Lodge protests

SIR – The three-week public consultation period on the proposals to replace Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre has now concluded and the public have been invited to give their views on the erroneously described spectacular new leisure facilities set to bec

SIR - The three-week public consultation period on the proposals to replace Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre has now concluded and the public have been invited to give their views on the erroneously described "spectacular new leisure facilities set to become more than a dream for the district".

I first read about the proposals in the Herts Advertiser on November 9, 2006, when it was reported that a new �15 million leisure complex was set to be built at Westminster Lodge. Cllr Sheila Burton told councillors that it would be, "the biggest capital project we have ever undertaken".

Since then we have of course had the world recession and the Government's severe cutbacks on spending by councils.

The eight members of the Lib-Dem cabinet have not been deflected however and are pushing through this illogical scheme with the minimum of information for the general public and apparent disregard of the effects on other budgets.

Without having studied council minutes, some of the available information has come from press reports of persuasive arguments against different aspects of the proposals by Cllr Roma Mills and the Labour group of the council.

Cllr Mills pointed out that the timing of the consultation period, "may reflect the council's wariness about how the plans will be perceived by the public".

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I consider that this was a correct observation and that the public display was superficial marketing spin with little fundamental information.

As the portfolio holder for sport and healthy living, I feel that Cllr Sheila Burton has some obligation to provide the public with more explanation and justification for the proposals:

* Can we be told what will be the main sources of funding?

* What will be the level of debt council tax payers will have to meet and how long will it take to pay off?

* What will be the effects on other council budgets?

* How will the assets for social housing, green community spaces, youth and other leisure facilities be affected by the need to fund proposals?

* What are the current estimated costs for constructing Options 1 and 2 as presented in the public consultation display?

Cllr Robert Donald described the current facilities, "as falling down around our ears".

The same description could apply to many 40-year-old public buildings but apart from the cost of doing so, it is rarely used as an excuse for demolition and then replacement with something smaller and serving much the same purpose.

The life of the existing building could be extended for many years with effective refurbishment, proper maintenance, improved thermal insulation and an extension to include some of the modern facilities shown in Options 1 and 2.

The present building was principally designed to house a main swimming pool. At 33.3 metres long and often congested, it suits the many lane swimmers much better than a 25-metre pool.

It should be possible to place a removable solid barrier at 25 metres to suit competitive swimming.

The existing pool has facilities for diving and the flumes must have provided many hours of enjoyment for children. Neither of these feature in Options 1 and 2.

The idea of the council spending millions to demolish an adequate swimming pool at Westminster Lodge, close down the pool at Bricket Wood (after a recent expensive refurbishment) and build a leisure centre with a smaller pool does not make sense.

Well before the debt incurred in building a new leisure centre has been paid off, a new council will be repeating similar arguments to justify replacing the facilities with a 50-metre pool.

This will almost certainly be needed as the council is forced to accept more housing in the area.

Although some of the new facilities shown in Options 1 and 2 in the public display may be desirable, is it wise to concentrate them all in the same area of the district or move them from where they have already been operating satisfactorily for several years?

If the proposals go ahead it is almost certain that, due to financial constraints, Option 1 would be favoured without the sports hall - which is apparently optional on cost grounds.

When compared however with the footprint of the existing building on the plans there is very little difference in area. Whatever would be the advantage of spending so much money to swop one type of leisure building with another of similar size?

Apart from objections 20 months ago to build a 25-metre pool instead of a 50-metre pool, there so far seems to have been very little comment from the general public on the proposals for Westminster Lodge and it is encouraging that despite the control of the council by the Lib-Dems, the Labour group remains objective and has attempted to highlight the shortcomings of the proposals. What are the views of the Conservative group?


Archers Fields

St Albans

SIR - While I fully support the continuance of a swimming and leisure complex at Westminster Lodge for the well being of all age groups, I have been a member of the Abbey Theatre group for 25 years, and to my amazement and dismay, on viewing the "plans", there was only a shaded shape, and title, showing the Abbey Theatre, cowering out of view behind the proposed site.

There are many different age groups who work, rehearse and visit there, from youth theatre and music groups, to elderly and physically disabled audience members, to learning-disabled like the wonderful Butterwick group who incidentally attend every week (and have just performed Peter Pan, after many enjoyable rehearsals).

The theatre is open all the year round except August, and access obviously has to be easy for all users including the set-makers, painters, etc., who prepare our shows.

However it doesn't look too easy on the plan. If and when the new building is started, right in front of the theatre, our attendances would surely be affected, we would be in trouble, and many young groups would be deeply disappointed.

Perhaps the council could explain the anticipated cost of the new proposal, and why the refurbishment can not be done in situ.

The Abbey Theatre is an asset to the community, and looks to be under threat from this proposal.


Tippendell Lane

St Albans

Sir - I would like to clarify a number of points regarding the redevelopment of Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre, following correspondence in your newspaper over the last few weeks.

Firstly, in response to suggestions that Westminster Lodge should be refurbished rather than redeveloped. The council has studied all options, as you would expect, and redevelopment emerges as by far the better option to provide value for money for the local community.

The current building is reaching the end of its useful life and has a number of inherent problems. The facilities are limited and those that we do have are dated and would require significant investment just to maintain them in their current condition, let alone provide modern and attractive facilities. The current building footprint would also constrain the development of the range of facilities that we would like to provide in the future. I do not believe that the facilities provided by local authorities should be 'second best'.

Energy efficiency of the current plant is extremely poor. As technology has advanced significantly since the Centre was built in the early 1970s, we are left effectively 'heating the sky'. Refurbishment, rather than redevelopment, would also mean that the centre would have to be closed for months, if not years, while work was carried out causing significant disruption to all users.

We are seeking to create an impressive new leisure facility for the residents of St Albans District, one that is energy efficient, makes best use of sustainable materials and the latest technology, is cost effective and has facilities that our community rightly expects and deserves. In short, a facility to match the growing aspirations of the community.

My second point is regarding the timing of the project and the council's commitment to maintaining momentum. The current schedule allows the Council to tender for construction next spring. Because market conditions are favourable, we would hope to be able to secure a very competitive price from the tenders submitted. This is a responsible way of maximising taxpayers' money.

We have had over 500 responses to the recent consultation so far, which is extremely encouraging. We have also consulted the parish councils and with many user groups. The number of people using the Leisure Centres during the consultation period in July and August has been at its highest since the launch of the free swimming initiative in April.

We will continue to take on board all constructive feedback offered, as we shape this exciting new facility over the coming months.

Cllr Sheila Burton

Portfolio Holder for Sport and Healthy Living

St Albans City and District Council