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.
Beeston, 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.