It wouldn’t happen in Sevenoaks!
In just a few days time on the 26th May, construction workers are due to start the building of the new White Oak Leisure Centre (WOLC) in Swanley. Users of the current centre should be celebrating this news, but many hundreds of them are dreading the day when it is opened. Why is that the case? Well, it’s because the new centre will not accommodate their sport activity! How many users will be affected? Hundreds of users and numerous clubs!
So, why has the Sevenoaks District Council (SDC) taken the decision to build a replacement WOLC that doesn’t accommodate so many of the existing clubs and users? This question is difficult to answer. A smaller centre should cost less, but the expected cost is £20m, for such a small provision. This will, in part, be financed by a housing development on the site, but that doesn’t affect the £20m for the centre. It represents a terrible waste of taxpayer’s money. Did the SDC consult with the existing clubs and users prior to the council’s proposal being submitted for planning application? Indeed, how could the SDC ignore their client base and disregard their very existence? It seems that the Leader of the SDC simply asked Alliance Leisure to form an activity mix to fit onto that smaller site.
What was the response once the planning application was known? The clubs not accommodated in the proposed new centre formed a White Oak Clubs Committee to fight SDC’s application. This included a Quantity Surveyor, a Town Planner and an Architect. Soon afterwards a public meeting was called by Swanley Town Council held at the Alexandra Suite, the aim to make a presentation of the White Oak Clubs Committee’s alternative plans for the replacement centre to 100+ attendees.
The first alternative costing £13.9m involved retaining the existing sports hall (younger and in better condition than the wet side)and linking that with a new wet side facility that encompassed all the existing clubs and activity mix, plus the Tag-Active facility included in the SDC proposal.
The second alternative was a Chupro System of double dome structure, which replaced both the dry and wet sides of the project for just £9m. Both proposals would allow for the housing development on site. The presentation didn’t take place, somebody had invited Councillor Fleming, he batted away the residents’ objections implying to all ‘take the SDC proposal or you’ll get nothing’, but he felt the full force of the opposition to the SDC proposal.
The planning application was considered by the SDC planning committee on the evening of 13th February this year. Prior to that date the SDC received over 500 written objections representing huge public support for rejecting the application. The application was flawed on a number of counts, not least that it failed to meet the SDC’s own policies, it was not supported by Sport England and it was not compliant with the National Planning Policy Framework 2019. To their credit, a number of councillors raised a number of really challenging questions and the SDC planning officer was given a rough time. The debate was very much in favour of rejecting the application, but to the huge surprise of the gallery the councillors passed the application through on a vote of 10 to 6.
The next stage of the planning process involved the full council and this took place by video conferencing on the 21st April.
At the start Councillors from other political parties called for the vote to be recorded. A petition with over 2,000 signatures against the proposal was noted at the meeting. In a move to accommodate some of the clubs who would need to close, Councillor Fleming put into the mix the opportunity of housing these clubs at the nearby Orchard Academy.
As with the earlier planning meeting a number of councillors voiced their opinions that the vote on the SDC White Oak proposal be postponed until a schedule of works for updating facilities at the Orchard Academy was in place to ensure that the clubs would have a home, nevertheless, the SDC White Oak proposal was voted through.
Some of the clubs who will lose their home in the new centre have visited the Orchard Academy to see if it is feasible to relocate there. This proposed hall is much older than the existing WOLC sports hall and is less than two-thirds the size. It is not available during the day when the large Primetime group meet 3 times each week. Further, it is in a dreadful state of repair with no heating, water running down the walls and it is clearly unfit for consideration. Councillor Fleming has offered a small sum for a new floor and minor redecoration works, but it would take many times that sum to make it usable.
The above sets out a synopsis of this tragic journey. More detail is supplied here: Press Report
There is no doubt whatsoever that the SDC application would have been declined had it been submitted by a body other than their own council. Indeed the White Oaks Club Committee Town Planner reported after the meeting, “In my mind, had a private developer proposed this application, the council would have refused the application on a string of grounds, without hesitation”. This begs the questions: “How can a council vote on a plan that has been submitted for consideration by their OWN council? What is the likelihood of a vote against? Did councillors vote for the party line rather than on the merits of the submission?”
There is no way that the SDC proposal would have been voted through had the leisure centre site been in Sevenoaks itself. Could you imagine the backlash for such a proposal from the Sevenoaks community? The outcome is that the people of Sevenoaks and Edenbridge will continue to enjoy their sport and their sports hall, but Swanley will be saddled with a small ‘not fit for purpose’ centre with no sports hall and past users will see their fitness, health and well-being decline.
Not much has happened since the final decision by the SDC to go ahead with the small centre. None of the councillors who decided to vote for the proposal have shown any sign of contrition to the hundreds of users who will lose their sport. Perhaps they would have to face reality and recognition of what their vote represented to even consider contrition. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen.
Save White Oak Leisure Centre