Stalemate over Southwell swimming pool as council say 'my ball, my rules'

Entrance to Southwell Leisure Centre, Nottingham Road, Southwell, as seen on Google Maps street view with sign outside on right and cars in car park
The main pool at Southwell Leisure Centre has been closed since October -Credit:Google

A new petition to stop Newark and Sherwood District Council's "asset grab" of Southwell Leisure Centre has been signed by more than 700 people. Community group Friends of Southwell Swimming Pool (FOSS) set up the page on May 6 after Newark and Sherwood District Council threatened to withdraw an offer to build a new swimming pool in light of the main pool's closure in October due to a leak.

The local community, including the charity trust that owns the leisure centre, has been uncertain about the offer since it was made in December, due to the requirement of them handing over ownership of the whole centre to the council. They're sceptical believe the council want the pool for their own benefit - which the council vehemently denied in a recent statement - and simply want the old pool repairing.

Jo Harbord from FOSS said: "We're really sad that the relationship between the town and the council has broken down to an extent that there is no trust left. We can't seem to get any dialogue going. They don't seem to want to talk about it or discuss anything until they own the land, whch just fuels the distrust.

"The swimming pool is a huge loss. It's a place for anybody to keep fit. Even if, miraculously, the council can miraculously build a new pool within two years and within the £5.5m budget, that still leaves us without a pool for two years. People will have nowhere to swim locally. And we have no confidence that they can do that anyway."

The main pool at Southwell Leisure Centre was closed in October 2023 after it was found to be leaking 9,000 litres of water per day and "the safety of pool users could not be guaranteed", according to the council. Southwell Leisure Centre Trust, which owns the lesiure centre, supported its closure, they added.

The council, which runs the leisure centre, estimated the cost of the closure at £645,000 and in December, decided that instead of repairing it, they'd build a new one in the existing leisure centre for £5.5 million. But this meant that the Leisure Centre Trust would have to give the leisure centre to the council - which is where the dispute started.

Four months on there has been no resolution to the issue. On May 1, Newark and Sherwood District Council issued a long and unorthodox statement threatening to withdraw the offer of money and put it elsewhere, as well as defending themselves against a variety of "misinformation and misrepresentation of facts."

They denied a number of accusations, listing the rumours they've heard verbatim: "The examples are many but include that the district council wants the trust’s land for housing or to sell to Sainsbury's; that the district council has inflated the estimated repair cost to suit its own agenda; that the district council wants the trust's land because the leisure centre makes lots of money;

"That the cost of repairing the pool could be paid back in one year from the surplus income generated by the pool; that the district council is compelled to repair the pool as a condition of its lease."

The council then went on to say: "The time has come to draw to a close something that was only ever intended to be positive for the health and well-being of the local community but has become divisive, consuming of too much time, and bogged down in process and endless excuses to not move forward."

Then it said that council had "lost confidence" in the trust, before saying they were going to withdraw their £5.5m offer on May 14 and only provide £247,000 for a repair to the trust - the amount the trust, who believed that the the council had inflated the estimated cost to "suit its agenda", was allegedly quoted. But, the council said that with this being the case, they would withdraw from the lease and their responsibilities running the centre altogether and that it would be the trust's responsibility from then.

The petition says that the Friends of Southwell Swimming Pool "call upon the town council and the trust to not hand over ownership of the town's land and leisure centre." It lists four reasons why the land shouldn't be handed over.

They include that the council saying they could build the new pool in two years is unrealistic as experts say a job of the size takes around five years, that "history warns" of the "peril" of trusting politicians with comunity assets and that independent assessments "confirm" that the existing pool can be repaired for a fraction of the cost of a new build - a more prudent use of money.

But council leader Paul Peacock said: "I’m genuinely disappointed that we've been unable to progress the development of a new swimming facility as we'd hoped. Four months on, we’ve made very little progress and the response from the Trust has lacked the urgency and commitment that is needed.

“The district council's position has not changed from day one. We believe that a replacement not a repair of the pool is in the best long-term interests of the community, but this is not something the district council can make happen on its own. No sensible local authority would invest £5.5million of taxpayer’s money in a facility that those taxpayers don't own and can't influence.

"To suggest that the district council is interested in anything other than the health and wellbeing of the community flies in the face of the evidence. I would like to thank all the leisure centre’s staff and customers for their continued support and reassure everyone that the leisure centre will continue to remain open, as it currently is, while the district council and its partner Active4Today continue to operate the leisure centre.”

A council cabinet meeting at which the next steps will be discussed is set to be held in Southwell on May 14.