Last week, some odd news began to circulate about the future of Walsall Wood’s leisure centre, Oak Park. On the 21st October 2009, there was a slightly alarmist piece on excellent Walsall news site The YamYam, and on the same day a report appeared in the printed edition of the Express & Star, which somewhat unfortunately, I neglected to scan. The E&S article was more measured in tone, but still suggested that there was some kind of legal threat to the facility which could well cause issues in the future. The problem was caused by the construction of the leisure centre on land held in trust for the community by Cannock Chase and Pelsall District Miners Charity, who entreated the park to the community in 1932, with a caveat that it shouldn’t be built upon, but used for the benefit of the inhabitants of the area. The fact of the centre’s construction, along with the adjacent football club and a small piece of land sold to the nearby Methodist church in the 1970’s have come come to the attention of the Charities Commission who are not entirely amused. The full picture is outlined in this document presented to the Walsall Council Cabinet meeting on the 21st October 2009.
When I read these reports, I was both concerned and perplexed. The future of leisure centres and other such facilities is already under ‘review’ in the borough, as I pointed out in a previous post, and I wondered if this was a general move towards conditioning the community for the loss of a well loved but ageing amenity. It sits in a huge amount of what must be very valuable land and is now just over the road from a Fitness First gym, seemingly making it ripe for the axe.
I was contacted by a number of readers who were as concerned as I was at this sudden revelation, so without further ado, I requested a statement from the Council Press Office. I asked the ever-helpful Dan Slee if he could obtain a response to the following questions:
- Exactly what stage we’re at here, is there a threat or is it sorted?
- How come this wasn’t addressed when WMBC sold the land for the KFC and the court case that ensued?
- If there has been a land swap, exactly what land has been swapped?
- What will be done with any land swapped?
- Is this a technical paper shuffling thing or a serious threat?
- Why, exactly, has this blown up now when there’s already a review underway into the facility’s future?
- If the land was covenanted for the community, why on earth would there be an objection to three community facilities operating on the land (Leisure centre, football club and church)?
A week elapsed, and after a bit of prodding, today (28th October 2009) I received a statement from Natalie Greenway at the council – apparently the delay was a result of having to run the response past the legal bods, whom I fear may be paid by the hour. Here’s what they have to say:
Councillor Barry Sanders, Walsall Council cabinet member for leisure and culture, said: “Recently we reached agreement with the Charity Commission about a complex and longstanding land ownership issue.
“We would like to reassure residents and users that this issue does not pose a threat to the future of Oak Park leisure centre.
“Dealing with questions that have been raised, KFC in Lichfield Road was developed on a different parcel of land from that in question. This was council and not Trust land.
“A small piece of open space adjacent to the Leisure Centre site is being swapped for the land currently occupied by the Leisure Centre, the Football Club and the car park.
“Trust land being transferred to the Council will be managed, as at present, by the council’s leisure services team.
“The Council is complying with the requirements of the Charity Commission in particular the restrictions that Trust land can not be built on, sold or used as anything other than as open recreation land.
“This is entirely separate, wholly unrelated and has no bearing on our review of leisure facilities across the borough.
“The fact is Trust land is subject to certain restrictions which prevent any development, sale or its use as anything other than open recreational ground.”
The statement is clear that there is no threat from the Charities Commission and that a settlement with them has been reached. I can’t find any online verification, but I seem to recall that the legal tussle over the KFC development at the front of Oak Park was over an access road running over trust land. I could well be wrong, and please do correct me if I am, but I still find it surprising that there were legal issues over that, yet the existence of the leisure centre itself (on whose car park the restaurant was being built) was never mentioned. I’d still like to know why this came to the attention of the Charities Commission in the first instance.
The fact remains that the veiled threat of closure still exists. No facility is safe – unless it’s a golf course, that is – so I recommend that anyone concerned by the erosion of leisure services contacts their councillors and partipates in the following survey, a press release about which was coincidentally sent from the Walsall Council press office today:
Residents in Walsall are being asked what they think about the borough’s open spaces, sport and recreation facilities. The council has launched a major consultation to capture people’s views on leisure centres, parks, allotments, nature areas, woodlands, sports pitches and children’s play areas. They are also inviting residents to comment about the borough’s cemeteries during the consultation which ends on 30 November.
The council wants to know
* What you think about the facilities and open space you use
* Whether there are enough in your local area
* If these are of a high quality
* Reasons why you use, or do not use them
* Your priorities – what facilities would you like for the future?
Cabinet member for leisure and culture Councillor Barry Sanders said: “The results of this research will help us shape future plans and will be used to support decisions about improving services.”
Giving us your views is easy:
Call FREEPHONE 0800 169 5549 between 9am and 5pm Monday – Friday.
Online, visit: www.strategicleisure.co.uk/walsall.htm and complete a questionnaire
Send your views by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Remember, if we don’t make our views heard, we may lose what we have. Generations of kids have learned to swim in that pool, it would be tragic if we lost it in the same way as the unfortunate residents of Coseley lost theirs. In an area such as this, full of pools and canals, swimming isn’t just recreation, it’s a lifesaver.
Since our local Councillor Mike Flower has tentatively started blogging again, it would be good to hear his views on the subject.Thanks go to Dan Slee, without whose patience this post could not have been made.