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The Thin End of the Wedge - What is Happening to Wincanton Sports Centre?
[EDITOR:] This article was published briefly in August but then temporarily removed to give the Sports Centre Manager an opportunity to respond. We appreciate all comments on this article and welcome feedback from Sports Centre officials if they wish to add their response.
There are about to be a number of significant changes to the Wincanton Community Sports Centre, minor in themselves, but which could ultimately see its closure. These are brought about by a series of corrosive measures which take no account of the wishes of the community of Wincanton, let alone serve them.
Opening hours are to be shortened and staffing levels cut, and inevitably service levels too. Entrance charges for some, but not all, items will be increased, and of importance to families, free swimming for their five year olds and under is to be reduced to those under four, and all this from an "emergency" trustees meeting on 15th June 2011.
We are then about to see a number of 'minor' changes in which the centre operates, but when the background to them becomes clearer then the centre ceases to be a "community" asset, and more of a bureaucratic creature of convenience, the thin end of the wedge.
The centre opened ten years ago, after two decades of tenacious lobbying and fundraising by local people. They eventually saw their great dream turn into reality, and on 10th May 2001 the Wincanton Community Sports Centre opened.
It is a centre of excellence with its 25 metre, four lane pool, its gym, studio, and sports hall, and together with a loyal and dedicated staff, some of whom have been there from the very start, it is all probably far more than ever could have been wished for back in those early days when it was just a dream. It is the envy of many much larger communities across the country.
Wincanton Community Sports Centre is operated as a charitable trust, (you can examine, as far as it goes, the Centre's affairs on the Charity Commissions web site - www.charity-commission.gov.uk), and there you might expect things to be properly regulated, but not completely so. The Trust was established by Somerset County Council to run the Centre, but it carefully appointed the initial trustees, retired councillors from outside the Wincanton area, to take on the responsibility. This gives the local authority, South Somerset District Council, the ability to control what happens, or more accurately, what doesn't happen.
Whatever the Centre achieves that is perceived to be a success, then the Council, through its employed bureaucracy, takes the credit, but when things go wrong, they are nowhere to be found and the blame is laid firmly at the door of the trustees, or - more likely - the staff. As with anything with any tenuous connection to local authorities you can never find out exactly who is responsible.
There have been two catastrophic episodes in the centre's relatively short life and both closed the swimming pool for months. Each cost the South Somerset tax payers huge sums of money to correct. Errors were made that should have been avoided had adequate quality control checks on the pool construction been properly carried out. Doubtless we will be told that such checks were in place, so we are left wondering why the problems occurred. We are about to embark on a third.
It has recently been "discovered" that a £28,000 budgeting omission regarding the purchase of vending machine stock has been "found" within a budget prepared during the last quarter of the last financial year. That was approved by the trustees, and by implication, the SSDC, in March. The knee-jerk reaction to correct this is to reduce current staffing levels, working hours and most importantly to the community, the opening hours.
This will not correct the actual deficit as it does not address the basic conundrum which is to achieve greater utilisation of the Centre so that more revenue, and therefore profits are generated to counteract the error in the first place.
It is almost like having an aircraft with not enough passengers to make the flight profitable, so you cut off the tail-plane (as you don't actually see it from inside) to trim the cost of operating it. The problem then is that the aircraft cannot fly. The answer to that is exactly the same as with our community sports centre. Instead of picking bits and pieces off of the whole model, there needs to be a concerted approach to sales and marketing to get additional customers. As with aircraft, it is no use whatever chopping bits out, when what is required is more customers, more utilisation, and more profit.
That is down to the Trustees. Such trustees need to be highly experienced, commercially pro-active, non-bureaucratic, single-minded individuals, who need to be able to decide upon a strategy for profit. To date, they have not produced one single item during the ten years of existence that fits the bill. Why? Because they are controlled by the bureaucrats that ensured their appointment. Those appointments cannot be challenged, and there is no mechanism for the tax payer and or resident, or the donor to the charity, (the member or subscriber) to vote them out or have them replaced with people who can make an effective management team.
Why not? It is simple. The local authority bureaucrats don't want a success story, financial or otherwise, as that threatens their very existence, and then they will have no justification to claim that they need to be in their jobs to make sure that it is a success story. Now where have we heard that before?
Look again at the Charity Commission's web-site for our sports centre. It shows trading to raise funds = zero. Management investment - guess what? Yet another zero. If you look at the excellent article in the Wincanton Window by Nick Colbert under "Councils" you will find that the amount spent on the bureaucratic self aggrandisement in South Somerset amounts to some £32 million, so what exactly is the problem with diverting some of that money to where it belongs in the tax payer's Wincanton Community Sports Centre?
During the ten years that the Community Sports Centre has existed there have been appointed some half a dozen managers of the centre, and they have lasted an average of eighteen months, and then left, presumably disillusioned. Who appointed them? The self same "trustees" appointed by the Council mandarins.
Members of the Sports Centre, that is to say the tax payers of Wincanton and the surrounding area, are donors to the charity itself, and as such have a right in law to have their money used as they believe it should be. Their voice is unheeded and the current system for appointing trustees must change before another catastrophe takes place and the Wincanton Community Sports Centre closes.
Put simply, and before the district council mandarins wreck the entire enterprise, there has to be a board of trustees elected, and if necessary re-elected after a period of time has elapsed, by those people who have contributed to the charity, that is to say the members of the centre and the local tax payers, and not the gold plated pension, fat cat council employees whose interests appear to be placed first.
Beware. "The thin end of the wedge" thickens and if this indefensible state of affairs is not corrected the Wincanton Community Sports Centre will close, it is inevitable. You have been warned.
Clive Rogers M inst TT
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