and even squash courts.

When I first starting using the centre at the end of the 1980s the hall would be packed for circuit training sessions. But then in the 1990s (I can’t remember the exact chronology) there were a series of bad decisions that the conspiracy theorists amongst us might say lead inexorably to demolition.

The centre was closed temporarily for the boilers to be replaced, but the work overran. As the closure ran on, people starting losing faith in the word of the Council and got more settled at the other centres the activities had been moved to. Some years later the centre closed again for repairs. After a few months people realised that there was no repair work going on at the centre and started asking questions. This was when SPLASH was formed.

The campaign succeeded first time round. Money was found, the most essential repairs were completed and the centre re-opened. On a part time basis to start with, if it was well used this would be increased to full time opening.

There were two things wrong with this decision. The first is that nobody was really sure when the centre was open. I remember talking to families who had organised their kids, found cossies and towels and walked down, found the door and found it shut. Many of them didn’t try a second time.

The second problem was publicity and marketing, or rather the lack of it. The Manager was very good and tried her hardest, but didn’t have the skills. If the department had the skills, they didn’t deploy them. The ethos seemed to be – we provide the facilities, it’s up to you to find them and use them.

Bramley Baths, now in community control have shown what can be done. They use innovative marketing and have the flexibility to respond to heir community. One of their first actions was to open on bank holidays – expensive in staff costs, but the point when families have free leisure time. In this hot spell they’ve juggled their hours to have longer general swim time in the pool, because more people want to swim when its hot.

This series of decisions at South Leeds are all justifiable on their own. They may even have been good decisions in the circumstances. After all there is never enough money in local government to do what you want to do, there is always a compromise. So what should we call it? Institutional Mismanagement?

The Police were found to be institutionally racist not because every police officer was racist, but because the overall actions of the organisation (the institution) led to racist outcomes. Is this what happened with Leeds’ management decisions?

I don’t believe Leeds City Council is mismanaged, but certainly in this case its management decisions led to a very bad outcome.

Jeremy MortonBeeston, Holbeck and Hunslet suffer disproportionally from poverty and poor health and desperately need sports facilities. The John Charles centre is a city-wide facility and does not function to serve our communities. South Leeds Sports Centre certainly wasn’t the perfect solution, but it was better than nothing. And nothing seems to be all we can look forward to for a good few years in these austere times.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

6 Replies to “South of the River – where they demolish sports centres”

  1. Interesting to read the background… I was told that the then Leader of the council (now MP for Leeds East) decided that the money could stretch to two centres but I w thought the the other one was at Fearnvilles, Gipton. Anyway there’s no doubt it wasn’t the best building in the world.

    There’s no doubt that over the years the Council has been poor at maintaining its assets and has only started to think about this when money has become extremely constrained. I have heard stories from reelable sources of the Council even losing track of what assets it owned… Its asset disposal policy has been over driven by getting poor buildings off its back and preferably getting some money for them rather than t thinking through issues of long term use and viability.

    I very much agree that the Council has been poor and continues to be poor at marketing. The present lack lustre campaign relating to Middleton Park itself and the golf course there are good examples of this.

    It might be worth thinking through why Bramley Baths has (to date?*) been successful and why SPLASH wasn’t that weren’t unique to the condition of the buildings. I would guess that the location of Bramley Baths is much better than South Leeds Sports Centre – in terms of access and therefore easier to attract potential customers. Were there more people involved in Bramley with a broader range of skills and experience? Finally, I’m sure the presence of an ex MP, John Battte with access to, and influence with, senior councillors in Leeds was of particular significance.

    Ohh… and one bit I don’t understand. Why isn’t John Charles Centre a local facility and in what ways does it ‘not function to serve our communities’?

    * Keeping swimming pools viable is very difficult. Running such facilities with a lot of reliance on volunteers is over the long term very demanding.

    1. The various facilities at John Charles – swimming, athletics, tennis, gym, indoor athletics and bowls, five-a-side football, etc are great and I encourage everyone to go and use them.

      However, unless you have a car, from Beeston and Holbeck they are up a long lonely hill. There is an occasional bus service – the 481 visits four times each evening.

      The pool is cool – great for proper lane swimming, but not good for family fun. It’s often used for squad training and often closed to the public for galas. I don’t have a problem with this – a city likes Leeds needs a 50m pool for its elite athletes. But its not a community pool where children (and adults) can learn to swim and have fun in the water.

  2. Mainly I agree with this. I think the lack of outreach and marketing skills was a key factor in the failure of the re-opening of the centre. It was under-used. Then there just wasn’t enough money to keep it going apart from on a Bramley Baths basis, and no-one came forward locally to run such a project.

    Shame all round really. I liked the pool and used it and other parts of the centre, but not enough other people did. However, I do recommend trying out the pool (and exercise classes and more) up at the John Charles Centre for Sport. There are various sessions and it is a great facility.

  3. A thought provoking piece this, I have to admit I’ve felt that the SPLASH campaigners were wasting their time because in its twilight years this venue had become a waste of time and money, you’d go in on a weekday, find two receptionists gatekeeping a space with all the lights on and nobody in the rooms, toddler sessions with 3 kids and a bored looking nursery worker texting on a phone in a corner and so on. This article shows I think that the rot had set in considerably earlier.

    Council management tends to be at fault with these things, institutionally they overpay a lot of people to run services who have no idea about effective community engagement when actually there are community organisations or groups that could come together and run them a lot better at a fraction of the cost.

    Bramley Baths is a great example of the community taking something over and making a much better go of it. As a facility its of a size that can be run feasibly , whereas South Leeds Sports Centre was too much of a white elephant for anyone to be able to run at anything other than a massive loss. It was too late to do anything by the time the campaign gained any momentum.

    Middleton Golf Course, similar thing happening there really, nice facility, being run into the ground by inneffective council management, no marketing or promotion, a bungled refurbishment to its building with a bar that can’t be used because it didn’t comply with fire safety regulations and so on. But put a community group in place that wants to make it work with some enthusiasm and enterprise sense and its relatively small losses could be turned into a proper sustainable facility. I hope that’s what is in the pipeline there.

  4. “It might be worth thinking through why Bramley Baths has (to date?*) been successful and why SPLASH wasn’t that weren’t unique to the condition of the buildings.” I would guess that the location of Bramley Baths is much better than South Leeds Sports Centre – in terms of access and therefore easier to attract potential customers. Were there more people involved in Bramley with a broader range of skills and experience?”

    Bramley is a relatively small, self contained site with it’s Edwardian granduer as a nice selling point, its managable by a committed community group with the right skill set. SLSC on the other hand was a dilapidated 80’s “didn’t think it through from the start” kind of site that with the best will in the world, was never going to generate the kind of money needed for the heating bill, never mind staffing and everything else…

  5. From next week bus changes will be implemented in accordance with the recent consultation. Unfortunately I (and a few others) failed to convince Metro to extend the no 61 bus to cover John Charles Stadium via Middleton Grove. It will go to John Charles during the day till 3.30 via Old Run Road and John Charles Approach.
    The times and route are simply substandard. The stadium does not cater for people living in Beeston and Holbeck without a car. As Jeremy said Middleton Grove is a lonely road and it takes 20 minutes to walk up it alone (remember people will already have had to walk to reach Middleton Grove itself). Imagine people with young children or the elderly. The councillors really ought to tackle this issue more seriously. It is really not good enough.

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