News | Niall Griffiths - Local Democracy Reporting Service | Published: 11:00, Wednesday May 29th, 2019.
After months of protests, marches, and debates, it has taken a High Court order to put the brakes on the closure of Pontllanfraith leisure centre. Niall Griffiths asks: how did we get here?
A leisure centre is a staple of communities across the UK – a place where people go to exercise, toast sporting victories and celebrate birthday parties.
But with no legal responsibility to provide such facilities, and budget cuts increasing, local authorities like Caerphilly County Borough Council are considering closing them.
Almost a year ago, the council unveiled a sport and active recreation strategy which urged the council to innovate and adapt the way leisure services are provided.
With more leisure centres than any other Welsh authority, the council wanted four strategic sites to serve the borough: Caerphilly, Newbridge, and Risca, with another in Bargoed or Aberbargoed.
Pontllanfraith was one of those left with an uncertain future, but its closure has long been pursued by the council, with senior councillors attempting to close it in early 2018.
Once the strategy was made public, protesters from Blackwood who had pressed the council to reconsider were again forced into action to save both Pontllanfraith and Cefn Fforest leisure centres.
Concern was also raised amongst local councillors, with Independent Cllr Graham Simmonds fearing the loss in Cefn Fforest would plunge the ward further into deprivation.
The proposals tabled by the Labour administration were also criticised by Labour Cllr Gez Kirby, who said: “I support our commitment to promoting residents’ health and wellbeing and believe that closure of our leisure centre would undermine that commitment.”
In July the strategy was thrown out to public consultation, an exercise which would also come under fire from critics for the consultation document’s length and lack of alternatives to closing leisure centres.
As the consultation rolled on, campaigners increased their presence at public meetings, while a petition gathered thousands of signatures.
At a public meeting in Cefn Fforest in September, Independent Cllr Kevin Etheridge announced plans for a protest march through Blackwood before cabinet members met in November.
Independent Cllr Andrew Farina-Childs, speaking at the same meeting, expressed fears that the closures would “systematically destroy our communities”.
During this time, Cllr Kevin Dawson defected from the Labour group to become an Independent after his attendance record was criticised.
The now-Independent councillor claimed there was a “personal vendetta” against him after writing a 36-page critique of the leisure strategy
But this was disputed by Cllr Gez Kirby, the spokesman for the Labour group and opponent to the strategy.
In October, a motion asking for all councillors to have a say on approving the strategy, and not just cabinet, was tabled by Cllr Etheridge and supported by the regeneration and environment scrutiny.
This was later rejected by the council’s cabinet when they voted the strategy through in November – but not before hundreds of people of all ages took to the streets in protest days before the decision.
Organiser Dean Jones said: “People clearly feel strongly about it, and some will have used these facilities all their lives.”
Among the protestors were Labour MP Chris Evans and his predecessors, Lords Kinnock and Touhig – but Mr Evans’ involvement was heavily criticised by council leader Dave Poole.
Cllr Poole accused the MP of showing a “complete lack of understanding” and failing to consult with the council on his stance – something which Mr Evans disputed.
The rationale of marching before a decision had been made was also questioned by Cllr Poole, who accused of using the strategy for “mischief-making”.
Despite widespread opposition cabinet members voted the strategy through on November 14, with Mr Evans criticising the Labour cabinet for not listening to “the people they are meant to serve.”
While officers considered their first move within the strategy, uncertainty over Pontllanfraith leisure centre’s future had delayed the demolition of the former comprehensive school next door.
The council has earmarked up to 165 homes on the 19-acre site, with the sale expected to net the council up to £2.9 million – but the land value would fall if the leisure centre was kept.
And the council’s stance on Pontllanfraith was made clear in March when plans were revealed to close the site by June 30.
A report said the council would save nearly £120,000 a year on running costs, while avoiding outstanding repair and upgrade costs of more than £500,000.
Cllr Nigel George said: “We recognise that Pontllanfraith leisure centre is valued by some sections of the community, but there are alternative facilities available to meet the needs of existing users.”
But when the report was discussed by the council’s regeneration and environment scrutiny committee, members voted against the motion to close the facility.
The decision was a victory for campaigners, but they still faced the unenviable task of convincing cabinet members in April.
One campaigner, Joanne Taylor, told councillors: “Our community faces being ripped apart to satisfy budgets elsewhere.”
Deputy council leader Sean Morgan understood understand the “passion and love” for the leisure centre but added: “We have had 10 years of austerity. Cabinet is not callously making decisions. We have a legal duty to deliver a balanced budget.”
But after a heated discussion which saw a campaigner thrown out over allegedly making offensive remarks towards a councillor, the cabinet unanimously approved the closure.
The move was opposed by politicians of all parties, including Chris Evans, Labour AM Rhianon Passmore and Plaid Cymru AM Delyth Jewell.
Ms Jewell accused the council of “mismanaging” the situation and running a “flawed” consultation that failed to consider the wishes of residents.
Days later, a meeting was held between Mr Evans and council leader Dave Poole regarding the closure and other local issues.
While Cllr Poole suggested that the record had been set straight, and that Mr Evans had been left with a “clearer understanding” on the matter, but the Labour MP refuted such claims.
“I walked away with more questions than answers,” added Mr Evans.
Then in May, a legal challenge was made against the council’s decision to close the leisure centre on behalf of long-time leisure centre user Shane Williams.
Lucy O’Brien, solicitor at Watkins and Gunn, said the firm had “serious concerns” about the council’s decision-making process and will make the case at a hearing on June 19.
The High Court has ordered the council to put their closure plans on hold until then, though it remains to be seen if a judicial review will be allowed.
Either way, controversy will continue to surround the closure and the wider leisure strategy, and it is unlikely to go away any time soon.