Letters October 21, 2010, part one

PUBLISHED: 11:25 21 October 2010

Swimming pool row will not go away...

SIR – Before the emergency cabinet meeting on August 10 I wrote to various councillors raising concerns about the inadequate research and concerns about the long-term viability of the Westminster Lodge swimming pool project.

We have a steady stream of competent people criticising it for both function and finance. In discussion with Councillors Robert Donald and Anthony Rowlands after the meeting, I stressed that important concerns had not been addressed at the meeting. I agreed to put my concerns into writing. I delivered letters to them on August 13. Two months later I have not had any constructive comment back from them.

This is the text (in all essentials) of my letter to the councillors expressing my concerns:

I confirm that (in answer to your enquiry to me at the end of the meeting) that the topics were covered inadequately by Julie Simpson (the responsible council planning officer) during the emergency council meeting.

Topics covered inadequately were:

1) Source statistics: Active People Survey (October 2006 to October 2009) data, as reported in Westminster Lodge Swimming Pool – a Review, July 2010 (sections 2.7 to 22.12), only considers swimmers who swim for at least half an hour, twice or more per week. Most of us with families and jobs only manage half of this and so (in my personal case) were excluded from the survey. The planning department has not carried out the most basic analysis of how people actually use Westminster Lodge. We have a major project going ahead based on an underestimate of the number of swimmers.

2) Board diving omitted from Active People Survey: It’s popular, there are almost always queues for the diving boards. Overhead costs to run them must be minimal – why omit them from the new pool?

3) Inadequate maximum capacity: While there is more promised for beginners, toddlers, the elderly and the handicapped, there is much less for the competent adult swimmer. Adequate depth (i.e. over two metres) and length more than a school pool will not be available to us. Why not refurbish Westminster Lodge swimming pool? In these times of fiscal tightening that has to be an idea worth re-visiting.

4) Reduced flexibility: No councillor seems to have actually seen how easy it is to divide up the present 33 metre pool into different swimming activities. Diving and casual swimming do go on simultaneously, separated by a simple floating cord barrier across the width of the pool. The ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) has been consulted, and contrary to views expressed elsewhere, do approve of 33m pools.

5) Money numbers, fiscal restraint: Let us wait and see how the council budget has to be adapted to our penurious time.

6) No diving boards: Thank you for your comments (Cllr Robert Donald from the chair to me) that there is going to be provision for diving boards. Please can you make sure that is minuted and gets into the brief to the contractor? I should be happy to discuss what is needed.

7) Skewed voting: The options printout I have of the public discussion (dated July 21, 2009 to August 10, 2009) shows one sheet of A4 devoted to Option 1, and two sheets for Option 2. Option 2 has a glitzy landscaped view, which is lacking from Option 1 display. The presentation shown to the public display boards at Westminster Lodge and in the council offices showed the same one to two mismatching of display areas. The voting seems to have followed the proportions of the display areas or the glitzy landscaped view, rather than a thoughtful consideration of what the reader might need.

8) Successful public meeting: The good work done by Cllr Daly’s District Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee on July 19 has been overturned by the emergency council meeting. The Overview and Scrutiny Committee recommended that the number of lanes be increased from eight to 10 lanes. This is a start.

The proposed building is high enough to accommodate climbing walls so why not re-instate the very popular diving boards? These were a normal feature of any 1930s lido. Why can’t we have them in our prestigious new facility? Swimming and diving are very popular, and very healthy.

9) Comments on August 10 Emergency Council Meeting: At last, it is on public record that we have insufficient swimming pool capacity, and cannot afford the best.

Perhaps, if a comprehensive swimming survey had been done at the start, the present difficulties, and emergency council meetings, could have been avoided.

The contractors only respond to the brief they are given. So long as they stay in business long enough to move onto the next job that’s fine for them. If our brief to them is inadequate, or the contract lacks the means by which we can discipline them, then the contractors take us for a ride.

We will have reduced main pool flexibility options – down to two options (slow lane swimming and teaching) from three options (diving, lane swimming, and teaching). The new training pool will be similar to our present training pool – not suitable for adult overflow swimming.

We still have people who say “It is going to be like Westminster lodge – only better?” Sadly you explain: “No, just a school-sized pool, without diving boards and only two-metre maximum depth”. I fear there’s going to be a lot of disappointed voters.

As a demonstration of democracy in action it has been most informative – I look forward to the discussion on Westminster Lodge swimming pool’s inadequate prior research continuing. Can the council’s team demonstrate that the proposed facility will be financially viable? The Millennium Dome failed in part because of a gross over-estimate of the number of people who would come to use it. Will we have a Millennium Dome of a financial burden crushing St Albans financially?

Have they taken into account the likely drop in customer support from the Abbey Theatre when it is accessed via the new Service Road? People new to the area claim that our theatre is difficult to find behind the trees – when hidden behind the new building it will be harder to find.

NICOLAS HARAN

Marshalswick Lane, St Albans

SIR – St Albans District Council blundered, after years of spin and casuistry, by getting the New Westminster Lodge main pool size wrong.

Cllr Robert Donald and his fellow buckpassers (also known as duckshovers) then wrung their hands saying: “But we’ve spent £1.5 million in consultancy fees messing the whole thing up so we can’t turn back now”.

And to compound it I have uncovered the harsh reality of the New Lodge Spa finances as the coalition government this week goes about axing grants to councils by between 25 per cent and 40 per cent for the next few years!

SADC refused several months ago to give campaign group PoolTooSmall their business plan for the project – so much for the so-called “democracy” we live in!

However, various SADC committee documents with financial information are in the public domain and I have been able to form an expert view of what is being proposed and the consequences.

I am now going to present a simple financial analysis of why the Spa aspect of this scheme is another blunder – a gross frippage in a recession!

Mud baths and scented saunas while the main pool will need wrist bands to control future swimming overload as the years and decades go by!

I refer to various published SADC documents specifically SADC Overview and Scrutiny meeting July 19 2010, Appendix 2, Options Cost Variance. Spa capital cost £2.925 million (not included in 2007 scheme). “Prudential borrowing” interest rate – 4.85 per cent per annum. Amortisation period – straight line capital repayment over 25 years.

It is easy to understand what is is going on. The council is effectively taking out a mortgage on a new property that may well physically last 50 years or more but for financial reasons wishes to pay it off over 25 years.

Like you and I with the mortgages on our homes, we pay off some capital and some interest as we go along.

Let’s look at year one as a fair approach to it all: one 25th of £2.95 million is £118k of capital repayment. One year’s interest on all the capital at 4.85 per cent per annum is £143,000.

Running the spa alone I estimate at £100,000 per annum – that’s operating staff, heating , lighting, management and, dare I say it, materials for scented baths and mud treatments!

No beauticians or other “fripperies” included. So just to break even let’s add this lot up for year one alone: £118k + £143k + £100k = £361k.

Let us now assume that the New Lodge is open 361 days per year. So on average from day one for the first year just to break even on the spa alone you need to take in £1,000 per day!

Do you realise what that entails? It suggests that you need 50 people turning up every day for 361 days in a row and spending £20 each to make the spa alone break even.

This simply won’t happen. This at the people’s pool with local competition from Nuffield , Sopwell and Fitness First, etc. – it simply does not stack up!

So franchise a treatment room or two out – will that work? –no!

One industry insider agreed and said that what the council would probably do is hide the costs in with “memberships” and hope the public fall for it!

That could mean that whatever the present Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre membership is now it could increase by up to £30 per month just for the spa alone!

The project manager Ms Julie Simpson can buy a lot of swimming wristbands for that!

SADC cheapskated on the jewel in the crown, the main pool size.Their treatment of and consultation with the Abbey Theatre over the New Lodge in general and its service road in particular have been an absolute disgrace.

Specifically in virtually encircling the theatre on three sides – see SADC’s own plans – SADC has shown itself to be selfish and inconsiderate.

This buckpassing SADC also ran the St Albans Diving Club out of the city after 30 years-plus because “there were diving boards at Hatfield and Hemel”.

In a week when Team GB is winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in diving events where are the future divers of a city like St Albans going to train to be world class?

All in all SADC has blundered on the specification for the New Lodge and have compounded it with politically-driven questionable financial schemes.

Not just the spa but another example, the confidence pool at an exorbitant £513k – literally another con from the SADC spinning studio!

And the council plans, I believe, to sell off both the Ridgeway homeless venue for £6 million and cut funding for the women’s refuge – what a mockery–so that others can wallow in the mud spa!

So New Lodge in-house project team hang your heads in shame. This is not a criticism of the project team’s external contractors and bidders but those in-house and in control since about 2004 with a selfish political agenda for the New Lodge.

This is a wasted opportunity that comes only every 40 years or so and the SADC has blown it!

PoolTooSmall and many of St Albans’ citizens will not roll over in the face of SADC’s appalling mismanagement on this issue. No contracts have been signed yet or should be.

This council knows full well that it has alienated many in St Albans with its political dogma and is now going to attempt to bludgeon through its financially-flawed scheme.

Remember, behind the spin of this council, this scheme is a disgrace and as and when it hits financial trouble it’s the people who will pick up the tab in higher council tax charges.

And where by then will be Cllr Sheila Burton, the original “mastermind” of the scheme, SADC leader Cllr Donald and the other buckpassing spinmongers? Chilling out by a pool in Sandridgebury?

There is another way – it is not too late – go back to the drawing board for a fresh start now!

DAVID GILROY

Eur. Ing. M.Sc. C.Eng. MIET.

Park Avenue, St Albans


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