Campaigners have won their battle to keep Lichfield’s Friary Grange Leisure Centre open after the council reconsidered its decision to close it.
Lichfield District Council decided in July to hand back the city’s leisure centre to Staffordshire County Council next year. The reasons were the “unfavourable terms” of a new lease, the current poor condition of the building and the level of investment that would be needed to bring the building up to scratch.
But the move met with fierce opposition from residents and users and a petition to save Friary Grange Leisure Centre received thousands of signatures within days of the decision being made. The petition went on to be signed by around 11,000 people, triggering a a reconsideration of the July decision by the council’s cabinet.
On Monday a special cabinet meeting was held in the auditorium of the Garrick Theatre – a different venue to the normal venue at the council’s Frog Lane headquarters in order to accommodate as many audience members as possible.
Hundreds of people packed into the theatre – from schoolchildren to pensioners – to hear proceedings and impassioned speeches from leisure centre users. More than 20 public speakers were met with rounds of applause and cheering after giving their reasons why Friary Grange should stay open.
One of the warmest receptions was for Laura Hancox, a wheelchair user who has been visiting Friary Grange for 12 years and currently goes three times a week.
She told the meeting: “It’s a vital part of my physical and mental health. It’s the only gym that is fully accessible for my needs.
“The gym instructors have supported me from day one in there; they’re lovely people. I don’t know what I would do without them.
“Going to a place such as Burntwood Leisure Centre or Pure Gym is not an option for me due to transport and access. To me it’s a big lifeline so it would be a shame to lose it.”
Two teenage members of Lichfield Swimming Club told how the leisure centre meant much more than just a pool to them.
One said: “I have swam across the UK in my blue and hat with the three spires. Young people learn life skills, motivation and respect and I’m teaching young children life skills.
“It would be the end of something amazing.”
The other said: “It’s not just water, it’s a place of friendship for people of all ages and abilities; a place of rehabilitation and companionship. It’s a place of learning potentially life-saving skills.”
Caroline Fellows, chair of the Safe the Friary Leisure Centre campaign, told the meeting that going to alternative facilities in Burntwood was not always an option for those who relied on public transport. She added that the centre, together with Midlands Psychology had supported families of children with special needs through activities.
She said: “I am a resident and mum of five; I have raised my children in Lichfield and all learned to swim at the leisure centre. Burntwood is not always possible; you may not have a car so you can’t get there, or paying for a bus for a large family is not possible.
“We pay our council tax – give us our facilities.”
Resident Chris Wilkinson paid tribute to all who had made Monday’s meeting possible.
But he added: “We should be grateful because the business of the council is done typically behind closed doors. I think we are going to see the greatest bit of acting this theatre has ever seen when they make their deliberations.
“This year a man sadly died in Chasewater (Reservoir) trying to save the life of a young girl. That reiterates Friary Grange is really valuable; to close it would put more lives at risk.
“If the council don’t make recommendation two (to keep the leisure centre open) I’m pretty sure everyone would agree Lichfield has the most corrupt council in the entire country.”
Two options were put before Monday’s meeting; one to continue with the July decision to stop running the leisure centre and hand it back to the county council. The other was to keep it open – without the all-weather pitch and sports hall – and enter a new lease with the county council with a view to replacing the centre with a new facility as soon as possible.
A report to the cabinet meeting said that since July the county council had offered Lichfield District Council a lease of less than 10 years “on significantly more favourable terms”.
But the report added: “Friary Grange Leisure Centre is nearly 50 years old, is getting to the end of its economic life and is in need of significant investment in order to keep it safe and weathertight for up to five years.”
Councillor Alan White, cabinet member for health at the county council, told the meeting the authority had been required to transfer facilities at the leisure centre to The Friary School as part of its process of becoming an academy. As a result the all-weather pitch and sports hall were transferred to Greywood Multi-Schools Trust on September 1 on a 125-year lease at a “peppercorn” (minimal) rate.
Councillor Liz Little, cabinet member for leisure at Lichfield District Council, said: “We would be looking at a five-year time frame procuring and building the (new) facility. We have identified a figure of £5m; we could buy an ‘off the shelf’ facility from Sport England that would allow us a 25m six lane pool. That’s based on their 2019 costs .
“If we were to provide ‘dry side’ facilities – a gym and squash courts – the cost would go up to nearly £10m. We are putting £5m into the budget.
“The leisure centre has a huge socially positive impact for the people of Lichfield. It sites well within our health and wellbeing strategy. Rehabilitation will continue and the Penguins (a swimming club for people with disabilities that has been running for more than 40 years) will keep its home.
But council leader Doug Pullen warned: “We don’t have that £5m in our bank account. It would need to be funded by borrowing.”
The council also has a current projected revenue budget funding gap in 2020/21 of £612,000, which is set to increase to £1.099m in 2023/24.
But a capped budget of £695,000 was recommended towards funding maintenance work needed at Friary Grange – and cabinet members voted in favour of keeping the centre open. This decision was met with applause and cheering from the audience.