Mayor Tom Wootton’s bold ambitions for the Borough’s leisure facilities have gone back to the drawing board, with councillors asking for a business case to support the proposal.
The new Leisure Village was originally included in Mayor Wootton’s first Capital Programme and would have required borrowing of over £12m.
At the Full Council meeting on 29 November 2023, the Conservative administration asked members to approve the council’s Capital Programme for the financial years 2023/2024 to 2026/2027 and for future years.
However, criticism from opposition councillors regarding the level of borrowing and lack of a business case for the Leisure Village project has seen it removed from the Capital Programme while feasibility studies are carried out.
In a statement, a Conservative Group spokesperson said: “Councillors have asked for a detailed feasibility study and comprehensive business case to support this initiative and that’s exactly what the new Conservative Administration will be getting done.
“We will be conducting full feasibility, design and technical studies to ensure that the project gets strong backing both locally from residents and in Council.”
They said that a state-of-the-art Leisure Village in the centre of Bedford will help to ensure “we all have the opportunity to live happier, healthier and more prosperous lives”.
“Councillors felt that now was not the right time to include it in the Capital Programme, it is at a very early stage of development, with a very busy programme of enhancements and improvements already taking place within the existing leisure suite,” said the spokesperson.
Portfolio holder for leisure and culture, Councillor Sarah Gallagher (Conservative), said: “It has been a busy year for the Council and for Bedford Borough’s Leisure Centres with plenty of positive news for Bedford Borough residents.
“While the health benefits of high-quality leisure and sports facilities are well known, it is important we set realistic and prudent expectations and communicate these goals to Borough residents.
“The Conservative Group remains committed to the Leisure Village, so the proposal needs a sound and robust business case and that is exactly what we will develop and bring back the Council later in the year.”
Opposition councillors welcomed the removal of the project from the Capital Programme, saying it would lower the borrowing burden by £12.75m.
“The Bedford Borough Labour Group were concerned about the high level of borrowing needed to build a brand new Leisure Village, and the cost to the council taxpayer of paying back that loan, which could impact on the council budget overall in future,” said a Labour Group spokesperson.
“Local authority budgets across the country have been stretched to their limit by 14 years of Tory Government austerity, and this government has left local authorities no choice but to increase council tax by 4.99% just to keep services running, at a time when many residents are struggling with the cost of living.
“The Labour Group agreed that the priority should be bringing the present leisure facilities across the Borough up to standard as requested by the new operator. We approve of sensible borrowing for socially beneficial projects for the Borough, but could not agree to borrowing millions of pounds for a leisure village without a sound business case and feasibility study.”
Cllr Henry Vann, leader of the Bedford LibDems said they welcomed the Mayor’s U-turn to “reduce his eye-watering borrowing plans”.
“With no real plan, no costings and very little detail, this new leisure centre was always a vanity project and we welcome the u-turn and remain committed to standing up for residents and ensuring you don’t have to pay for years to come because of the Conservative’s wasteful spending.”
Green Party councillors told the Bedford Independent that they hoped the new facility would bring fresh ideas to the table, such as a BMX/skate park.
“It’s a shame the executive didn’t begin this process by taking a step back and investing time in a much-needed feasibility study before trying to saddle residents with a huge loan and interest payments,” said Green Party councillor, Paul Edmonds.
“That said, we would want to ensure that any new ‘Leisure Village’ under consideration is designed to improve facilities in the area, make good use of active travel and public transport instead of generating traffic congestion, and doesn’t duplicate existing facilities.
“The last thing the people of Bedford need is an expensive white elephant and we hope that this study is done with that in mind.”