‘Democracy has not played out’ over leisure centre announcement

The mayor of Congleton said that she was “appalled” not to have been informed about the postponement of the town’s leisure centre redevelopment by Cheshire East Council.
Coun Sally Ann Holland, who sits on the town council but is also a member of Cheshire East Council, was one of a number of town representatives who said that they were left in the dark about the decision.
At the end of July, Cheshire East Council said in a statement to the Press that it had taken the “difficult decision” to put the long-awaited revamp of the 1970s Worrall Street building on pause with a review scheduled for the autumn.
But at a meeting of Congleton Town Council on Thursday, a number of town councillors said they only heard about the project being paused as the statement was issued, rather than being told by the borough council beforehand.
Members said that they were “outraged” not to have been consulted about the decision.
Conservative Coun Holland said: “As the mayor of Congleton, I was never consulted. I didn’t know about any of these plans. I think it is appalling that this can happen. Democracy has not played out here at all.”
Thursday’s meeting was called after Independent Coun Russell Chadwick made a formal request for the town council to consider a response to the borough council’s decision.
After a lengthy discussion, the town council agreed to three proposals - to demand a meeting with Cheshire East Council’s portfolio holder for communities; to write an open letter to the borough council asking for the redevelopment plans to be resumed immediately, and for an open letter to be published in the Chronicle that Congleton residents could sign and send to the borough council themselves.
Coun Chadwick said: “Congleton residents have been waiting for many years for a replacement leisure centre. I was shocked when Cheshire East Council released a Press statement postponing the rebuilding of the leisure centre. Please be under no illusion that this postponement is a smoke screen for its cancellation as the plans stand.
“Cheshire East Council is running a huge deficit; if I was the chief executive, I would be saying to my portfolio holders that no more capital projects are to be started until further notice.
“Councillors, please be under no illusion that this leisure centre plan will be lost if we do nothing.”
At a town council meeting held almost a year ago, councillors debated whether to support the plans for the redevelopment project, or to lobby the borough council for an even more expensive leisure centre with additional facilities. It was decided that the town council would support Cheshire East Council’s plans as they stood.
However, Conservative Coun George Hayes said at Thursday’s meeting: “We debated at length in October last year and that debate has been undermined entirely by the project being postponed. I will remind colleagues that if this process doesn’t progress at pace now, there is no guarantee of the money remaining in the budget.”
Coun Hayes also said he was not informed of the borough’s decision prior to the Press statement, even though he is a member of the borough council.
“Democracy has truly been undermined with this project. As one of the Cheshire East councillors who also serves on the town council, I haven’t even had the courtesy to be notified or consulted prior to a public statement being made about a significant infrastructure project in this town.” Women’s Equality Party Coun Kay Wesley agreed: “To make an announcement in the Press about a major decision for Congleton before the town council has been informed that the project might be postponed is absolutely outrageous.
“We should have been the first people to know and we should have had a chance to respond before it went public in the Press.”
The Chronicle has previously reported how Independent Coun Suzie Akers Smith, who is both a town and borough councillor, has argued that the postponement of the project could be used as an opportunity to find a different location to build a new leisure centre “from scratch” with added facilities.
But others have expressed concern that if the project does not go ahead as planned, no redevelopment will take place at all.
Lib Dem Coun Robert Douglas said: “Speed is of the essence. Irrespective of whatever political party is running the show, when recessions come, projects like this have a nasty habit of being cancelled.
“We all want utopia, we all want something bigger and better — but utopia is like waiting for Godot, but Godot never comes. If we keep waiting for utopia, we will end up with the worst of all worlds — making do with what we have at the moment.”
Conservative Coun David Brown, who sits on both the town and borough councils, said: “The machinery in the leisure centre’s swimming pool is now getting on for nearly 40 years old. If that machinery fails, the pool will be shut and I don’t think we will ever see it open again.
“I think there are some serious questions to be asked of Cheshire East Council. The fact that the Cheshire East councillors have not been told what is going on is bad, and I also think that it is absolutely disgraceful that as town councillors we have not been told what is going on.”
The Chronicle asked Cheshire East Council why members of the town council, including the town mayor and some Cheshire East members, were not informed of the decision to postpone the project prior to the media statement dated Tuesday, 28th July.
A spokesperson for Cheshire East Council said the media statement was shared with the town council’s chief officer, David McGifford at 9.25am on Wednesday, 29th July, along with a number of interested parties and stakeholders.