Leisure Centre Spend Scandal

leisure centre, swings and open air pool

ABERDEENSHIRE Council bosses are stonewalling questions over a £1.4 million Stonehaven Leisure Centre investment bringing no more than a PAMIS Changing Places toilet, a small gym extension and – some windows.

An ‘upgrade’ to Stonehaven leisure centre was the winning project in last year’s participatory budgeting exercise aimed at bringing much-needed additional leisure facilities to the facility-starved town.

Many residents voting for the leisure centre option may have done so thinking it included a new changing village. If so, they were victims of what can only be described as mis-selling by the local authority. At a local place plan meeting this week, our Sports Hub member waved a red flag alerting it did not.

Now, the whole participatory budget process is so mired in apparent misdirection, lack of transparency and questionable value it leaves many questions begging for answers.

Why were the changing rooms even mentioned in the bid descriptions?

Participatory budgeting money may only be spent on capital projects delivering new amenities. Making changing rooms fit for purpose is repair and maintenance and must be done from a separate budget. This has been confirmed by Aberdeenshire Council.

A Live Life Aberdeenshire spokesperson said: “Throughout the participatory budgeting exercise we indicated that the refurbishment of the changing rooms at Stonehaven Leisure Centre would require to be funded from alternative budget sources. We then identified £200,000 in funding from Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure 2 Fund for this particular aspect of the project.”

This was ‘indicated’ using small print to clarify the project description in a manner not appearing to meet standards required in advertising.

Elsewhere, the improvement to changing rooms was included in the narrative of press releases issued by Live Life Aberdeenshire published in The Bellman and presumably other press outlets.

Tess White MSP told The Bellman: ”Serious concerns have been raised with me about this project, including the consultation process. I am looking into this further with the Council.”

Cllr Dawn Black said: ”While I totally support the principal of Participatory Budgeting, bringing the decisions on budget spending to the local community, I am very dissatisfied with the process as it has transpired in Stonehaven. What the people of the town voted for is not all what it was made out to be and had they had been better informed they may have made a different decision. ”

Are we getting value for money?

Cllr Black added: ”What we are now presented with, though a vast improvement in quality on what we currently have at the tired 1980s Leisure Centre is not transformative and gives the community nothing that we do not already have.

”Our local sporting and recreation groups are crying out for additional facilities such is the demand for spaces and I know that they feel let down. It is hugely disappointing and I hope that lessons will be learned by Aberdeenshire Council on future PB exercises.”

A planning department report describes the extension stating: ”The gym and existing general purpose (GP) room would be combined and extended by 54sqm in order to accommodate a 110sqm gym area and a new 86sqm dance studio. ”

So, with a top line of £1.4 million and a Changing Places toilet costed at £350,000, the swimming pool windows and 54sqm of added space are costing £1.05 million.

Stonehaven and District Community Council chairman David Lawman said: ”It is very concerning to hear about the points being raised in relation to the Stonehaven Participatory Budgeting project, especially the relatively small improvements being made to the Leisure Centre considering the significant sums of money (£1.4 Million) involved. Surely there must be better options available to ensure the community of Stonehaven get a better bang for our money.”

Jackie Bruce from Sports Scotland Community Sports Hub added: “As members of Stonehaven Community Sports Hub, we consistently objected to the proposed Stonehaven Leisure Centre upgrades, as this option provided little additional space for a significant spend – 54 m2 for £1.4M!

”Now that detailed plans are available, I would encourage Aberdeenshire Council to immediately stop any further progress and have our elected members review the plans with members of the public and community groups.

Stonehaven is in desperate need of “new” fit for purpose sports and leisure facilities. The planned upgrade falls way short and indeed represents a significant waste of public money.”

She added”The planned increased floor space to Stonehaven Leisure Centre could be achieved by a simple partition wall in the reception area at a fraction of the proposed cost. Not to mention the unnecessary windows into the swimming pool and dance studio. This is such a disappointing outcome from what should have been an amazing opportunity for the community.”

Does a PAMIS Changing Places toilet really cost £350,000?

Saying changing rooms can be refurbished for £200,000 brings obvious questions about the Council’s £350,000 cost attributed to the PAMIS Changing Places toilet.

A spokesperson for PAMIS (Promoting A More Inclusive Society) told The Bellman: ”The average cost of the equipment is around £13,000 depending on whether the equipment chosen is high spec of minimum standard.”

Clearly there are other costs attendant to a project and these will vary depending on whether it is for a new build or a retrofit. The spokesperson added the Scottish Government Building Standards Division ran a consultation in 2019 – before changing building standards to make it mandatory to include a changing places toilet in certain sized public buildings.

”The average cost quoted in the consultation paper was £35,000 – £45,000 total including everything,” she said.

Was a Changing Place toilet a statutory requirement?

Note the above-mentioned change to building standards. The PAMIS website provides further information.

Since May 2020, and the Planning (Scotland) Act update, planning applications for large, public buildings in Scotland are required to include a Changing Places toilet. Leisure centres are included in the list of buildings.

If this facility was not an option for upgrades at the leisure centre but a statutory requirement, where was the transparency in this matter?

Cllr Sarah Dickinson said: ”I completely recognise the significance of these questions and will be seeking answers as it is very important there is trust in the process and outcomes.”

Do Aberdeenshire Council bosses think they are answerable?

Apparently not. Questions were put to Aberdeenshire Council yesterday (Friday). Most were raised early in the day, with additional requests made later in the day. In a situation where an entire community may have been poorly served, a response was requested not just from the usual unidentified spokesperson, but from the Live Life Aberdeenshire head of service.

The buck does not stop there. With the quality and nature of such processes being fundamental to the service standards of a local authority – a comment from CEO Jim Savege was requested.

Meanwhile, a local authority is obligated by statute to deliver best value, and must appoint an accountable officer who is answerable to Holyrood.

The Scottish Government website states: ”The essence of the Accountable Officer’s role is a personal responsibility for the propriety and regularity of the finances under their stewardship and for the economic, efficient and effective use of all related resources.”

So comment from this officer was also requested.

The Bellman’s last update was at about 3pm when a communications officer assured us of his efforts to get a response – none has been forthcoming,

Noun

Potemkin village (plural Potemkin villages)

  1. (idiomatic) Any false construct devised to disguise a shortcoming or improve appearances.