By Stuart Coull –
Consternation was in the air at the monthly community council meeting last Tuesday (April 11), when councillors debated the issue of proposed upgrades to Stonehaven Leisure Centre, and their perceived lack of value for money.
Concern was raised in the town last month after Live Life Aberdeenshire (LLA) – Aberdeenshire Council’s Sports and Culture Services Division – unveiled the details of a £1.4 million package of upgrades for the ageing Leisure Centre, following a participatory budgeting exercise with the people of Stonehaven.
The planned improvements to the 1985-built structure consist of an extension to the dance studio and gym, an accessible (PAMIS) changing room / toilet and new windows to give enhanced lighting to the pool area. A separate council budget will be used to upgrade the Leisure Centre’s changing rooms at a later date.
Stonehaven Community Sports Hub members and community councillors do not believe the investment is good value for money, but LLA carries the mandate of the public vote, which previously selected Leisure Centre upgrades and expansion as their desired option.
This issue is due to be debated by the Kincardine and Mearns Area Committee when it convenes next week (Tuesday, April 25). There, Aberdeenshire Councillors will decide whether to rubber stamp the plans, turn them down, or go on a site visit. But, if that meeting is anything like last Tuesday night’s community council gathering, fireworks will be in the offing.
During an intense, hour-long, debate, Jackie Bruce and Annette Lees of the Stonehaven Community Sports Hub, members of the community council and public visitors made their feelings clear to the Aberdeenshire Councillors in attendance – Sarah Dickinson, Alan Turner and Wendy Agnew.
After all the debate, community councillors resolved to put a question to Aberdeenshire Council’s LLA, with wording to the effect of:
“We accept the outcome of the vote that the money should be spent on the Leisure Centre. But we would like to enable negotiations to take place to see if we can improve on what is being proposed.”
Before that was agreed, Jackie Bruce, Vice Chair of Stonehaven Community Sports Hub and Chairperson of Panthers Basketball Club, opened up the discussion. She had prepared a powerpoint presentation of the upgrades in terms of changes to the floorspace from a bird’s eye view. In her discussions she said she had worked out the extension would cost £20,000 per square metre.
She said: “This is how little we are getting for £1.4 million. You’ve got an existing corridor of 1.8m wide. There’s going to be a proposed extension of 3.2m wide. But this proposed plan will also see a newly created corridor of 1.8m wide. So that 3.2m extension includes a 1.8m wide corridor. The proposed new dance studio is 86 square metres, but the current gym is 89 square metres, so we are actually losing 3 square metres.
“The current general purpose (GP) room is 31 square metres, and the proposed new gym is 110 square metres. The increase in space comes from the reception area. You can’t play badminton in a corridor. You can’t play basketball in two storage areas.
“Worse than that we still don’t have access to any storage facilities as groups or clubs in Stonehaven, to either the existing or proposed storage areas. The hub has been offered a storage container to sit outside somewhere.”
Ms Bruce said she had considered the plans and she suggested that a simple partition wall could provide the same result, in terms of space, as the proposed package of upgrades. She added: “We need to stop and have a sense check before we spend £1.4 million.”
Noting that the size of the extension was equivalent to “a couple of rooms in a big house”, Community Council Chair David Lawman said: “On paper it’s a very small increase in space for a significant amount of money.
“There are a couple of other things which were picked up during some of the correspondence and feedback and investigation done by The Bellman, where they had a PAMIS changing room. Speaking to the people involved in designing these, they tell us the equipment itself to furnish one of these has an average cost of £13,000. Back in 2019 – and I appreciated costs will have gone up – the average cost to build or adapt a building to fit one of these out was £25,000 – £45,000. So why have the council budgeted £350,000 for that?
“There is just no confidence in the community that we are getting value for money.”
Aberdeenshire Councillor Sarah Dickinson said that due process had been followed and this should be taken into account. She said: “My understanding is that the councillors were not sitting on the reference group. We were not party to that, we were kept insulated from it. However there were community representatives. So you have a reference group and theres an opportunity to participate. That is good practice for the community participatory budgeting process, involving the community from day one and getting that smaller group to sit through the many options that were put up as being possibilities, and then to agree on what to present to the community.
“You also had a process and you had a town that was involved in voting in a particular way in relation to that process.”
Councillor Dickinson also encouraged members to think beyond the floor plan of the upgrades.
She said: “I take the point that you are making – no question – about the amount of floor space. But you also have got all the new equipment. When it comes to that PAMIS toilet element and that £350k. If you’re taking that sum of money from the separate option, which was a PAMIS toilet and an enhanced reception area, the entire cost of the PAMIS toilet on that basis was never £350k, it was £350k and a significantly enlarged and accessible reception area.
“It is not in the council’s interest to not give good value for money. I don’t know why you would think that’s the case. Until I’m sitting down with concrete information about whats been voted and exactly how those figures break down I will know better. But I don’t have that information to look at right now.
“I have no interest in seeing your money wasted. Anyone who knows me knows that. I do not want to see this opportunity wasted. Equally I do not start with the premise that the council is setting out to waste your money.”
Annette Lees, Chair of the Community Sports Hub, said: “I am in full agreement with Councillor Dickinson. I don’t believe the council has intentionally set out to waste money. However I also sat on the participatory reference group, and from the very start my understanding was that it was very clear that this money was to be utilised to develop new things in the community, or bring something new to the community.
“Looking at what we’ve got, I 100% agree with Jackie – I cant see us gaining anything new. We are not getting anything more than we already have. These are just general upkeep and general maintenance. These should not be part of a new project budget.”
Aberdeenshire Councillor Wendy Agnew said: “Around the Leisure Centre there is a problem with ops and drainage, which could add to the cost. I do know that there are councillors trying to stop this. But I don’t understand that, because this is for Stonehaven and for the Leisure Centre. That Leisure Centre is not fit for purpose. It’s too small.
“I wouldn’t say that the council wastes money. I would say they checked all the contracts and they took the cheapest contract that was the best value. The council doesn’t waste their money. The problem is, since that happened, I think, prices have soared – theres no question about that.”
Aberdeenshire Councillor Alan Turner said: “From what I’ve seen from one year sitting on the infrastructure committee, is that costs do significantly go up sadly on a lot of the stuff that is done by the council. You do see the stuff coming back that was taken on with good intentions. Various costs do escalate and they seem to cost significantly more. Whether that’s due to concrete prices, or whether that’s just due to getting labour and getting people to do the work, cos they are all tied up.
“I can get whats going on in terms of the costs here. It doesn’t remove the scrutiny.”
Community Councillor Alistair Lawrie said: “We need a breakdown to determine where the money is being spent. If it has to be spent, then it has to be spent. There really does need to be a clarity about what the money is being spent on and what it is being used for. Then it will be possible for us to bang our cans about what we think about it – because at the moment I’m not certain that I can.”
Community Councillor Jim Stephen had some stern words for the whole Leisure Centre process.
He said: “I think we were cheated right at the very beginning, where this vote to spend the money on the Leisure Centre. The money should have come 10 years ago for these improvements. We can’t go backwards, I appreciate that. But to get to where we are now I feel really let down.
“For me, this £1.4m should have been spent on another sport, another group, another facility in the town. Because that is basic maintenance that the council are obliged to do, and it should have been done 10 years ago.
“The Leisure Centre was built in 1985 and there has been no investment put into it. Not even a container out the back for storage. When we lost the Green Pavilion, we lost the groups. The judo club left because they couldn’t get support or storage. They were told that all these groups were going to get facilitated through the town, and through the schools. Well guess what – the schools are not open anymore. Since we lost the Green Hut and the groups in there, nothing really has been done, apart from a container? Is that what it all comes down to?
“This goes back further. To finally get investment in the Leisure Centre, from a community council point of view, and the point of view of the community groups, we have to push back. The Councillors have made valid points, I’m listening to what you are saying.
“But a dumpling could look at that slide show and see that we are not getting £1.4 million.”
Community Councillor Ian Hunter noted that the participatory process has not worked. He said: “The community council was in full consultation at the start of this process. If that’s the case, where did it go wrong? Has this been mis-sold by being given the wrong information? Has the community made the wrong decision? Where exactly has it gone wrong?
“This is supposed to be an extension, and was supposed to have given the community the opportunity to all vote and come up with exactly what they wanted. But you can see here tonight that it hasn’t worked. We have obviously got to have a different way that the process works.
“One of the problems here is that it was just an outline that they were going to improve the leisure centre. What we are learning is that we need far more detail before we vote and get into this process.”
Alistair Lawrie echoed this view but struck a conciliatory tone. He said: “This is a learning experience for the process of extending democracy, participatory budgeting and us playing our part in it. I don’t think we were aware and the authority wasn’t aware that there needed to be vastly more detail before any decisions were made.
“But I’d also like to say that it’s a bit unfair to criticise them for not asking people what they wanted. They did an extensive campaign asking people what they wanted. What they got was largely what was presented back to people. We can’t criticise them for that either.
“Perhaps the way in which they did it needs to be examined. I think this is an example of something undertaken with good will, which has not turned out as it was hoped. We need to learn from that if we’re going to carry on doing these things.”
Chair David Lawman retorted: “It’s a very expensive learning curve if we’re spending £1.4m.”
Community Sports Hub Chair Annette Lees suggested implementing simple partition wall and using the money to extend the Games Hall. She said: “If Jackie’s proposal to have a partition wall built to still enable us to have the dance studio and an increased gym we should do that. Then utilise the money to extend the games hall and double the size of the storage capacity, that would then make the games hall at least fit for purpose whereby at least then you could host a badminton tournament, a basketball match, National League netball match or indoor tennis. Currently the hall is not big enough for any of these things.
“So the money would be better spent if it is committed to the Leisure Centre – put a partition wall in, give us what they’re proposing we have on the plan, and extend the Games Hall and double the size of the storage.”
However, Chair David Lawman, highlighted the fact that Aberdeenshire Council could be too far into their process to turn back now. He said: “We have received a response from Life, Live, Aberdeenshire. We posed the question, could we consider pausing the process? The response was ‘No – we gave too many commitments’.”
It was at this point in the evening that the forum turned to the idea of accepting the general proposal of upgrading the Leisure Centre, but asking the Council if they could squeeze out better value for money.
Ian Hunter said: “What if we make a proposal to LLA that we accept the output that the money is to be spent on the Leisure Centre, but we would like to review how it is spent within the Leisure Centre?”
But Aberdeenshire Councillor Alan Turner was unsure if this was possible. He said: “I’m not sure you can do that. Theres got to be deadlines on that funding. There has been design work, front end work etc. There were other ideas on the table and they all take time to get worked up. It all costs money and takes effort and may take longer than what is specifically available.
“My advice is quite simple. We all want to get the best value. What I’m concerned about is, the more you spend on planning, physically there will be a deadline on funding. What you are actually saying here tonight is that stuff that should have happened over a year ago.”
The community councillors then discussed whether the design could be modified. David Lawman expressed fears the money could be lost if the plans not accepted in its current form and “we might just have to run with it.”
Sarah Dickinson said the plan for any applications had to be submitted and approved by December 2022, and the spend had to be during this financial year, January to December 2023.
Mr Lawman added: “Our backs are up against the wall. But I think we have to ask the question (about modifying the plans). We can’t just walk away and then just say ‘well ok’.”
At this point, Jackie Bruce reinforced her feelings on the matter: “This is just not right under any circumstances to spend this amount of money on this. If you put up a partition wall you will get the same results. Then that money could roll down to the next projects on the list. It’s not that the money is going to be lost and we can’t ever get it back. But we should not be spending this money on this. It is a waste of money for no benefit.”
The idea of turning the proposals down was floated, and it was thought that next most developed project that could benefit from the money is a BMX project in Stonehaven.
Steering the debate towards its conclusion, Ian Hunter said: “Well the it simply distils down to going to LLA and see if theres any possibility for a challenge. Its either that, or accept what we’ve got.”
Addressing the Aberdeenshire Councillors present, David Lawman said: “The people that take this forward to the next level of democracy are our local councillors. They will need to take the viewpoint of the community council and the groups here. It’s a hard question to ask you, but at the end of the day that’s where we are.”
Sarah Dickinson foresaw some difficulties with SDCC’s course of action, saying: “I don’t know what the legalities are of what you are asking. There was engagement with the town, a process was followed and there has been an outcome. And I know that with respect to other conversations that have been going on with the tennis club; the issue with that is what is the legal position around making a change.
“It was put in front of the town, they voted for one thing and now we are potentially suggesting something else. I take on board that there are questions to ask and there are answers to come back. If we were to proceed with the Leisure centre, is there a way to do it differently, in the spirit of what people voted for, but which addresses the storage issue?”
Jim Stephen said: “Maybe these points should have, could have been brought up a year ago. But it’s not until someone has taken a look at the plans, like Jackie, and thought, we could get more value for money here.
“The reason I would push to ask the question is, now we have got this £1.4 million, that means that we have got zero chance of getting any more funding for the Leisure Centre. And it means we’ve got no chance of getting a new Leisure Centre – period – for another 10 or 20 years.
“Basically we should get as much as we can out of this – ask the question. There’s no harm in asking, but it needs to be the right question.”