In 1995 Labour won control of Lichfield District Council for the first time. Coming from a next-door Labour Council it was somewhat surprising to find that committee reports had no agenda (you had to read through the reports to get the headings) there was no “environmental impact” report in the proposals and recycling was at less than one per cent. Burntwood Leisure Centre had roof leaks and clearly needed replacing.
District Council housing was a disgrace.
The biggest issue however was the very poor state of the Council’s housing stock which had been neglected over the years.
In one term we changed all that getting recycling up to the government target of 25% with the introduction, first in the county, of kerbside recycling. At the end of our term, we bid and won a grant for replacing our Leisure Centre. We also took the bold step of balloting council tenants on transferring them to a new Lichfield Housing Association – the only way we believed we get could the investment needed under the Conservative Government’s rules. They supported this and started to get better maintenance and central heating!
Friarsgate planned at the beginning of the millennium – yes, really.
The Conservatives won back control in 1999 and the following year the Conservatives started planning Friarsgate in Lichfield City.
Obviously, people can vote against the Conservatives because of the government and the cost of living crisis or their behaviour in government.
Or because of the MP for Lichfield and Burntwood who is more interested in asking questions in Parliament about Wales and the West Midlands Mayor than on behalf of his constituents.. And last week he failed to ask if the Health Minister believed it was right for the Intergrated Care Board to close Burntwood Health and Wellbeing Centre – and force nearly 5ooo patients to go to other GP practices in the town – before a replacement is built!
Or because of Friarsgate, the delay in Climate Emergency action or the roll out of the blue bags or the wasted £118,000 trying to sell land without following the legislation, or the pothole plague or increased council tax.
At the Audit and Standards Committee at LDC on Thursday Councillor Alan White referred to the Francis Inquiry, he called it a “Review”, and, contrasting it to this Committee said:
“When a scrutiny committee didn’t know the right questions to ask and its defence was it didn’t know the right questions to ask. It doesn’t wash.”
I can only think he was referring to the Staffordshire Health Scrutiny Committee chaired by his fellow County and Lichfield District Council colleague, Janet Eagland.
On the 15th of May 2009 I wrote to the then Leader at the time asking him to replace her after she was interviewed.
I write to you because of the remarks given in evidence to the Mid Staffordshire Inquiry on the 25th January by Councillor Matthew Ellis. He was speaking about Health Scrutiny (though no one can remember him ever attending a meeting).
On page 27 of the transcript the Chairman, Robert Francis QC asks him: “So you don’t see a role for the leaders of the council, yourself included, collectively to ensure that what you would see as being the appropriate degree of challenge of outside bodies takes place, even if failing to do so affects the citizens you represent?”
Cllr Ellis replies: “At the end of the day, it’s the leader that appoints the individuals that lead scrutiny committees.”
A few lines later the Chairman says “I imagine that you would step in, collectively, and do something about that.”
Cllr Ellis replies: “I would certainly hope that the leader of the council would step in and do something about it, yes.”
And here I come to the reason for my letter. I am asking you to remove Councillor Janet Eagland from the Chair of the Health Scrutiny Committee following her evidence – or lack of it – at the same Inquiry on last Tuesday.
I am sure you will have read the transcript by now and like me, Cure the NHS and others have been appalled by her performance.
Besides the amnesia suffered by the Chair of the Health Scrutiny Committee resulting in her being unable to comment on anything at all under her responsibility there were two particularly shocking admissions.
The first, on page 70 of the transcript, is where she is asked by Mr Kark: “Do you get any of the data in relation to complaints at the moment?” To which Cllr Eagland says: “No.” and when pressed further on this issue says: “No, I haven’t, but it’s no – we could put it on our work programme.”
The second is just a few lines later in the transcript when the Chairman has to intervene because she says that (in relation to the current Chief Executive and Chairman of the hospital) that she hopes “we’re getting an honest and truthful answer.”
The Chairman says: “Mrs Eagland, I come back again, you’ve just told me that you now think that you were duped, your word, by the previous chief Executive and chair, and you’re telling us and the public that you now rely on people’s honesty.”
Cllr Eagland answers, “Yes”.
This is pursued by the Chairman who points out (on page 72) “But isn’t it a lesson to learn from that that it’s not enough to rely on what you’re told? If you have a duty of scrutiny, that it’s not enough to reply on what you’re told?”
I have to say that along with Stafford Borough Council’s Health Scrutiny witnesses the reputation of scrutiny in the County is now greatly damaged.
You will remember that under the Labour Administration Staffordshire County Council had a national reputation for good scrutiny practice. I, along with the excellent Scrutiny Managers we had at the council, were invited to take part in seminars and presentation at other local authorities and other organisations and conferences. This may have been because, contrary to what Cllr Ellis said in his evidence, Labour Party rules mean that the Scrutiny Chairs and Vice Chairs have to be elected by the Group as a whole.
In this case I agree with Cllr Ellis, and ask that you now take action for the sake of residents in the County and for the County’s reputation itself by removing the current Chair of health Scrutiny.
Finally you will recall that – admittedly in opposition – you, and your Deputy Leader, Ian Parry, said that the Chairs of the Scrutiny Committees should be held by opposition members and not by the controlling group. Will you now carry out that promise?
Cllr Steven Norman
She was replaced shortly afterwards. – but the Opposition was not given the Chair roles.
“Without further Government support a November survey by Ukactive showed that 40 per cent of council areas will likely see leisure centres close or services reduce before 31 March 2023. Three quarters (74 per cent) of council areas are classified as ‘unsecure’, meaning there is risk of closure or reduced services before 31 March 2024“ Local Government Association.
Just over five years ago when the District Council awarded Freedom Leisure the contract the then Cabinet Member for Leisure, now Deputy Leader, Iain Eadie said:
“Where Freedom has taken over the operation of leisure centres in other areas of the country, such as Wrexham and Arun, participation levels have gone up, significant investment into the facilities has taken place, and local communities have responded well to the wider opportunities to live healthier, more active lifestyles, and to make the most of their leisure time.”
I hope to find out tomorrow when Cllr Wilcox and I meet with the Chief Executive over the issue. Why wasn’t the same action taken by LDC as Wrexham, Arun and many other councils have done? It seems a sudden decision withour going through the proper Scrutiny process. After all the Committee met only 11 days ago to discuss the Council’s finances for the year ahead.
The full text of the letter from Local Government Leaders to Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove is below.
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt Chancellor of the Exchequer HM Treasury 1 Horse Guards Road London SW1A 2HQ
Rt Hon Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling up, housing and communities (DLUHC) DLUHC 2 Marsham Street London SW1P 4DF
Cc Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
Cc Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
23 January 2023
Dear Chancellor and Secretary of State,
Urgent support for public sport and leisure through crisis and transformation
We write as the lead organisations representing local authorities in England. Our members are responsible for the country’s public sport and leisure infrastructure, which is facing an extraordinary financial crisis due to the ongoing impacts from COVID-19, the cost of living and the energy crisis. In light of these pressures, we have significant concerns about the decision to exclude swimming pools and leisure centres from the list of sectors eligible for extra support under the Energy and Trade Intensive Industries scheme and the Energy Bills Discount Scheme.
Since 2019, evidence from our leisure providers shows energy bills have risen by 300 per cent. During the pandemic councils across the country invested £159 million to keep facilities afloat, alongside £144 million of provider reserves, and in addition to the Government’s welcome £100 million national leisure recovery fund. This money now risks being wasted if we allow these facilities to close. At the close of this letter we set out three clear actions Government can take.
This is not a call for a hand-out. Councils and their partners have been working together to transform facilities into assets fit to meet the challenges of the future, whether co-locating with GP surgeries to create wellness hubs, retrofitting with solar panels and heat pumps, or energy-efficient newbuilds that boost participation and cost less to run. Many Levelling Up Fund bids from councils are aimed at continuing this transformation and Government has chosen to invest in many of these bids. But if council-run and commissioned facilities, including Trusts and Community Interest Companies (CiCs), close because of unaffordable running costs, these transformations will not happen and a core plank of the levelling up approach will fail. (See annex for case studies)
Without further Government support a November survey by Ukactive showed that 40 per cent of council areas will likely see leisure centres close or services reduce before 31 March 2023. Three quarters (74 per cent) of council areas are classified as ‘unsecure’, meaning there is risk of closure or reduced services before 31 March 2024. Many provider contracts also have legally binding schedules that transfer the risk of energy price increases to their local authority meaning pressures will likely come to a head at the end of this financial year, affecting council budgets for 2023/24.
Facility closures will undermine the Government’s commitment to support vulnerable communities, protect vital public services, tackle inequalities and grow the economy.
Leisure centres and swimming pools are more than a lifestyle choice, they are a vital service because:
They provide affordable opportunities for communities to be active and healthy with 8.9 million users annually and 165 million unique visits; and are especially important for users in more deprived areas, where data tells us users prefer to exercise in a leisure centre over other informal settings.
People’s health and wellbeing, and therefore NHS performance relies on leisure facilities. Leisure centres deliver two thirds of cancer rehabilitation services and 79 per cent of social prescribing initiatives. Swimming alone saves health system £357 million per year according to research by Sheffield Hallam University and Swim England.
Seventy-two per cent of schools use public swimming pools to deliver their statutory responsibility for learn to swim and the water safety curriculum. And 75 per cent of grassroots sports clubs rely on public leisure centres to operate.
Being physically active prevents many serious physical and mental health conditions, calculated to save £9.5 billion per year (Sport England). Of this amount, £5.2 billion is in healthcare savings and £1.7 billion is in social care savings, while a further £20 billion of value comes from stronger and safer communities.
They provide an estimated 585,000 jobs in the UK, in particular offering career opportunities for young people who make up a large proportion of the paid workforce: 45 per cent are aged 16-24 and 21 per cent are aged 25-34.
Many councils have commissioned out leisure services helping to deliver improved outcomes. 94 per cent of councils report using leisure centres in schemes to tackle health inequalities and 97 per cent of councils and leisure providers wish to commission these services to do more. Recent health economics research shows that an increase in healthy life expectancy by 3.7 years could be achieved over a decade if leisure centres were used to deliver a national physical activity improvement scheme (DCN). Leisure providers have done a sterling job delivering these outcomes; providers operate on small profit margins, ploughing money back into the service to support communities, but this has left them vulnerable and unable to do more.
The failure to identify support for the sector will be the final straw for certain facilities and services across the country – especially for swimming pools, which cannot be replaced by limited private sector provision and where Sport England data shows swimmers do not transfer to another form of activity. Leisure, sport and swimming pool closures on a national level will unequivocally damage our national health, the economy and will increase pressure on the health service. Action taken now will be far more cost-effective and will prevent costly knock-on impacts for society and the public purse in the long-term.
We therefore urge the Government to act swiftly with three key measures:
Reclassify pools and leisure centres as energy intensive in the Energy Bills Discount Scheme so they can access the higher level of energy price discount.
Set out what tangible support it will provide to the wider sector – including gyms and sports facilities – to help navigate the energy crisis across 2023 so that service restrictions and facility closures can be minimised.
Set out a “plan for the growth” for the sector by aligning the proposed new Sports Strategy with the Spring Budget to unlock the potential of the sector to support the economic, health, and social wellbeing of the nation.
Our members stand ready to work in partnership with Government to prevent further closures and accelerate our progress towards a sustainable leisure network.
Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson Chair, Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, Local Government Association and Leader, Portsmouth City Council
Professor Jim McManus President, Association of Directors of Public Health
Mo Baines Chief Executive, Association for Public Service Excellence
Councillor Linda Taylor County Councils Network Unitary Spokesperson and Leader, Cornwall Council
Debbie Kaye Chair, Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association
Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen Chairman, District Councils’ Network and Leader, Breckland Council
Councillor Elizabeth Campbell Executive member for London’s Future: Business, Economy and Culture, London Councils and Leader, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Sir Stephen Houghton CBE Chair, Special Interest Group of Metropolitan Authorities and Leader, Barnsley Council
William Benson Solace Spokesperson for Finance and Chief Executive, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council
I will also be asking why the council leadership did not consider funding the increased costs – it will have to anyway if the Leisure Centre is not to operate at reduced hours
Today, Thursday 26th of January, Lichfield District Council announced they were taking back Burntwood (and Friary Grange) Leisure Centres following Freedom Leisure’s inability to carry on with the increase in energy costs.
Clearly, the District Council, has not agreed to help with the increased running costs of the Leisure Centre and so are taking it back “in house” where they (council tax payers) will have to wholly fund all the running costs.
There is no help from the Government – and it will be interesting to see what the MP says about it – after all he’s already mentioned “Burntwood” this year – when he had a break from promoting the Mayor of the West Midlands.
Plenty of warnings
In fact, this should not come as a surprise as Freedom Leisure closed its first swimming pools in Milton Keynes and East Sussex last October with the Chief Executive Officer, Ivan Horsfall, saying:
“We are frankly devastated that it has come to this. Public sector leisure is one of the most exposed sectors because energy costs are such a large proportion of our overall costs particularly with swimming pools and as a not-for-profit leisure trust we operate at very low surpluses and these increases simply cannot be absorbed”
Then only just over two weeks ago, responding to the government’s announcement of the Energy Bill Discount Scheme he said:
“I am extremely disappointed and frustrated as to why public sector leisure has been omitted from the list. Public sector leisure is one of the most exposed sectors because we are a very intensive user of utilities with energy costs a very large proportion of our overall costs particularly in centres with swimming pools. We have recently seen our annual energy bill move from £8m to £20m even with the temporary cap.”
It seemed, therefore, almost inevitable that Burntwood and Friary Grange would fall victim and that has proven to be the case though the decision to take the service back in house was not. Other options were and are available.
Clearly help from the Government is needed. After all it has a Health and Wellbeing strategy I think and has just given millions of pounds in Levelling Up Funding in the country for other Leisure Centres – albeit not in Lichfield.
Answers are needed
Councillor Mike Wilcox, Chair of the district council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee and I as Vice Chair will be meeting with the council’s Chief Executive next week to seek reassurances on the way forward that does not impact on the service for residents in the Burntwood area.
I will also be asking why the council leadership did not consider funding the increased costs – it will have to anyway if the Leisure Centre is not to operate at reduced hours. The decision has been made without it going to councillors and it is unclear as to the reason the Council seems keen to take it back in house when other options are available.
Lichfield District Council does have form on this
Councillor Sue Woodward was Leader of the District Council Labour Group in early 2019 when Freedom Leisure were telling LDC of the problems with the Friary Grange Leisure Centre.
She said: “The Cabinet Member responsible at the time said there was to be a Condition Survey, but LDC sat on it until after the elections that May. There were some long-standing issues with Burntwood Leisure Centre but again LDC have not reacted quickly enough”
“However, when we were at the Leisure Centre for a Police Consultation meeting on Tuesday the place was packed. Was there something wrong with the contract?”
Chasetown ward residents overwhemingly elected Labour’s Paul Taylor to make it a Labour victory – and a stong voice at Lichfield District.
Paul Taylor, Labour Party, 318 votes and 73.2% of the vote share.
Norma Bacon, Conservative Party, 116 votes and 26.8% of the vote share.
That’s a 15% swing to Labour. So with the full district council elections in May next year, probably the same prime minister, high inflation and further cuts in local services I wouldn’t want to be a Conservative candidate in 2023.
In the by-election for Chasetown Ward today, voters have a clear choice: Vote for Burntwood or vote Conservative. Below is an extract from the minutes at LDC where Labour proposed using money that included extra “windfall” monies for Burntwood and the rural areas – instead of just on Lichfield City Centre’s never ending multi-milion pound project known as Friarsgate.
I have discovered that the District Council never applied for planning permission for the £23,000 adverts surrounding the hoarding round the Friarsgate site in Lichfield.
They will now have to advertise them in the normal way – as the rest of us are supposed to do. This means seeking the views of statutory consultees and then assess the principle, visual, heritage [cue civic society they are opposite a grade 1 listed building] and highways impacts.
I don’t think it will be as costly as that other ‘oversight’ the failed sale of open space land in Lichfield at Leyfields and Netherstowe that finally resulted in a £117,900 compensation bill – all because the law was not followed.