It was the evening of 13th February this year at the Sevenoaks District Council offices in Argyle Road. The public gallery was full with people opposed to the main item on the planning agenda which was the proposed replacement for the White Oak Leisure Centre at Swanley. The council’s submission was to build a replacement leisure centre that failed miserably in terms of facilities to match what is currently in place. If built it would mean the 6 badminton court sports hall would be completely lost with a token 2 court space as the alternative. The outcome would be that many hundreds of users and numerous clubs would be unable to continue their sport, exercise and social interaction that they have enjoyed for decades.
The list of sports and activities that would be lost or at risk is huge and includes Junior badminton, roller hockey, diving, martial arts, karate, squash, athletics, netball, table tennis, triathlon, 3 swimming clubs, water polo, sub aqua, Primetime for over 50’s, aqua deep water, aqua shallow water, archery, yoga and body pump (this is not an exhaustive list). While most affected are the younger generation, it also impacts hugely on the older generation, including the Primetime Group who with around 100 members over 50 years of age meet 3 mornings a week for badminton, swimming and other activities.
The proposed swimming pool would just be 25 metres in length, down from the existing 33 metre pool. There would be no diving pit so the oldest diving club in the world would be lost and also no flumes. There would, however, be a larger gym and a new fad of Tag Active, which is in use at just a few sites in the UK, with questionable success. The proposal also included a housing development on the site which would contribute towards the £20M cost of the new Centre.
Over 500 written objections were submitted to the council’s offices in advance of the meeting with just a handful in support, thereby representing a huge public support for rejecting the application. A last minute panic from the council offering of a school hall at Orchards Academy in Swanley, which is older than the current White Oak sport hall, was seen useless as it can only really be used 5.00pm onwards and is in terrible condition.
Councillors discussed the merits and disadvantages of the proposal. Some really challenging questions and objections were raised by a number of councillors which was not surprising given that the proposal did not meet the council’s own policies and objectives, it was not supported by Sport England and represented a poor substitute for the existing Centre. The Planning Officer was unable to answer many of these challenging questions and was forced to agree through gritted teeth that the proposal was lacking in so many aspects. After hearing many of the Councillors giving their reasons why the application was not fit for purpose, one Councillor stood up and said she had read through all the evidence before her (submitted papers) and couldn’t see any reason why the application should not go through. By doing so she totally ignored the debate from the previous hour and was clearly not listening.
The voting process then took place and it seemed a formality that the proposal would be rejected as it had been torn to shreds during the debate. To the dismay of those present, it was voted through 10 votes to 6. It seemed totally wrong for the council members to make a decision on an application by their own council, indeed how can councillors be allowed to vote on their own council’s planning submission? How can they be trusted to look at a major application in the same way that they would for all other applications? Surely that represents a conflict of interest, but somehow it is allowed. Any similar application from any other party would have been voted down unanimously. The public were naturally outraged. The meeting was farcical and a complete waste of taxpayers money. £20M for such a small not fit for purpose replacement Centre represented a very poor financial outcome. Sport England costings suggest it should be built for millions less.
We are now looking at the next stage in the planning process when the full council plan to meet to discuss the proposal and whether it represents good value for money. This meeting is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 21st April, but due to the Coronavirus situation it is questionable how that can take place. It is such a huge decision financially that all members should debate the case and it would be totally wrong for a quorum to decide upon it.
Ever since the council’s proposal for a replacement leisure Centre was first submitted, the White Oaks Club Committee has been supporting the hundreds of users who will lose their sport and activity should this dreadful proposal go ahead. They have on board some very useful members, including a practicing Architect and Quantity Surveyor and a Town Planner. They have produced alternative plans that would:
- Save many millions of the taxpayers money
- Retain the existing sports activities that would be lost under the council’s proposal, including those in the sports hall, and also add the new gym and Tag Active space within the council’s proposal
- Provide similar space for the housing development
A petition with well over 2,000 signatures was recently submitted to Sevenoaks council. This petition simply asks for the council to look at the alternative plans with an open mind and take seriously the opportunity to save many millions should they be adopted. Is that too much to ask for?
There are 2 alternative plans and these have been sent to the Sevenoaks councillors by the committee. The first plan has been designed by the group’s architect and has been costed by its Quantity Surveyor at just £13.9M. It locates the new building to the rear of the site and it is linked to the existing Sport Hall, which with minimal refurbishment, is good for many decades. Here is the first plan:The second plan is for a Chupro System (Arches project) to be erected which would be a double dome structure that would effectively house all the facilities and activity mix shown in the first plan, but would not retain the existing sports hall, but includes its space. This option has been costed at just £9M and can be views in the 2nd attachment.
What has been the response to these 2 alternative plans so far? The council seems to be totally transfixed in their plan and seem unwilling to even consider an alternative and that is a worrying development. You have to ask the question ‘why are council members and/or the planning officers not showing any interest in alternative professionally produced and costed alternatives that would save the council and the Sevenaoks tax payers either £6.1M for the first alternative or £11M for the second? If the council’s proposal is voted through without due consideration of the alternative plans then serious questions have to be asked, why? MP Laura Trott has shown little interest and has not supported the Swanley electorate in this matter. Would she have acted differently had it been in Sevenoaks itself?
The User group is frustrated that the council is not recognising these alternative cost saving plans. If this application had been made for a replacement sport and leisure Centre in Sevenoaks it would have included all the activity mix needed and Sevenoaks would not tolerate such a poor ‘not fit for purpose’ replacement proposal. Swanley is being viewed as a poor relation and should be treated in exactly there same way that Sevenoaks would be treated. Amazingly, there was no consultation with the user groups prior to the councils planning application being submitted which is, also, absolutely unbelievable!
So, what are some of the user groups views about the current situation? Below are just a few.
Ian Cunningham representing the Highgate Diving Club: Our club was formed in 1928 and has 70 members currently covering all age groups. Over the years members of Highgate have competed in both the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. We are in fact the oldest diving club in the world having been formed way back in 1928. Yes, we are a successful club with a great future ahead of us provided we have a diving pit at the White Oak Leisure Centre going forward. We are naturally proud of the club and cater for all ages and ability. Diving is a physically demanding (as demonstrated in the photo below) and a confidence building sport. Also, many autistic children have benefited from diving with Highgate and long may that continue.
The Sevenoaks District councillors should be fighting for the future of our club and for local people of Swanley and its catchment area, because it is so successful and beneficial to so many members and users. They either vote for an overpriced leisure Centre that will destroy our club or for either of the alternative plans that provide the facilities we need and at a considerable cost saving.
Derek Sutton of the Primetime Group: “Usually councillors are asked to spend more money, but the 2000+ signature petition is saying the opposite. Don’t waste £20m when spending millions LESS will give the people of Swanley & Hextable MORE facilities.” [Note to media: SDC delayed start of petition by requesting superficial changes, then, due to virus, the paper version ran for only a couple of weeks]
Why do Sevenoaks and Edenbridge residents deserve sports halls but the people of Swanley & Hextable are told to go and play in a dirty, unheated school hall that no longer has any clubs using it and is not available during the day? Cllr Fleming knows there is a lot of anger over his expensive but under-specified warehouse, which is why he offers up his nodding donkeys to be quoted in the media.
As a Primetime member I look forward to both the physical and social side of playing badminton one or two mornings a week. There is nowhere locally that can provide the playing capacity that White Oak does. The idea that Orchard Academy is a suitable substitute is fanciful. It is yet another Cllr Fleming little tick in a big box to promote his public speaking career. Physical scrap heap here I come.
Marnie Parker of the Synchronised Swimming Group: Our successful synchronised swimming club will have to close if the council’s proposal goes through. The lack of deep water will mean we are unable to train . We have 40 girls who attend regularly. This will have a dramatic affect on their health and well being, their physical fitness, their mental health along with confidence and other skills that come with being an athlete. We have produced national standard swimmers. It is a travesty that they are not making the most out of 20 million pounds. It’s not good value for money, when you are not helping the next generation with their physical and mental well being!! This will ruin many already successful sports clubs.
David Galvin representing the Swanley Sub Aqua Club: Swanley Sub Aqua Club currently comprises 58 members but our continued existence is threatened by the council’s short sighted development plans for White Oak.
Swanley Sub Aqua Club was founded in 1967 as the original building of White Oak took place and since that time over 1,100 members of all ages have been taught the skills of scuba diving in the White Oak Dive Pit.
We have objected to the council’s proposed replacement leisure Centre on the following grounds: –
- The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that any existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location. This is not the case at White Oak.
- Sevenoaks DC own Sports Facility Strategy from 2017 clearly states as a Key Issue that White Oak Leisure Centre has the highest used capacity of any pool in the District, and, due to its depth, the greatest range of aquatic uses. This will will be lost as a result of the planned development.
- The Strategy document is clear that White Oak currently has the only diving pool in the whole district and the current proposal does not replace this with an equivalent provision. This is a breach of the National Planning Policy Framework.
Paul Hutchinson of the Roller Hockey group: The Knightz roller hockey group have been at the White Oak Centre for 2 decades now. Initially with consultation we were hopeful that as a long term user of the Centre that our needs would be considered by the SDC. How wrong we were!
If the council’s proposal goes ahead we will need to seek a new home outside of the district for the current Junior National champions along with one of the top 5 senior teams in the country, due to the alternative Orchards Academy school suggested by SDC being totally unusable and not being fit for any use let alone our group (SDC SHOULD BE ASHAMED TO ALLOW THE DISREPAIR OF THIS SCHOOL). We sincerely hope that at the full council meeting the sensible route is taken and the alternate options are looked at and followed through. Indeed, the Arches project would offer all we have now and more with a massive cost saving to the tax payer!